Writing

An alternative for redevelopment in Dharavi: one of the largest slums in Asia

Everything you’ve heard about Dharavi is both true and false. Dharavi is an area in the heart of Mumbai, India that spans more than 500 acres, with a population density more than 10 times the rest of the city—there is anywhere between 300,000 and a million people, with 750,000 being the most common estimate. There are businesses of every kind within Dharavi: it is something of an informal economic powerhouse. People in Dharavi live and labour, but they need better living conditions, infrastructure and sanitation. Dharavi remains one of the biggest informal urban settlements in the world because it has been neglected for so long. Terrible toilets, a cacophony of sound and the water storage in the ubiquitous Big Blue Drum — welcome to life in this crowded and colorful area. Any approach towards redevelopment needs to fully acknowledge the unique and strategic space that Dharavi occupies within Mumbai. The redevelopment design should consider all the enterprises that flourish today in Dharavi because they contribute to the entire economy of Mumbai. Unlike the existing redevelopment plan, the design should revolve around the value of people rather than the monetary value of land. The best approach would be to give the residents security of tenure and let them redevelop dharavi through Participatory Design strategies.

    Asia's largest slum, Dharavi, lies in the heart of India's financial capital, Mumbai (Bombay). Dharavi is located between Mumbai's two main suburban rail lines, most people find it useful for work, it is located 12 km south-east of Juhu. Dharavi has a population of more than 600,000 people residing in 100,000 makeshift homes, and one of the world's highest population densities at more than 12,000 persons per acre. It is home to more than a million people. Its location has also made it hot real estate in Mumbai, a city that epitomizes India's hopes of becoming an economic rival to China. Indeed, on a planet where half of humanity will soon live in cities, the forces at work in Dharavi serve as a window not only on the future of India's burgeoning cities, but on urban space everywhere. In a city where house rents are among the highest in the world, Dharavi provides a cheap and affordableoption to those who move to Mumbai to earn their living. Rents here can be as low as 185 rupees ($4) per month. The new form of living in a 20-story high-rise will force them to pay more each month, since the maintenance costs of high-rises exceed what residents currently spend on housing. These costs become unbearable when people earn just enough to survive in a big city. School attendance in Dharavi is excellent. Every family in Dharavi has paid for its house through complex social arrangements that go back decades. They all get electricity, cable television and other services through non-official intricate networks. Families have been drawn to the ‘slum’ because of its fortune-making potential. They have carefully built livelihoods and an ad hoc system of social security. Stay for a while on the three-foot-wide (one meter) lane of Rajendra Prasad Chawl, and you become acquainted with the rhythms of the place. The morning sound of devotional singing is followed by the rush of water. Prince Charles said that Dharavi offered a better model than western architecture for housing ‘a booming urban population in the developing world’.

    Over decades, Dharavi’s residents — its potters, garment-makers, welders and recyclers from all over India – have transformed what was a marshy outpost into a thriving entrepreneurial community. Dharavi today, is a self-contained community with a range of thriving businesses from leather goods to jewelry; the slum even has a bank. Firstly, there is an overwhelming sense of community and social life in Dharavi. Secondly, within Dharavi there is a huge, thriving economy. It is estimated that the economic turnover of its accumulated businesses is between $500-$650 million. Industries in Dharavi include electronics, clothing, suitcases, food, recycling, leather, pots, and many more. There are 20,000 mini-factories in Dharavi. 85% of people have a job.  Dharavi has a recycling zone.  It is claimed that Dharavi’s recycling zone could be the way forward to a sustainable future.  Everything is recycled from cosmetics and plastics to computer keyboards. 23% of plastic waste gets recycled in the UK, in Mumbai it is 80%. In Dharavi nothing is considered garbage. One man's junk is another's fortune in Dharavi, the largest slum in India. Ruined plastic toys are tossed into massive grinders, chopped into tiny pieces, melted down into multicolored pellets, ready to be refashioned into knockoff Barbie dolls. Here every cardboard box or 55-gallon (208 liters) oil drum has another life, and another one after that. The most dominant industry in Dharavi is the leather industry. This industry employs thousands of people living in these slums and has an approximate turnover of Rs 120 million. Global luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Burberry fight for a slice of the leather goods pie in luxe Indian malls. Merchants in Dharavi manufacture goods that are cheaper and have mass appeal — a leather wallet costs about $4. To many, the Kumbhar potters are the heart and soul of Dharavi. Their special status derives not only from their decades-long residence but also from the integrity of their work. While Dharavi is famous for making use of things everyone throws away, the Kumbhars create the new. Increasing numbers of the community's young men have become merchant seamen, or computer specialists at the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Kumbharwada is full of teenage boys who have never used a potter's wheel, unthinkable only a few years ago. As these businesses continue to expand, Dharavi has become a community linked and supported by entrepreneurship. The local businesses are providing small but significant income improvements to tens of thousands of families. The entrepreneurs and artisans from one of the world’s largest slums, Dharavi located in the heart of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, have made a formal entry into India’s thriving e-commerce market. Over 200 small and medium entrepreneurs from the bustling slum are now on Snapdeal, one of the country’s large online retail marketplaces.

