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Investigating the redevelopment of India’s most famous informal settlement, Dharavi

Following a visit to Mumbai’s largest informal settlement, the AR reports on the government’s plan to displace residents when it redevelops Dharavi

Three years before Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire cast a spotlight on what is now Mumbai’s most famous informal settlement, American journalist and author of Shadow Cities (Routledge, 2004), Robert Neuwirth declared that places like Dharavi were ‘the cities of tomorrow’.

Giving a talk in Oxford in 2005 (available on, he qualified this by explaining how, at the time, one billion people lived in squatter settlements - or one in six of the world’s population. By 2030 Neuwirth said this is set to double, with two billion - or one in four people - being urban squatters.

And his prediction was that this would rise again by 2050, when three billion squatters would equate to one third of the world’s population. ‘These are the cities of tomorrow,’ he reiterated, ‘and we have to engage with them.’ Since then popular interest in Dharavi has risen, with other commentators dipping their toes into the 210ha slum’s murky waters for television documentaries.

In 2008, former AR assistant editor Dan Cruickshank came to Dharavi on one of his BBC Adventures in Architecture. Taking a different view to Neuwirth, Cruickshank enthused that Dharavi represented the origins of a city, not its future. ‘[Despite being] built in the 20th century, Dharavi tells a much older story,’ he said, ‘giving us a sense of how most European cities were born.’

A year later, after spending two weeks filming Slumming It for Channel Four, Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud concurred with Cruickshank, likening parts of the Mumbai slum with Florence and declaring that Dharavi’s squares and alleyways ‘possess all the components of a civilised life’.

What unified these commentaries was a consistent promotion of the social and economic stability of the settlement, and in particular how this apparently hopeless place manages to sustain the lives of between 600,000 and one million inhabitants, depending on whose statistics you believe. Next year these figures will be confirmed when a planned census takes place, yet it is easy to suspect that the numbers will continue to be debated, manipulated to the benefit of Dharavi’s many stakeholders, legitimate or otherwise.

Located between Mumbai’s corporate Bandra Kurla Complex and the city’s international and domestic airports, there is no disputing the fact that Dharavi is hot property. Until 1956 this place was a peripheral site, set beyond the city limits. But as Mumbai grew rapidly northwards, by the mid 1970s it was at the centre of the dense conurbation.

No typical brownfield site, it is a thriving community and the majority of the people who live here want to stay, benefiting from an 80 per cent employment rate that contributes to an annual turnover of over US$500 million (£319 million).

However, with state and developers wanting to capitalise on soaring land values, confusion and instability is taking hold as residents are now being offered new homes in high-density towers that will release 57 per cent of the land for redevelopment.

Engineer Shirish Patel, who practised in the city for 50 years before turning his attention to what he calls ‘urban affairs’, offered the AR his take on the situation, with an overview that seemed untainted by either sentiment for squalor or surprise at commercial opportunism. ‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘the vision is how to make money out of it. The challenge is how to get the slum dwellers to agree to the redevelopment programme, which is really not in their best interests. To do it peacefully [the government] makes promises that will attract them, before grabbing the land for redevelopment.’

Residents are being promised free housing in 24-storey buildings and a key issue is that none of them have ever lived in a tall building before. ‘While for some it has the glamour of being suddenly middle class because you are in a high-rise building, where are these people expected to work?’ he asks. ‘When you visit Dharavi, it’s not just about people living there, they actually have their livelihoods there too. There are industries and shops. They live and they work there, in the same area, but the redevelopment scheme only provides them with re-housing. It doesn’t [accommodate] their shops or their industries.’

A walk through the high streets, paths and narrow alleyways that thread their way through Dharavi’s dense and chaotic grain is testament to Patel’s observations. Turn one way and you’ll stumble into a bakery. The other way leads through a small door into a studio producing high-end leather jackets and, along the way, schools, community halls and even an estate agent’s office all coexist with densely packed two and three-storey dwellings.

Colour and vibrancy prevail and it is all too easy to be seduced by the romance of basic human ingenuity and resilient creativity. Yet the fact remains, Dharavi is unsanitary and this has to be addressed.

In the 1970s the government briefly stepped in, building a handful of latrine blocks and communal taps but, as Patel explains, ‘they’ve been denied water supply, sanitation and garbage collection all these years.

They want it and some manage to get it illegally, but officially the city can’t give it to them because they are illegal occupants of the land.’ The state does not intervene with regards to the provision of infrastructure, as this would further legitimise the community’s claim on the land and make redevelopment less likely.

So when will the population be moved out? According to Patel, ‘the people have been kept in the dark. The government wants this to happen and they want to invite international tenders. It is imminent.’ Despite the fact that imminent on the Indian calendar could still mean years, the sense of unrest is rising.

The first major demonstration of this unrest occurred on 18 June 2007, when 15,000 residents went on strike from many of the essential services that Dharavi provides (such as baking, catering and recycling) and marched to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority office. Bearing black flags, the demonstrators on Black Day served as a reminder to Mumbai’s broader residents how crucial the Dharavi residents were as a population. They were also making a public demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the government’s plan to offer them such small apartments.

Sheela Patel, director of Mumbai-based NGO The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), says: ‘These people represent the informal sector that must be integrated into the city’s development process. The people of Dharavi do not want to stop development. They want to participate, but they question the right of the state to do it at their own cost. They question the right of the state to destroy their livelihoods, and the assumption that they will be happy with the basic 21m² tenement that a regular SRA development would provide.

They are deeply concerned about what is going to happen to all the businesses that are cheek by jowl with where they live. This is not a greenfield site waiting to be developed, it is the home and workplace of hundreds of thousands of people who want to remain an integral part of this city. It has to work first for them, and for the city, and then and only then for the profits of those who come to develop it. Doing it the other way round will simply not work.’ She concludes by saying: ‘this must be seen as a town, not a sea of slums.’

Thanks to Luca Farinelli of Columbia University and Avery Livengood of SPARC for their valuable assistance in producing this article. For detailed information of current Dharavi initiatives visit, and or watch SPARC videos on by searching for sparcnsdfmm.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Awesome read. I think the government should build a complete separate environment for the dharavi peeps outside Mumbai with all the buisness facilities and a exact replica of Dharavi.

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