Dharavi
by Katia Savchuk & Matias Echanove


Often dubbed “Asia’s largest slum,” Dharavi is in fact a heart-shaped agglomeration of primarily informal settlements, literally located in the heart of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. Once a remote settlement on the outskirts of the city, Dharavi — due to Mumbai’s rapid northward expansion — now finds itself strategically located between the city’s two main suburban railway lines and a stone’s throw away from the Bandra-Kurla Complex, the new financial and commercial center.

These geographic advantages and Mumbai’s relative shortage of developable land combine to make Dharavi a prime piece of real estate potentially worth billions of dollars, creating pressure for redevelopment. 

The Area

Spanning an area of about 223 hectares (535 acres), Dharavi is a transportation hub bordered by the Sion, Mahim and Matunga railway stations and two major roads (Sion and Mahim Link Roads) that connect the eastern and western parts of the city.

Dharavi is home to between half a million and one million people (no recent and reliable population statistics are available). A 1986 survey by the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) counted 530,225 people (106,045 households) living in 80,518 structures; the numbers have surely grown since then.

As evidenced in the popular aerial images of the slum’s contiguous rooftops, Dharavi is an extremely dense environment. A recent survey by the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) established that a central area of Dharavi (Chamra Bazaar) contained densities of up to 336,643 people per square kilometer! Assuming a population of 700,000, the population density in Dharavi would be around 314,887/km². This is 11 times as dense as Mumbai as a whole (the most densely populated city in the world with 29,500 people/km²) and more than 6 times as dense as daytime Manhattan (about 50,000 people/km²).

History and Identity

Dharavi was originally marshy terrain home to the Kolis, a traditional fishing community who lived at the edge of Mahim Creek. As the swamps separating the seven islands that formed Bombay were filled in, migrants from all over India settled in Dharavi. Potters from Gujarat, tanners from Tamil Nadu and embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh were among those who put down roots in Dharavi beginning in the nineteenth century. For migrants, Dharavi offered work and affordable housing; for authorities, until recently, it was a place where illegal settlements could acceptably proliferate away from the central city.

Today, Dharavi is composed of almost 100 distinct nagars, or neighborhoods, that form a mosaic of regional, linguistic, religious, caste and class identities. Its largest communities are Tamil and Maharashtrian, each comprising about a third of the population. However, virtually all regions of India are represented in Dharavi, with the newest wave of migrants coming from Bihar. Dharavi is home to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others who — with the notable exception of the 1992-93 communal riots — have lived side by side largely in peace. The majority of Dharavi’s residents are Dalits (former Untouchables), but members of many other castes and tribes are present as well. Dharavi is home not only to the urban poor, but also to some middle-class professionals unable to find affordable housing elsewhere. 

Economy

Dharavi is not only a residential space, but also a major economic hub representing the city’s vast informal sector. Dharavi’s commercial enterprises include recycling industries, leather tanneries, heavy metal work, woodwork, and manufactured goods such as garments, shoes, luggage, jewelry. Industries generally serve all of Mumbai, and many products are even distributed in global markets. One conservative estimate places the annual value of goods produced in Dharavi at USD 500 million (“Inside the Slums,” The Economist, 27/1/05).

Commercial and manufacturing enterprises provide employment for a large share of Dharavi’s population as well as for some living outside Dharavi. Much of Dharavi’s productivity is rooted in a decentralized production process relying on a vast network of small home-based production units.

Land and Housing

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) own most of the land in Dharavi, with private landholders and the central government controlling the rest. An informal real estate market operates in the area, with prices varying by location and building quality. While some residents live in structures with tin walls and plastic sheeting, many have moved up to brick or concrete and have added lofts, upper stories and decorative elements. Some owners lease spaces to tenants, having purchased more than one house or moved out of Dharavi. Although a majority of structures constitute “slum housing,” Dharavi also contains other housing typologies, including the former village structures of Koliwada, planned government chawls and transit accommodations, and government-sponsored high-rises. 

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Those who have never ventured into Dharavi may imagine it as a wasteland of tent-like temporary structures, an immense junkyard crowded with undernourished people completely disconnected from the rest of the world, surviving on charity and pulling the economy backward.

Beneath the sea of corrugated tin roofs, the reality could hardly be more different. Dharavi is a highly developed urban area composed of distinct neighborhoods and bustling with economic activity that is integrated socially, economically and culturally at metropolitan, regional and global levels.


Developing Dharavi

Past Attempts

Previously ignored by authorities, Dharavi was officially recognized as a slum in 1976, when state slum policy shifted from demolition to upgradation. During the next decade, the government took measures against crime and illicit liqueur production and brought in basic amenities such as water taps, toilets, drains and electricity.

During a visit to Dharavi in 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced a grant of Rs. 100 crore to Bombay, a substantial portion of which was allocated to infrastructural and housing projects in Dharavi under the Prime Minister’s Grant Project (PMGP).

Beginning in 1995, the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) has provided incentives for developers to construct buildings with free 225 sq. ft. flats for slum dwellers in exchange for building rights, which can be sold on the open market as Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). Most of the high-rise buildings that pepper Dharavi’s skyline were constructed under this scheme.

The Opportunity of the Millennium — But for Whom?

In the context of rising land values, the latest plan to redevelop Dharavi was elaborated a decade ago by US-based architect and consultant Mukesh Mehta and approved by the state government of Maharashtra in 2004. Known as the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) and overseen by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), the plan is painted as a win-win situation in which eligible slum dwellers receive secure housing and amenities while middle classes gain new residential and commercial spaces, developers and the government make a profit, and an embarrassing blot is removed from the landscape of the aspiring “world-class city.”

Valued at Rs. 93 billion (around USD 2.3 billion), the plan —which authorities have dubbed “The Opportunity of the Millennium” — divides Dharavi into five sectors to be developed by global firms after a competitive bidding process. Profits from the sale of high-end developments will fund the resettlement of eligible slum dwellers (those who can prove their residence prior to January 1, 1995) in free 225 sq. ft. flats in multi-story buildings. Developers are also charged with providing some amenities and infrastructural improvements. In January 2008, SRA officials announced a shortlist of 19 bidders out of the 26 who had submitted expression of interest documents since tenders were invited in August 2007. The selected companies, which include major Indian real estate developers and many global firms, will submit financial bids within 45 days.

Although many laud the plan’s transcendence of a piecemeal approach, the project has been criticized for being pro-developer instead of pro-resident; for proceeding without transparency towards, consent of or consultation with the community; and for adopting a tabula rasa approach that ignores the generations of incremental self-development that have made Dharavi the unique and productive place it is today.

Residents have further protested that the plan will deprive many of their livelihoods, does not allot enough space in light of current tenement sizes, and does not account for Dharavi’s sizable population of renters and more recent migrants.

Experts have further warned that the plan promotes insupportable densities, does not adequately consider environmental impacts or future growth, and does not effectively integrate Dharavi with Mumbai as a whole. Some have also emphasized that a simplistic rezoning or segregation of activities overlooks the deep interconnections between economic activities, social networks and urban form in Dharavi.

Another critique of the project has been that it has proceeded without reliable statistics about Dharavi’s population. In response, the government commissioned a baseline socioeconomic survey of the area in September 2007; managed by an NGO and implemented in part by slum dwellers, the survey is currently under way.