Home » Notizie » Abitanti d'Asia » In the Heart of Bombay: the Dharavi Slum

Mostra/Nascondi il menu

In the Heart of Bombay: the Dharavi Slum

Au cœur de Bombay.1

One of the ways to enter Dharavi, from the Mahim train station

Valérie FERNANDO - 05 / 2009

The Dharavi slum, situated in the heart of Greater Bombay, and the massive redevelopment project that aims to turn it into a swanky neighborhood for the well-off middle class, is a perfect example of the ultra-liberal leanings of the Indian political class as a whole, which remains persistently deaf and blind to the needs of the poor, who nevertheless represent more than 60% of the population of the Indian megalopolis. A further look:

Watch the video

I – Dharavi, an extraordinary slum

The low-lying slums (1) that stretch out across the land are as much a part of the traditional image of Bombay (renamed Mumbai) as the skyscrapers in India’s commercial and financial capital. Seen from above, the intricacy of these two worlds is impressive: the gray blotches formed by the closely packed jumble of corrugated iron roofs contrast with the bright towers and less cluttered areas of the city’s residential and business neighborhoods.

Among this multitude of slums, Dharavi is reputed to be one of the biggest in Asia, though it is, above all, one of the oldest. The original inhabitants of Dharavi were the Koli, a community of fishermen whose presence has been visible for centuries in Mahim Creek, located along the Mithi River, which is situated on the northern boundary of Dharavi. In the past, the area over which the slum now spreads out was marshland. It was the migrants, poor and excluded from the wealthier south Bombay neighborhoods, who, decade after decade, precipitated the drying up of the river by filling it with organic waste and other matter, turning it into livable land, on which they could build.

Today, Dharavi occupies a 175-hectare area. The official population is approximately 600,000 people (2001 census) but organizations and researchers working on Dharavi estimate that number to be at least one million individuals, or close to 100,000 families, with an average population density of 350,000 habitants per km2 and one toilet per 1,440 people.

Despite the unifying name “Dharavi,” the zone that it designates is a juxtaposition of neighborhoods with their own distinct character that was shaped by the various waves of migrants that came from the four corners of rural India. Apart from the Koli fishermen, who represent only a small percentage of the population, Dharavi is actually the work, in large part, of the men and women who left their villages of origin, most often following natural disasters such as droughts, and came to look for jobs in the attractive megalopolis that is Bombay.

An area that is both residential and industrial

The first migrants came from Maharashtra (the state of which Bombay is the capital) and Gujarat (the border state north of Bombay). They first settled in the southern neighborhoods of Bombay, but as the city grew, they were pushed farther and farther north to allow the wealthier populations to live in the new residential buildings built on the sites of the former slums. These first migrants settled permanently in Dharavi. Later, such a large wave of migrants came from the Tamil Nadu state (in southern India), particularly from the Tirunelveli district, that today one third of Dharavi’s population speaks Tamil. More recently, two very poor and highly populated northern Indian states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, were the main sources of new migrants. All these migratory fluxes have contributed to the wide diversity of people and activities in Dharavi: Kumbhar potters from Saurashtra (Gujarat), tanners from Tamil Nadu and Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh), leather and textile workers from Maharashtra and Bihar, and Valmiki street sweepers from Haryana.

Dharavi also stands out for its bustling informal economic activity in small-scale industry and handicrafts. Unlike Bombay’s other slums, where a large majority of inhabitants work outside their place of residence, 80% of Dharavi’s residents also work there. In this way, Dharavi is also a full-fledged industrial area, with an estimated 400 million euros in turnover. A study by the SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) estimates that Dharavi has 4,902 production facilities, with 1,036 in textiles, 932 in pottery, 567 in the leather, 722 in recycling and scrap metal, 498 in embroidery and 152 in food. Furthermore, there are 111 restaurants and several thousand boutiques in Dharavi.

Au cœur de Bombay.2

Pottery-making in Kumbharwada

And yet, this dynamic economic activity should not overshadow the fact that work conditions in this informal sector are very often difficult and precarious. Potters and their families constantly live and work surrounded by heat and toxic smoke emanating from the ovens where they bake their pottery, while leather, textile and food workers spend up to 15 hours a day in dark rooms with no ventilation. Salaries are of course very low and competition between old and new migrants is constantly driving the cost of labor down.

