In today’s Finshots, we trace the history of the Dharavi slum and the policies that shaped and continue to shape it.
The largest slum in the world. 1 million people cramped in just 100,000 dilapidated homes. 80 people sharing a single toilet. And a slum housed in an area that’s roughly the size of 300 football fields.
Where literacy rates go as high as 69%. A place where entrepreneurship and business thrives. An area where the informal economy adds nearly $1 billion to the Indian GDP.
Dharavi is what you’d call a paradox.
However, that may not be the case for long.
Because Mumbai has had enough of the slum. Dharavi will soon be razed to the ground. The slum will likely be replaced by multi-storey buildings, glamorous shopping malls, and glass-walled office buildings over the next 17 years. Its residents will be given new homes.
Yeah. It’s all part of an ambitious Slum Rehabilitation Housing (SRH) project that dates back to the 1990s! And the Adani group will be responsible for the ₹20,000 crore redevelopment project.
But to understand what’s happening here, we first need to understand how a slum of such epic proportions emerged in the heart of India’s financial capital.
Okay, firstly, Dharavi wasn’t always in the heart of Mumbai. Because Mumbai (Bombay) was different back in the day. Under the British East India Company, urban growth was mostly concentrated in the southern part of Bombay. Dharavi meanwhile was located at the northern tips — home to the Koli fishing community. But as growth exploded in the late 1800s, the British Raj expelled local residents and polluting factories away from the centre, all the way to Dharavi. As people began reclaiming the marshy lands, the original settlers moved away making way for a new influx of people, mostly people working the tanneries and cotton mills. Employment opportunities rose. Rural migrants continued to find their way to Dharavi. Squatters lived side by side with the original lease owners. And the slum began to take shape. The British did not reinvest the proceeds of their plunder in improving the local infrastructure and so the people were left to fend for themselves. No administrative support. No planning. And no investment.
Even as the city redrew its borders to accommodate the rapid expansion, Dharavi remained where it was. By the mid-1990s, Dharavi found itself sandwiched — between the airport on one side and an international financial district on the other.
Now obviously the government wasn’t too pleased with these developments. They didn’t like the slums and they didn’t like the fact that the people here lived on government land. But they couldn’t just raze it all down and leave people homeless.
They had to find the middle path. So in 1995, the Government of Maharashtra set up a committee and asked, “What can we do about the slums?”
The committee studied the matter and said, “We’ll do ‘in-situ’ rehabilitation". The idea was to get a private builder to take over the slum. They’d build multi-storey apartments somewhere in this land and ask residents to relocate here, freeing up land and unlocking prime real estate.
It was a no-brainer!
So, the Government of Maharashtra created the Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) in 1995.
They just needed 70% of the slum dwellers to agree and they could absorb Dharavi into the scheme. But progress was slow. And while the government did float a tender in 2007 with 101 companies taking part, nothing came out of it. The legal problems were insurmountable. There was pushback from the residents too. You see, in 2009, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) conducted a survey and found that only 37% of Dharavi’s residents could prove they’d been living there for the stipulated tenure. Only they were eligible for new homes in the rehabilitation programme. The others weren’t. People feared that they’d lose the only home they had. Even a state-appointed experts’ committee called the project a “sophisticated land grab”. They told the government to stop focusing on profits and look after the people who lived in Dharavi instead.
And when things finally got moving in 2019, after a UAE-based developer won the bid, the government came out and said, “Oops, we forgot to include railway land. We have to do the tender process all over again.” There was a change in the government and the tender was scrapped.
So yeah, there was no makeover for Dharavi. And nobody really thought it would ever happen. Until now…and it looks like Adani will be the one who’ll finally get the ball rolling.
Now on the face of it, the new project seems like a good idea. People will be able to get away from those cramped living spaces. They’ll have a place to call their own. It’s the upward mobility that every Indian seeks.
But there are things that we still need to iron out. The head of the Dharavi Redevelopment Committee says and we quote, “According to our state’s Slum Act, any redevelopment requires people’s participation. In our case, we weren’t given a chance.” He’s saying no one in Dharavi really knows what kind of housing and facilities they can expect. They don’t even know whether they’ll be getting houses in the locality itself. Remember, these are people with businesses in Dharavi. And 80% of the residents work in Dharavi itself. People are worried about how this will affect their lives.
But there’s something else no one is talking about — does Slum Rehabilitation Housing (SRH) really create a better life?
Well, it’s not quite straightforward after all.
What do we mean?
Well, when Dr Ronita Bardhan, a Fellow at the University of Cambridge, conducted a survey of 1,244 SRH households in Mumbai, she found that many households were spending 40% of their incomes on electricity. For the simple reason that AC ownership had risen drastically. Now if you’re thinking that it’s the people’s fault for buying ACs in Mumbai. Well, not so fast. See the researcher set up temperature sensors within the houses and found that the insides were 10 °C warmer than the outside. People living here were forced to buy air conditioners.
And it’s not just that. In the slums, people cook together in open spaces. But now, they were cooking individually in their own homes. Fuel consumption shoots up and eats away a good chunk of their income.
Then there’s the matter of health.
Most developers do the bare minimum when it comes to these buildings. They’re not selling the properties. They’re rehabilitating and that’s not where the money is. So most apartments don’t even have proper ventilation. And when you cook indoors, the particulate matter is trapped inside the house for an extended period. As long as 2.5 hours. And this can have harmful side effects.
Also, some of these SRHs don’t even get sunlight. And they’ve become breeding grounds for Tuberculosis — a disease that India wants to eliminate by 2025.
Even mental health takes a toll. For instance, researchers at the International Institute for Population Studies (IIPS) found that 60% of people surveyed in SRHs across Mumbai reported feeling lonely. In slums, this number was just 17%. You can imagine that the social networks and close-knit communities are an essential part of these slums.
So yeah, maybe owning an apartment in a multi-storey building isn’t all that it’s made out to be. Maybe the residents are right to be a bit apprehensive about their future.
For now, we can only hope the same fate doesn’t befall the people of Dharavi. We hope that redevelopment doesn’t snatch away their lives and livelihoods. And we hope that it doesn’t kill its flourishing $1 billion economy too.
Progress is good. But hopefully it’s done in a manner that’s inclusive.
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