While international agencies continue to promote ‘good governance’ as a precondition for development in the rapidly urbanizing world, the state and local institutions work within ‘real’ governance frameworks which include different, un-official forms of connection with community institutions, particularly in the so-called informal city. Local public actors build underlying networks, seeking territorial control and establishment of favourable power relations, following rationalities which diverge from those embedded in formal policies, including ‘strategies and tactics’ where ‘informal’ settlements (legal and illegal) are ‘used’ as sources of political and economic support in exchange for some form of security. Taking a ‘new institutionalist’ approach, and based on in-depth fieldwork in three ‘informal’ settlements, the paper explores governance structures and practices in the case of Mumbai's un-recognized settlements, established after 1995 and considered ‘illegal’ by public authorities. The three case study settlements include different sizes, people's places of origin, religions, processes of formation and political structures. These lead to a plurality of institutional arrangements which shape the web of relations between actors inside and outside the community and the governance of socio-spatial and planning issues. Despite the legal status of these settlements, which entails residents' exclusion from services and evictions, economic and political powers within (and in relation with) the Municipality are interested in governing the ‘illegal city’. In the face of formal un-recognition (and exclusion practices), community institutions develop negotiations/agreements with intermediate institutions to consolidate informal relations with the Municipality, as a coping strategy. The paper provides an understanding of actors' rationalities and the interplay of powers in the context of ‘real’ urban politics. It concludes that the interests the actors have in the existing governance processes raise questions about the appropriateness and scope for implementation of theoretical ‘good governance’ approaches, and suggests that improvement of living conditions in these areas requires not only official acknowledgement of the settlements as physical entities, but cognizance of the real governance mechanisms in operation and approaches that address these.