Au cœur de Bombay.3

Brick homes and corrugated-iron roofs.

Dharavi, like every other slum, also suffers from a lack of basic infrastructure and sanitation facilities, while access to water and electricity is unpredictable.

But unlike numerous other recent slums, the majority of dwellings in Dharavi are reinforced and built out of cement and bricks (except for the roofs, which are made of simple reused metal sheets or of corrugated iron, or, more rarely, tiles). This points to an older establishment and to progressive improvements to houses, as much as was allowed by financial resources and available space.

II – How is urban poverty managed?

Journalist and writer Kalpana Sharma (2) warns against a romantic vision of this slum where an economic miracle takes place every day—a triumph of the ingenuity and creativity of the “poor” people living in inhumane conditions. The truth of this image must not eclipse an important point, which is that Dharavi, above all, presents a real problem, one that is still unresolved and largely ignored by the powers that be: the management of urban poverty in an India that is seeing its urban population swell rapidly because of the combined effect of natural population growth and a rural exodus. This phenomenon is most notably due to the absence of any real agricultural policy that would allow rural citizens to make a living from their rural operations, thereby sparing them from the need to pack into the slums. Therefore, Dharavi is also a reminder that such living and working conditions are unacceptable and that it’s up to the state and the Indian government to ensure decent living conditions for all their citizens, including, and perhaps especially, the poorest ones, by taking into account their needs in terms of housing and work in the development of their policies.

Until recently, the residents and new arrivals to Dharavi considered it a stable place of settlement. According to Jockin Arputham, founder of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (3), interviewed on March 31, 2009: “when migrants come to Bombay, they choose Dharavi for two reasons: they are sure that they will find a job there and there is no risk that they will be evicted.” (4)

For a long time, the unhealthy conditions in Dharavi actually made it unattractive for real estate investors. Situated on low-lying land, close to the mangrove and the Mithi River, and extremely polluted by the city’s waste and sewage, Dharavi is hit each year by monsoon flooding and its associated sanitary risks.

Au cœur de Bombay.4

"90 Feet Road"

Moreover, since the 1980s, authorities have more or less admitted to the need for improving the situation of the slums without, however, officially acknowledging their existence. Therefore, numerous neighborhoods in Dharavi have been the object of improvement and rehabilitation projects that allowed thousands of residents to be rehoused into apartments buildings, for several major streets to be widened and for the canalization of sewage (see The 1986 Prime Minister’s Grant Project, PMGP). Under the leadership of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), created in 1995 to promote the implementation of the rehabilitation plans for Greater Bombay’s slums, about 70 seven-story buildings have been or are currently being constructed in Dharavi. It is important to remember here that living in a slum does not mean living for free, since residents pay between 500 and 1,000 rupees (or eight to 16 euros) monthly to informal “landlords,” a sort of local mafia who, in the absence of the state, dominates the housing market and access to water, electricity, sanitation facilities and arbitrarily imposes its rules on residents.

The results of these projects vary greatly but they have given hope to residents that Dharavi will be officially recognized, which would ensure them ownership or rental security and would allow them to invest more into their housing and business, with the guarantee that the state would provide them with basic public services.

The Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP)

But the economic liberalization of the 1990s changed things dramatically. Since 2004, a controversial broad redevelopment plan has been in the works: the Dharavi Redevelopment Project. Dharavi is located in a strategic area, a few steps from the new international financial and business centre, the Bandra Kurla Complex (5), which is meant to free up the southern area of Bombay. The national stock exchange, the diamond bourse and the headquarters of several important financial institutions and banks are all found here. At a time where space is an increasingly rare commodity in Bombay, the land that Dharavi occupies has therefore, within a few years, become very valuable in a rapidly expanding real estate market and has sparked the interest of Indian and foreign investors. Let’s not forget that Dharavi is ideally situated at the crossroads of the two main rail lines serving Bombay.

The Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), which is being constantly modified and delayed and whose cost is continuously increasing (it is estimated to cost 3 billion euros today), is also headed by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority. Generally, the SRA’s plans are based on a public-private partnership where private builders or cooperatives build small apartments of approximately 21m2 (225 sq. ft.) and residents who can prove they have lived in the slum before a certain date, are resettled for free, usually on the outskirts of the city. In exchange, property entrepreneurs have the right to build other apartments and commercial sites on this land that has been “freed up” by the slums and sell them at higher market prices, thus allowing them to reap lucrative rewards.