    The Dharavi Redevelopment Plan — conceived by consultant Mukesh Mehta and being implemented by the Government of Maharashtra State — envisages leveling this energetic and productive part of Mumbai and converting it into a collection of high-rise buildings, where some of the current residents will be given free apartments. The remaining land will be used for high-end commercial and residential buildings. On paper, the plan looks beautiful. But people in Dharavi are not convinced. They believe the plan has not understood the nature and real value of Dharavi and its residents. It has only considered the value of the land and decided it is too valuable to be wasted on poor people. The government has plans to redevelop Dharavi, in order to make it seem as if it is actively trying to do something about the slums, and in order to improve India’s image. Redevelopment is probably not the best route of action. The people in Dharavi do not want their hard-built community to be redeveloped. Everyone in Dharavi had their own opinion about how and why the plan was concocted to hurt them in particular. Mohammad Mustaqueem, 57, arrived as a 13-year-old boy. He slept outside, in one of the narrow alleyways, and remembers being showered with garbage as people tossed it out in the morning. Today, Mustaqueem has 300 employees in 12 different garment workshops in Dharavi, with an annual turnover of about $2.5 million a year. He owns property in Dharavi worth $20 million. “When I came here, I was empty-handed,” he said. “Now I have everything.” “This is a parallel economy,” said Mobin, whose family is involved in several businesses in Dharavi. “In most developed countries, there is only one economy. But in India, there are two.” India is a rising economic power, even as huge portions of its economy operate in the shadows. Its ‘formal’ economy consists of businesses that pay taxes, adhere to labour regulations and burnish the country’s global image. India’s ‘informal’ economy is everything else: the hundreds of millions of shopkeepers, farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers, street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, repairmen, middlemen, black marketeers and more. “They are talking about redeveloping Dharavi,” said Mohammad Khurshid Sheikh, who owns a leather shop. “But if they do, the whole chain may break down. These businesses can work because Dharavi attracts labor. People can work here and sleep in the workshop. If there is redevelopment, they will not get that room so cheap. They will not come back here.” There is no cycle of decline here; these people are on the way up. There are even millionaires in Dharavi: people, who came here with nothing, made their fortunes — and then, saw no reason to leave. Dharavi is where their community is, where they have lived all their life, where their family is, and what they are used to. We find the slums appalling — but awfulness is entirely relative. A lot of people in Dharavi moved here out of choice, and find it a much better life than their previous one. The working conditions seem bad to us — but to them, they are good, or at least ordinary. It is fascinating to study the priorities of the poor. Though there may be twenty-one people crammed into one house, they can afford a television. Though there may be rats, dirt, and uncleanliness all around, they still sit down to watch TV. It is very possible the people in Dharavi only live the way they do because they know no better. Though poor, the people of Dharavi don’t beg, but work with dignity. These people have been trying on their own to uplift their community, by earning and sending their children to schools, and improving their living conditions; they are happy and content.

