Don’t Bulldoze the Slums

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Street scene in Dharavi. Photo from the Economist

“Around 6am, the squealing of copulating rats—signalling a night-long verminous orgy on the rooftops of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai—gives way to the more cheerful sound of chirruping sparrows. Through a small window in Shashikant (“Shashi”) Kawale’s rickety shack, daylight seeps. It reveals a curly black head outside. Further inspection shows that this is attached to a man’s sleeping body, on a slim metal ledge, 12 feet above the ground.”

It’s not the most flattering description, but the Economist’s December 19th story on Dharavi is actually a remarkably sensitive portrait of Asia’s largest slum, revealing a particularly complex social and economic space that is now threatened by redevelopment.

One million people live in Dharavi, which is somewhat incredible when you realize that it covers just one square mile. Although conditions are rough, life in the slum has improved remarkably over the past several decades. Part of the reason for that is that it has become an important economic centre, containing an estimated 15,000 single-room factories and functioning as the centre of Mumbai’s jewellery, textile and recycling industries. All of the trash thrown away in Mumbai passes through the workshops of Dhavari, where it is sorted and sold. For the slum’s residents, the line between home and work is blurred, since many living spaces also double as workshops; every inch of Dharavi is put to great use.

Government planners don’t approve of slums like this; they never have. For at least a decade, Mumbai’s officials have been trying to get rid of Dharavi. What they overlook, however, is the innovation and entrepreneurialism it produces. Dharavi is packed with an almost unimaginable number of people, but it’s also full of small businesses that were built by the most marginalized members of Indian society. Most are poor migrants from the countryside. For them, living in a slum, where living conditions are squalid but opportunities are immense, is the best way to improve their lot.

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Potters at work. Photo by Akshay Mahajan

Recently, a new plan has emerged to redevelop Dharavi without relocating most of its residents. 57,000 families would be given 225 square feet of space each in highrise buildings built on the site of the slum. Space for shops and factories would be provided too. All told, Dharavi’s current inhabitants would be given 30 million square feet of space, subsidized by an additional 40 million square feet of space that would be sold at market rates.

It sounds promising, but there are problems. The plan would only provide housing for people who have lived in Dharavi since before 2000; as many as 25,000 families could be left homeless. It is also unclear whether or not Dharavi’s business owners would be given space in the new development and whether residents would be able to run businesses out of their homes, much as they do now. It seems inevitable that the informal economy, which drives trade in Dharavi and is probably the greatest source of employment for its residents, would be suppressed under the redevelopment plan.

India’s endemic corruption is also a concern: it could stymie any redevelopment efforts and exacerbate the problems faced by slum-dwellers. It’s not far-fetched to think that, however noble its intentions, the redevelopment of Dharavi would result in the mass eviction of hundreds of thousands of people from some of the most valuable land in Asia.

The best way to deal with a slum is not to destroy it but to give its inhabitants security, good public services and, above all, the means to enrich themselves. Jane Jacobs described this process as “unslumming.” It’s the way that many former American slums, like the North End of Boston, became stable and prosperous neighbourhoods. The same process is underway in some of Brazil’s favelas, like Rocinha, which has evolved from a shantytown into a poor but thriving district with plumbing, sanitation and electricity.

Last spring, the Economist ran a special section on the world’s cities, with a special focus on slums, which house most of the world’s urban population. As dire as they might seem, slums offer their inhabitants access to opportunities they simply would not have in rural areas. In the case of Dharavi, they benefit from close access to Mumbai’s industrial and commercial centres. The sheer density of people is both a burden and an asset. “You can collect and sell garbage. You can always ask people for food, and to sleep somewhere,” one Dharavi resident, who has lived in the slum since 1963, told the magazine.

Dharavi’s residents aren’t poor because they live in a slum; they live in a slum because they’re poor. If Mumbai’s authorities truly want to help them, they would deal with the underlying reasons for their poverty, like caste-based discrimination, poor health and access to education. Or they could start by building a few more toilets. As it stands, Dharavi has only one for every 1,440 of its inhabitants, which forces many people to urinate and defecate in a nearby river.

But Dharavi’s days are probably numbered. In the fall, the Mumbai government asked for bids to clear five sections of the slum. Protests and bad press have stalled the redevelopment, but it seems likely that, sometime in the near future, Dharavi as it is known today will cease to exist.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday December 30 2007at 08:12 pm , filed under Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture, South Asia and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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