The DRP is yet a different project with a wider scope since it aims to rehabilitate the entire slum and to rehouse all of the residents whose names appear on the voters’ list prior to 2000, in Dharavi itself, (6). This would mean an official number of 72,000 families.

This project, which is supposed to last seven years, was approved by the government of Maharashtra in 2007, but was developed in 1995 by the architectural firm MM Project Consultants. It is the idea of Mukesh Mehta (7), a United States-educated Indian architect who has since become a consultant for the Maharashtra government. He defends his so-called “integrated and sustainable” spirit-of-the-times approach, which he has named HIKES for: housing, income, knowledge, environment and socio-cultural development. He suggests replacing the Dharavi slum with a community of five self-sufficient sectors with residential buildings, shops, industrial centres, schools, hospitals, gardens, golf courses, sports complexes, etc. Unlike in the other SRA projects, the five builders who will be responsible for the redevelopment of these five sectors will also have to ensure the establishment of basic infrastructure: water, electricity, roads, and canalization. This clause ensures that horizontal slums are not turned into vertical slums, as is too often the case. Mr. Mehta’s goal is to make the Dharavi Redevelopment Project a redevelopment model that can be internationally reproduced in order to create a slum-free world by 2025.

Au cœur de Bombay.5

Kumbharwada, pottery neighborhood

On paper, the project may appear attractive, but the reality of it is quite different, and the project has spurred a general outcry from organizations representing the residents of Dharavi, in particular the Dharavi Vikas Samiti collective (the Dharavi development committee), which is made up of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, SPARC and Mahila Milan (a women’s association).

The first issue of conflict concerns the number of people who are to benefit from the project. This number appears to have been greatly underestimated, because even by using the year 2000 as a point of reference, the SRA only came to 72,000 families, whereas the NSDF estimates that 100,000 would be a more correct number. This begs the question: where will the non-rehabilitated families go? Will they populate new slums, somewhere farther, with even worse conditions?

The size of the apartments that are to be given for free to Dharavi residents is another problem: 21 m2, is too small an area for families of five to 10 people who often carry out their occupation in the same place as their residence, which they have had to sometimes expand by adding another floor. This would be unthinkable in an apartment building. Through negotiations, the residents’ associations succeeded in requiring an area of 28 m2, which seems more acceptable, though some people would prefer 37 m2. This is because numerous business activities require much more space. Owners will either have to buy land at market price—something that few of them can manage—close their business down or move it to another slum.

The fate of pollution-producing informal business activity (soap-making, tanning, pottery) also poses a problem. Does the DRP mean an end to their operations and unemployment for the workers?

There are many questions that have been left unanswered and that indicate the extreme worry of Dharavi residents, small entrepreneurs and artisans who have not received any guarantees about the future of their livelihoods.

Kumbharwada, a neighborhood of potters

The potters of Kumbharwada are another case. This neighbourhood of 2,000 potter families, who came from Gujarat at the start of the 20th century, spreads out over five hectares. For them, space is essential. They estimate that they need at least 92 m2 to store and mould clay, make their pottery and dry it, install ovens where it can be baked, and for some, to have space on the street where they can sell it. The proposed area of 28m2 is very clearly inadequate and their level of poverty makes it impossible for them to buy land. What’s more, they absolutely refuse to consider Dharavi as a slum and therefore, want nothing to do with the project. Indeed, they consider themselves as the owners of this land, which was given to them for 99 years at the beginning of the 20th century by British colonists as part of the Vacant Land Tenancy Act. However, Mukesh Mehta believes that this allocation of land became invalid the moment the Maharashtra government adopted the DRP.

III – Rehabilitation of the slums or exclusion of the poor?

The main criticisms expressed by residents and the associations representing them reflect the absence of any real consultation between the property developers of the Dharavi redevelopment project and the Dharavi residents (8). Before developing the project, Mukesh Mehta’s firm did not carry out any detailed field study to learn about the current situation, the exact number of residents, their economic activity, their needs in terms of housing and industrial, artisanal and commercial space. The DRP is a typical project thought up by a technical expert and imposed “from above” on a population that is clearly for the redevelopment of Dharavi, but certainly not if it clashes with their own interests.

