Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Battles over land | The pressure on slumlands

The pressure on slumlands

By Kalpana Sharma

The Rs 9,300 crore Dharavi Redevelopment Plan envisages a complete transformation of the slum. But it is the soaring value of the prime real estate on which Dharavi is located that is driving the change. There appears to be no real commitment to ensuring that the people who live there, and who, in fact, developed Dharavi, get their entitlements and have a say in the style of redevelopment



The wheels of change are moving so quickly that within a decade, a century-old settlement located in the heart of Mumbai might well become part of history. Dharavi, the slum colony that has the dubious distinction of being one of Asia's largest slums, is not just changing but is on the verge of being obliterated.

One could argue that such change is inevitable. Dharavi, originally a fishing village, one of the six that linked together to form the island city of Mumbai, has grown over a century into a contiguous collection of settlements that occupy 223 hectares. From a location that was considered the outskirts of Mumbai, on the southern side of the Mithi river that separated the island city from the suburbs across the Mahim causeway, Dharavi now finds itself virtually in the heart of Mumbai.

From an area that was swamp and a den of criminals and bootleggers, Dharavi has become a developed slum comprising a mix of semi-permanent structures and multi-storied buildings, small workshops and larger factories producing an impressive range of goods in the informal sector. Unlike other slums, most of the people who live in Dharavi also work there. And it attracts thousands of additional people who find employment. The swamp has been reclaimed and the days of illegal bootlegging and crime are part of its folklore. Dharavi today is as safe or as dangerous as any other part of Mumbai.

Despite its heady mix of communities -- Hindu, Muslim, north Indians, south Indians, Kolis, dalits -- there has been little communal tension in this densely packed settlement. The exception were the communal riots of 1992-93, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, when pro-Hindutva parties, particularly the Shiv Sena, went on the rampage across the city. Dharavi was not spared.

At the same time, the majority of people here live in appalling conditions. Despite the contribution they make through the informal sector to the city's economy, and despite paying regular 'taxes' to the municipal corporation by way of water charges and electricity bills and 'rent' if they live on municipal land, most of Dharavi's residents have to suffer crowded, tiny, badly ventilated houses with intermittent water supply and public toilets that would not be adequate for even a third of the population.

In Dharavi, work and living co-exist. While some of the manufacturing is non-polluting, such as garment manufacture, much of it is noisy and polluting. For instance, units using poisonous dyes are located right in the middle of residential settlements. The effluents from these units flow in open drains past people's homes. None of this should be acceptable, and indeed most people in Dharavi would like to see this changed.

Then take people like the Kumbhars who settled in 1932 under the Vacant Lands Act on a plot close to Sion Hospital. The community has grown, yet they continue to make earthenware pots as their fathers did. Their kilns, lit with cotton waste, send out clouds of acrid smoke in the morning and early evening, creeping into the homes and surrounding settlements. The Kumbhars would like better work and living conditions.

Dharavi was known for its leather industry. Its swampy location made it ideal for tanning, as there was always plenty of water. In the mid-1980s, the larger tanneries were moved out; a few smaller ones remain. They work in atrocious conditions and, like the dyeing units, discharge their untreated effluents into open drains.

Thirteenth compound, located at the Mahim end of the Mahim-Sion Link road, is a contiguous collection of settlements that specialise in recycling. Everything you can imagine is recycled here, from plastic to motor oil. Much of the work is hazardous. Yet people have no option but to live and work in these filthy surroundings. Speak to people in 13th compound and they will tell you they would like a change.

The question is what kind of change, what kind of development? Can the people of Dharavi have a say in this? Do they have a choice? Can settlements and habitations with a specific history be transformed into entities that bear no resemblance to their past? This is one of the central questions facing planners, architects and the residents of Dharavi.

The government of Maharashtra is all set to implement the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan (DRP). After a delay of over nine months, it published advertisements in June 2007 inviting global expressions of interest. After sifting through the bids, 19 developers have been shortlisted. The process of finalising the bids is expected to be completed by March 2008.

The Rs 9,300 crore DRP envisages a complete transformation of the slum. Calling it "The Opportunity of the Millennium", the government hopes that international developers will take on the five sectors into which the area has been divided.

