By Vidya Pradhan
Given its location in the heart of Mumbai, it is rather surprising that these 530 acres took so long to register on the radar of land developers. Salivating at the thought of prime commercial and residential potential, companies like Mitsubishi, Godrej and Reliance have begun applying serious pressure on the Mumbai Slum Rehabilitation Authority to get a move on the Dharavi Development Project(DDP).
According to the Economist
“The redevelopment of Dharavi is part of an attempt to give Mumbai a dramatic make-over, with a $40-billion ten-year development programme, based on a report by McKinsey, a consulting firm. To be financed mainly by the private sector, the remit is for “a world-class city with a vibrant economy and globally comparable quality of life”, reversing a slowdown over the past decade.”
For the slum dwellers, 70,000 high rise apartments of 225 sq. ft are planned to accommodate every single Dharavite family. The apartments are free so for every square foot of space built for a slum dweller, the developer gets 1.33 sq. ft. of saleable space.( see the plans here )
This, to no one’s surprise, has not gone down well with the Dharavi residents themselves who are vigorously defending the status quo. To the outsider, it might seem like a stinking blot on the urban Mumbai landscape, but to these 600,000 people(more than twice the size of Fremont) it is a hard won piece of territory that has been shaped, asbestos sheet by asbestos sheet, to suit their unique needs. Also it is a small industrial park, producing about $500 million dollars of goods a year.
For the Indian American, the situation has some striking parallels with the immigration issue in this country. I find myself vacillating daily in my stand on illegal immigration. On one hand, immigrants like myself who went through the painful legal process have little sympathy for people sneaking across the border. On the other hand, my cleaner and gardener are probably undocumented( I claim the ignorance defense!) and provide me with cheap services that satisfy my miserly desi heart. As the spoof, ‘Day without a Mexican’ tried to demonstrate, the American economy, specially the agrarian part of it, would come crashing down if all the undocumented aliens all got deported one day. Like the immigration situation, it is difficult to take a unilateral stand on the DDP. It may be an eyesore preventing Mumbai from joining the league of gleaming global metropolises, but Dharavi and its inhabitants are so entwined in the fabric of Mumbai’s economy that trying to alter it will create a scar that the city may never recover from. The large number of legal and illegal businesses that operate out of the area have created an economy that supports not only local businesses but also politicians and policemen. So you can see why I am quite sceptical about the future of this project. As I see it, the scenario will go like this – the developers will begin the high rise construction – where will the workers come from? Why, Dharavi, of course? Then ration cards will be used to determine which of the residents are eligible for the flats- we know how efficient that it going to be( see Hindol’s Sengupta’s article ‘I am Chandan Das’). This will result in a tremendous amount of confusion and possible riots as half a million people vociferously claim their bit of land.
Eventually the rest of the area will be developed, squeezing out the remaining residents , who will then create little pocket slums around the development( after all, where are the janitors, cleaners, security guards and maids going to come from?).
As for the space allotment for the slum families, the 225 sq.ft allotted to each family is woefully inadequate and does not take into account the varying economic situation of the residents, some of whom have enterprises in over 3000 sq. ft. of land in the area. Also the system of identifying current residents by their ration cards is laughable in a country where falsifying documents is easier than opening a bank account.
Of course, all this presupposes an agreement between the government and the slum dwellers. The Dharavi Bachao Andolan has already started taking out morchas protesting the development. It wants all redevelopment to concentrate on improving existing living conditions rather than introduce new development that would displace them. This is naturally raising the ire of the local government, given that the residents are basically squatting on its land. If it weren’t for the fact that I know exactly where the development money is going to end up, I would feel some sympathy for the Mumbai Municipality. After all, which Mumbai lover does not want the Bandra-Kurla stretch to be cleaned up?
Call me a fatalist, but I don’t see the slum situation disappearing till some sytemic changes are made to provide regional jobs for all the people migrating to the city. ( similar to the illegal immigration in this country, which is never going to be solved till Mexico gets its act together.) Also, till we acknowledge that the support staff of maids and drivers we take for granted need some sort of low cost housing to survive in a big city, we ourselves are enabling the growth of slums.
There is an enormous amount of money and political will behind these latest plans to develop Dharavi. From 7000 miles away, it is a social experiment I am dooming to failure but will nevertheless watch closely.
Picture by Martin Selva under Creative Commons