This project is thus, evidence of the unfortunate unwillingness of Indian authorities to create and implement real urban policies that would include low-cost housing for the poor who represent, let’s not forget, more than half of India’s population. Therefore, this project cannot be considered as an urban development plan because in the end, far from taking into account the current living and work conditions of the residents, it only envisions the financial gain to be had not only by the property developers and builders, but also by the state, which expects to gain a profit of 20 million rupees thanks to the interest that will be paid to it by its private “partners.”

Eventually, if the project as it stands now is carried out, there is a fear that, just like in many other cases, the resettled residents will leave Dharavi, either by will or by force. Either they will no longer have enough space to carry out their business activity, or maintenance costs will be so high (more than 1,500 rupees per month, not including municipal taxes and electricity and water fees) that residents will have no other choice but to rent out or sell their apartments and move to another slum, despite being forbidden from moving for 10 years (as experience would have it). Dharavi will then become what Mukesh Mehta and the government of Maharashtra likely want: a neighborhood for the middle class who will benefit from all of the basic and luxury services close to home.

An uncertain future

Right now, it is hard to predict the evolution of this project, which, despite being constantly pushed back for 12 years, is still progressing in stages. A request for proposals was launched in June 2007 and interested property developers, both Indian and foreign, started submitting the non-financial technical aspects of their projects in February 2009. Some are already predicting the replacement of Dharavi as a working-class neighborhood with a residential and commercial middle-class area. Others affirm that the residents will oppose any plan that would force them to leave. They were the ones who, through their hard labor, turned the Dharavi marshland into livable land. For example, they threaten to block railway traffic, which would effectively paralyze all of Bombay’s economic activity.

Political parties are no strangers either to the difficulties encountered in the implementation of the DRP. Today, the coalition led by the Congress party, which governs Maharashtra (the state where Bombay is located) defends the Dharavi Redevelopment Project. The opposition parties, BJP and Shiv Sena, firmly rooted in Dharavi, completely reject the project, even though they approved it when they were in power in 2004. We must now wait for the results of the April-May 2009 national election.

Another important economic issue is the global economic crisis, which puts this massive project into question. But this is also a unique opportunity for the residents’ associations to suggest alternatives that may have a greater chance of being taken seriously by the authorities. It’s what Jockin Arputham hopes for anyway. Recently appointed to a government advisory committee, he believes that he “can convince builders to meet certain needs of the residents.” But which ones? He has not said.

(1) There is no universally held definition of a slum, but the UN organization UN-Habitat suggests the following common characteristics: no access to basic services, water and sanitation facilities; housing structures that are either illegal or don’t meet building standards; a dense population; living conditions that pose a risk to health; irregular or informal occupation of land; and poverty and social exclusion.

(2) Read Kalpana Sharma’s reference work, Rediscovering Dharavi , Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2000

(3) Visit the site of the collective organizations working with slum residents: www.sparcindia.org

(4) Residents also often arrive at Dharavi through a network of family or village acquaintances.

(5) Visit the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) site: www.mmrdamumbai.org/planning_ifbc.htm

(6) At first, the year selected was 1995, but the associations succeed in changing it 2000 to include more residents.

(7) Read his biography in “Dharavi’s Makeover Man,” LiveMint, June 23, 2007: www.livemint.com/mehta.htm

(8) Cf. “Dharavi: A View From Below,” by the NSDF and SPARC: www.sparcindia.org/docs/dharavi05.doc


Urban development, slum, city policy, housing rehabilitation, social exclusion, informal sector, housing and economy, India


Valérie Fernando came to Mumbai (Bombay) to be part of the CED , the Centre for Education and Documentation, as part of the exchanges mobility and partnerships programs, in partnership with Ritimo.

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - India – www.doccentre.net - cedbom@doccentre.net, cedban@doccentre.net

RITIMO (Réseau d’information et de documentation pour le développement durable et la solidarité internationale) (information and documentation network for sustainable development and international solidarity) - 21 ter rue Voltaire, 75011 Paris, FRANCE - Tel. 33(0) 1 44 64 74 14 - Fax : 33(0) 1 44 64 74 55 - France - www.ritimo.org and www.rinoceros.org - dph (@)

I(le) Traduttori(trici) Volontari(e) per il diritto alla casa senza frontiere dell’IAI che hanno collaborato con la traduzione di questo testo sono:

Agnes Magdziak, Arleene Mcfarlane