Another side of Mumbai

by Sandy Ikeda

Because of their location, Dharavi’s residents have been locked for years in a tug of war with government officials who look hungrily at such choice land and dream their own dreams of reincarnation.  If the officials get their way, the slum will be demolished and reborn as a gleaming collection of high-rise apartments, office towers and manicured parks. Residents who arrived before 2000 would be re-housed elsewhere in Dharavi in small flats of 225 square feet – smaller than a suburban American garage – while an influx of richer folk and big companies would turn the area into one of Mumbai’s fashionable addresses.

But many who live here take fierce pride in a community that they and their families built, for some over several generations, with little help from the state. They refuse to be uprooted without a fight.

This is from an article published last September 8th in the Los Angeles Times called “Dharavi, India’s largest slum, eyed by Mumbai developers” about the ethnically and religiously diverse community in the heart of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the site of terrible violence today.

Dharavi occupies about one square mile in the heart of Mumbai with a resident population some estimate at one million, which would make it the largest slum in Asia, not just India.  But as the famed urbanologist Jane Jacobs has noted, not all slums are alike.

Another article from about a year ago in The Economist also featured Dharavi’s entrepreneurial energy amid poverty.  Although in places there is only one water tap for roughly 100 persons, only 16 latrines per 3,000, and sometimes up to 12 people living in the same small hutment, many families have lived there for generations, occupied with washing clothes, tanning, sewing, hammering iron, and molding clay.  Indeed, that article observed that “it is for its industry, not its size, that Dharavi is most distinctive,” and that the “clothes, pots, toys, and recycled materials its residents produce earn them millions of dollars in annual exports alone.”  Some businesses employ up to 200 workers.  As one resident put it:  “In the village we were starving … here, we were poor, but we could eat.” Indeed, “again and again, the stories are same.  Everyone is working hard and everyone is moving up.”

What has made this poor (though often surprisingly educated), densely populated, and highly diverse settlement so successful?  Or, in Jacobsian terms, what’s responsible for Dharavi’s “unslumming”?  Well, safety for one thing, which is the result of the government recognizing residents’ property rights over their own dwellings.  Also, state provision of water and power that had up to then been the leverage used by local gangsters.  Thus, whatever its motives (probably neglect of what it has regarded until now as a mere slum) the government’s role has been limited to securing property rights and providing basic infrastructure.  This has generated an environment of cheap labor, little or no government regulation and taxes, and a lively district of commerce and industry.

As the LA Times reports:

But there are no idle hands here. Dharavi is a hive of activity, a marvel of entrepreneurial spirit and hard work that, in its own way, is as much a reflection of the new India and its go-go economy as the glass offices of the business park across the way.  Estimates of the number of informal businesses and cottage industries operating in Dharavi range anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000, with revenue totaling tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars a year.

So now the government has plans to flatten the place and build high-rises and business parks in pursuit of a chunk of $10 billion in real estate in a city where land prices can approach $2,000 per square foot.  But as The Economist observed:  “The residents, however, seek things the town-planners cannot provide: a sense of history, community and freedom….  It is organic and miraculously harmonious. It is intensely human.  Unlike random tower blocks, Dharavi makes sense.”

Certainly more sense than what’s happening now in the wealthier parts of Mumbai.


FYI, here are several more articles about Dharavi and its current struggles against government-initiated redevelopment.

5 thoughts on “Another side of Mumbai

  1. Dharavi is a favorite subject of mine to keep tabs on, ever since I read that Economist article. If the government does seize the land and boot Dharavi’s residents, it will of course be the fault of the greedy developers and not the greedy officials. The market will be slandered even though what was needed was more market in the form of property deeds.

  2. Mumbaikar,

    Thanks for the update! I may write another post that includes this latest information.

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