In its Expression of Interest (EOI) document, inviting bids for Dharavi's development, this is how the government describes Dharavi:

'Dharavi, considered to be Asia's largest slum with approximately 57,000 slum families squeezed into the 223 hectares. Dharavi is only one of the nearly 3,000 slum pockets of Mumbai and yet it accounts for about 8% of the slum population of Mumbai. Like every other slum in Mumbai, Dharavi lacks toilet facilities and adequate water supply. Open sewage and garbage dumps are breeding grounds for rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, flies and other harmful pests.'

Clearly, to anyone who has been to Dharavi and witnessed the energy of its people, this is an extremely partial description of a thriving and hard-working urban community. In fact, even conservative estimates place the turnover of Dharavi's informal sector in the region of Rs 4,000 crore per year.

The DRP was the brainchild of builder/developer Mukesh Mehta, a non-resident Indian who returned to Mumbai when opportunity called. He realised that Dharavi was located on prime property, right next to the swanky new business district of Bandra-Kurla where current real estate prices are in the range of Rs 35,000-40,000 per sq ft.

But, under the existing slum redevelopment policy, the changes taking place in the area were haphazard. Slum settlements located on land not required for any public purpose could be redeveloped in situ as long as 70% of the "eligible" slum-dwellers, that is those who can prove they lived there before January 1, 1995, agreed. In return, the developer would guarantee them a free flat measuring 225 sq ft in a seven-storey building. On the land freed up after this was done, the developer was free to use the additional FSI (Floor Space Index) of 2.5 to build commercial or residential property for sale.

The scheme was launched in 1995. In the last decade, many parts of Mumbai saw a spurt in building activity as slums were pulled down and seven-storey structures built. But there was no area planning, and nowhere is this more evident than in Dharavi where new buildings have been constructed along the main roads, leaving the inside of the slum area untouched. Little thought has been given to sewerage and water supply or to access roads as more such buildings come up.

Mukesh Mehta came up with a plan for all of Dharavi. He divided the area into 10 sectors and suggested that each sector be planned to accommodate local people and free up land for other construction for sale -- both residential and commercial. His plan also required developers to pay for the common facilities and infrastructure in each sector. He was successful in selling the idea to the previous National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who sanctioned Rs 500 crore for Dharavi's development.

Since then, a lot has happened. The 10 sectors have been collapsed into five, the Maharashtra government, which is responsible for implementing the plan, has altered the development control rules, increasing FSI from 2.5 to 4 and setting aside the provision that 70% of the local people have to give their consent to the redevelopment.

Under the DRP, developers who win bids have to maintain all the structures and facilities in their sectors for 15 years, at their own cost. It is estimated that altogether around 30 million sq ft of housing for slum-dwellers and other common facilities like schools, parks and roads will be constructed. In return, the developers will be able to build and put up an estimated 40 million sq ft for sale. They are expected to pay a minimum of Rs 450 per sq ft for the saleable component of the redevelopment to the government. According to reports, the minimum price that developers have quoted in the bids is reportedly around Rs 3,500 per sq ft. The Maharashtra government is thus assured at least Rs 9,000-Rs 10,500 crore from the project, probably more.

The desire to transform this area arises from a number of concerns. One, and this seems to be the primary concern, is the value of the real estate on which Dharavi is located. That the government makes no pretence of hiding its interest in the value of the real estate is evident from the EOI document:

'Its closeness to Mumbai's business district, railways and airport provides the strategic advantage of successfully leveraging Dharavi improvement costs with free sale buildable areas. Given appropriate scale of operations, one large and contiguous free sale area can be developed into a high-rise garden city complex.'

Since bidding for the DRP began, land prices in Dharavi have risen sharply in anticipation of the bounty that awaits those who invest. According to Indian Realty News (, a website that tracks the real estate market in Mumbai, prices in Dharavi have increased 30%-40% since the bidding process began. They range from Rs 4,000 per sq ft to Rs 10,000 per sq ft. At these rates, the 225 sq ft flat that each eligible slum-dweller is entitled to free of cost would be valued at a minimum of Rs 9 lakh, at current prices. It is also reported in the media that there is a rush to buy up existing slum structures in order to cash in on the real estate boom. Prices ranging from Rs 5,000 per sq ft for slum structures, to Rs 10,000-20,000 per sq ft for industrial/commercial structures are being quoted.

