Dharavi I: A Tale of Two Cities

You may have heard of Dharavi by now. This vast (largely) informal settlement in central Mumbai, which has seen a media blitz after being featured in Slumdog Millionaire, was already under a brightening international spotlight on account of being the focus of a multi-billion dollar government redevelopment plan and possessing the false moniker of being “Asia’s largest slum”. Adopted in 2004 and in action since 2006, the plan slices Dharavi into five sectors to be awarded to giant developer consortiums through a competitive bidding process. In exchange for re-housing eligible households in 300 square-foot flats and providing some requisite infrastructure, amenities and commercial space, developers win the right to build developments on the rest of the land for sale on the open market.

Architect Mukesh Mehta – who designed the plan and was appointed official consultant by the Government of Maharashtra (his previous experience was in luxury developments in Long Island) – has widely marketed the plan as a win-win solution: a model of slum redevelopment through public-private partnership to be exported around the world. Residents, local activists, and international critics have called it a thinly veiled land grab.

The project is ridiculously lucrative, owing to the high potential commercial value of the land. Once a no-mans-land on a peripheral marsh, 590-acre Dharavi has found itself in the center of globalizing Mumbai, surrounded by three major railway stations, a bus station and the two major east-west link roads. Most importantly, it is flanked by the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai’s new financial hub, where land values rival those of Manhattan and Tokyo.

It is also home to over half a million people, over 80 neighborhoods, and thousands of businesses of various scales. It recycles the great majority of Mumbai's waste and supplies everything from bread to leather goods to surgical thread across the city and the globe - producing USD 500 million in goods annually, according to The Economist. It continues to be the entry point for many of Mumbai's migrants and has been home to many families for generations. It has provided affordable shelter, economic opportunities and social mobility for countless people. I would venture that there are more languages spoken, festivals celebrated, and local organizations operating here than anywhere else in India in a territory of this size. With the exception of the 1992-93 riots, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, from all different states, live side by side in peace. Dharavi is home to waste-pickers, leather tanners, computer science students, embroiderers, body-building champions, bakers, potters, lawyers and doctors. There may be a reason Dharavi is shaped like a heart - it makes Mumbai tick in more ways than one.

A recent student presentation I saw called Dharavi a case of “contested urbanism.” It’s a case of contested everything: land, identity, power, aspirations, economics. The conflicts playing out in Dharavi are a microcosm and a test case of whether there will be any space for the poor in tomorrow’s global cities.

I have been lucky enough to have a front-row seat on some of the events related to Dharavi’s redevelopment over the last 1.5 years. I helped draft and field test the official baseline socioeconomic survey for Dharavi. I attended meetings of the now-official expert advisory group on Dharavi. I helped run two participatory design workshops in the area. I facilitated visits for Swedish Parliamentarians, the Governor of Sao Paolo, and a number of journalists and student and professional groups. I published two articles about it. Most importantly, I have walked there, eaten there, played tag, danced, made friends.

Over the next few months, look out for a series about various aspects of this “city within a city” and the visions (and nightmares) it has inspired.

(Photos by Katia Savchuk (not the satellite image - that's from Google).)

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