    Case studies all over the world have documented the inappropriateness of high-rise resettlements in poor areas. There is an alternative to large scale redevelopment and that is to allow local people design the improvements to the slum. Participatory design is an approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in the design process to help ensure the result meets their needs and is usable. The concept of co-design is a fascinating one, because it pushes the idea that the users can design the solution themselves, with the designer switching to a support role. The field of Participatory Design (PD) has grown rapidly over the last 20 to 30 years. For more than two decades non-designers have been increasingly involved in various design activities through a large number of participatory design projects all over the world. Historically, participatory design (PD) has focused on system development at design time by bringing developers and users together to envision contexts of use. Informed participation attempts to address the open-ended and multidisciplinary design problems that are most pressing in our society. These problems, which typically involve a combination of social and technological issues, do not have “right” answers, and the knowledge to understand and resolve them changes rapidly, thus requiring an ongoing and evolutionary approach to problem solving. The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, better known as SPARC, this is an NGO that supports the efforts of local people to get better housing for their members. Ideas generated from local people supported by this charity include adding an extra floor to buildings so that all family members can be accommodated in the same building. These flats also had 14-foot high ceilings and a single tall window so are well ventilated, bright, and less dependent on electric fans for cooling. Their loft spaces add extra room without seeming crowded, and include small spaces for bathing. But toilets are placed at the end of each of the building’s four floors, and kept clean by the two or three families who use each one. As the National Slum Dwellers Federation has repeatedly proven, housing the poor works best, costs less and is better for the environment, when the poor themselves have a say in what is being built. Dharavi could also follow the Brazilian model, as evidenced in Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, is widely considered to be one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest, most densely populated and urbanized slums. Within the Favelas the government has assisted people in improving their homes.  Breeze blocks and other materials (pipes for plumbing etc) were given as long as people updated their homes. The Brazilian government also moved a lot of people out of shanty towns and into low cost, basic housing estates with plumbing, electricity and transport links. The waiting list for these properties was huge. 

    Everything starts by setting an objective openly. That must be narrow enough to help the people focus on it, but should avoid any constraints that isn’t necessary. The collection phase is an explosive moment, where the initial idea expands. It involves creating a window of time where on one side the project is spread and on the other side anyone can chime in with suggestions, ideas and comments. It’s very valuable also to include a way for people to vote individual suggestions. t’s important here to keep the conversation open, as in a brainstorming: never turn people away. They are there to contribute, the must be supported in that. This builds up the ideas repository, that is a prioritized list of features purely coming from the users. This can then be blended with other kinds of researches and data points, and everything is synthesized by the designer to come up with an initial complete idea for it. This concept is then fed back to the community, and it starts iterating with both the design team and the development team in order to come up with the final working release, shifting from pure design to the actual product iteration after iteration, and going down to the various details.

    Today, Dharavi stands on a goldmine: a slice of land in the heart of the megapolis with the highest land prices in India. Its coveted position sits at the intersection of two main train lines, and is just a stone’s throw from a new business district, the Bandra—Kurla Complex. The space in Dharavi is primarily a place of work. The factories in Dharavi existed long before independence. In the name of redevelopment, people only with proof of residence in Dharavi are provided with new houses to live in. Others are left homeless. The livelihood of both these people is affected when they lose their land. All over Dharavi are reminders of developmental disasters. Near Dharavi Cross Road, members of the L.P.T. Housing Society, their houses torn down in preparation for their promised apartments, have spent the past eight years living in a half-finished building without steady electricity or water, at the mercy of the goons and the malarial Mumbai heat. Everyone agrees that Dharavi needs better working and living conditions. The settlement may have organically achieved the low-rise, mixed-use community of many urban planners’ dreams, but it is not without its problems. Years of government neglect have left Dharavi’s hygiene and safety levels grossly inadequate. There are queues for everything, including toilet blocks, municipal water taps and healthcare clinics. A place like Dharavi is a town within a town, a city within a city and a metropolis within a metropolis. Any plan for Dharavi must explicitly take into consideration the workplace relationship developed over the years, and not destroy the intricate urban structure that has sustained the local economy. But for the most part, the people of Dharavi should have a say in planning their community. Dharavi can be redeveloped by involving the community. The government's objective can be achieved only by four Ps — Public, People, Private, Participation. A slum-free India can be achieved only by slum-dwellers. It cannot be done by economists or politicians.

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