But do the people living in Dharavi want a 'high-rise garden city complex'? This has become the question at the heart of the debate over Dharavi's redevelopment. Even if everyone, including Dharavi's residents, agree that redevelopment is needed so that the dirt and the filth is replaced by decent living conditions and security of tenure, is the style and form of development chosen by the government the most appropriate for Dharavi?

On paper, the DRP looks workable. But the plan is only on paper; the detail is missing.

For example, basic data on the number of people in Dharavi is not available. Dharavi as such is not a single entity. It consists of several Assembly constituencies and municipal wards, some of which spill over into adjoining areas that do not count as part of Dharavi. Therefore, even ward-wise census figures do not provide an accurate idea about the number of people living in the slum.

The government and Mukesh Mehta have come up with what would seem to be an arbitrary figure of 57,000 families, or roughly 3.5 lakh people eligible for resettlement in Dharavi. No one really knows how the government arrived at this figure.

In 1985, when the first steps were taken to redevelop Dharavi under the Prime Minister's Grant Project, a part of the Rs 100 crore that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave to Mumbai during the Congress Party's centenary celebrations, the official estimate of the number of people living in Dharavi was 3.5 lakh. Even then, this number was disputed. A detailed survey conducted by the National Slum Dwellers' Federation suggested that the actual number is closer to 6 lakh.

Even if we accept the official figure of 3.5 lakh for 1985, it is inconceivable that in a decade up to 1995, which is the 'cut-off' year, the population would have remained static. Even at the conservative growth rate of 3% a year, it would be considerably higher.

How can detailed planning be done if the precise numbers are not known? What about densities? How will the area deal with more people coming in than already live there? And what happens to those considered not 'eligible' for free housing? Where will they go? How many of them fall into this category? Even by conservative estimates, at least 3 lakh people will be forced to move out of Dharavi.

Although these questions have been raised repeatedly with the planning authority for Dharavi, there has been no clear answer.

The other is the question of consent. In the original slum redevelopment plan, 70% of residents had to give their consent for redevelopment. This provision was included to ensure that developers did not drive people off valuable land in the name of slum redevelopment. Under the DRP this is precisely what will happen.



Prior consent was also built into the earlier plan in recognition of the investment slum-dwellers had made to make the land they inhabit more liveable. For instance, reclamation of the swamp on which Dharavi is located was not officially sanctioned. It happened over time through the informal efforts of thousands of slum-dwellers. Thus, the government had acknowledged that even if they had no security of tenure, the slum-dwellers had a right to a say in the form of redevelopment in Dharavi.

Although the slum-dwellers have reluctantly accepted the seven-storey structures under the current slum redevelopment plan, there is enough evidence to show that these buildings are inappropriate as their residents cannot afford the monthly charges for running lifts. Many buildings have opted not to have lifts, causing immense hardship to those living on higher floors. In a 20-storey structure, lifts are not an option. How will people pay the charges?

Residents most concerned about the new plan are those who use their homes as places of work too, like the Kumbhars. They wonder how they will survive in a 225 sq ft flat in a high-rise structure when, currently, each family has close to 1,000 sq ft of space where they live and work. Others have built lofts above their 150 sq ft huts that are either rented out or used for some form of work. How will these people survive if their source of additional income is taken away and they are forced to pay higher outgoings every month?

These are only some of the scores of questions that are being raised by residents of Dharavi who oppose the DRP. They are at pains to emphasise that they are not against redevelopment; that they actually want change. But they want to have a say in the kind of redevelopment that is ultimately planned for their area.

The interest in Dharavi stems primarily from a desire to realise the value of the real estate on which it is located. This is evident from the data on rising property prices and the money the government is expecting to make out of the DRP. There appears to be no real appreciation or commitment to ensure that the people who live there, and who in fact developed it, get their entitlements and have a say in the style and manner of redevelopment.

Dharavi's future has become a symbol of what could happen to Mumbai in the future. Already, the Maharashtra government has identified other larger slum settlements that will follow the same pattern of redevelopment as Dharavi. These settlements are also located in areas where land values are high. It is evident that both the government and builders think that the poor, who make up half of the city of Mumbai, should not live on such valuable land. The vision of a 'slum-free' Mumbai appears to be a city free of the urban poor.

(Kalpana Sharma is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai. She is the author of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum (Penguin 2000).)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008