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A reprieve for Dharavi

Urban planners have proposed alternative approaches to Dharavi’s redevelopment, which would view Dharavi as a thriving and functioning urban settlement and not as a slum that needs to be flattened and rebuilt. The October assembly elections may just have given Dharavi the breathing space required to discuss these alternatives, writes Kalpana Sharma

Dharavi’s redevelopment

For months it appeared as if nothing could stop progress on the massive Rs 15,000 crore Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP).  Everything was finalised.  Only the final bids had to be confirmed. Suddenly, with the announcement of state assembly elections in Maharashtra scheduled for October 13, the project has come to a grinding halt.  With the electoral code of conduct in place, the state government cannot initiate any projects.  For many people in Dharavi, this comes as a huge relief.  

The history of the project, mired in controversy from the start, is a story of how such redevelopment should not be done.  It all began when a developer, who already had a couple of projects in Dharavi through the existing Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) of the Maharashtra government, noticed the potential of developing the entire area.  Its location next to the Bandra Kurla complex, where land prices were going through the roof, made it even more attractive.  Mukesh Mehta of MM Consultants outlined a plan to develop all of Dharavi in 2003.  He divided the area into 10 sectors and proposed that each sector should be handed over to a developer through open bidding. 

Mehta successfully sold the idea to the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The Maharashtra government responded by following up on Mehta’s proposal, appointed him initially as an adviser and eventually as the consultant for the Dharavi Redevelopment Project. 

In the course of time, the original 10 sectors got collapsed into five, a separate authority was created to oversee the project and the government set about finding ways to give special incentives to attract private developers to take on the project.  One of these was to increase the FSI (Floor Space Index) from the current 1.33 to 4 and allowing developers to use all the additional FSI in Dharavi itself rather than converting it into TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) to be used in other projects elsewhere in the city. 

In the initial years, the project was estimated to cost Rs 9,300 crore.  Today it is valued at Rs 15,000 crore.  The delay has helped increase profit margins as land prices have steadily gone upwards, by 30 to 40%, although there was a slight dip in the last year.  But between the date the project was initiated and the present day, there has been a notable increase in land prices.  All of this benefits developers who are aiming to win bids to develop one of the five sectors. 

Also in the interim, to pacify Dharavi residents who have argued that their existing spaces are considerably larger than the 225 sq ft apartments promised free to them under the DRP, the government agreed as a special case to increase the size of each apartment to nearly 300 sq ft.  For this the relevant Development Control Rule (DCR) needed to be amended. 

The project has inched forward, with the government inviting bids, shortlisting 14 possible developers and promising that by July 30 the final bids would be announced.  Inexplicably, on that day, the entire process ground to a halt.  The government claimed it had not yet amended the DCR to accommodate the bigger apartments for Dharavi’s residents.  Hence the bidding process could not go through.  In fact, this was a mere technicality.  The thought of the impending elections, and having to face the ire of disgruntled residents in Dharavi, was probably a much bigger reason for postponing the final phase of getting the project underway.  Now, with the election code of conduct, this government cannot take any more steps and the project will have to be revisited, or revived, by the new government that takes office at the end of October. 

The oddest part of this entire story is the Maharashtra government’s selective response to various objections that have been raised about the project. First, it appeared it was deaf to the objections raised by Dharavi’s residents.  Then suddenly, when these objections manifested themselves into large public demonstrations, it responded and agreed to increase the size of the apartments.  It also agreed to extend the cut-off date for eligibility of free accommodation from January 1, 1995 to January 1, 2000, despite having given a specific undertaking before the Bombay High Court that it would not extend this date. 

Also, in response to other objections raised about the very approach of the DRP, the government appointed a 10-member Committee of Experts (CoE), consisting of former bureaucrats, planners, engineers, architects and activists, to advise the government on the project. The Committee of Experts had access to all documents, including the plans made by the consultants, the bid documents etc and has sent four detailed letters with its observations and objections to the government.  It would be appear that none of these have been taken seriously. 

One of the important points the CoE raised was the logic behind increasing the FSI to 4 and allowing all of it to be used in situ.  It pointed out that not only had the government not undertaken any kind of survey to assess whether the infrastructure in Dharavi could deal with this additional pressure but that it had not given any logical explanation for this particular provision. (For the existing Slum Rehabilitation Schemes that are being implemented in Mumbai, including over 80 in Dharavi, the FSI is 2.5 with the proviso that the developer could use the excess FSI elsewhere in the city.)  Why, given the existing densities in Dharavi, and the fact that 60,000-plus households would have to be resettled in situ, did the government arrive at this figure of 4 FSI? The CoE concluded that this was done at the behest of developers who wanted to maximise their profits from the project. 

In every letter, the CoE has strongly recommended that the current consultants, MM Consultants, be removed from the project, as they had no previous experience to show they had worked on a project this size.  Given that the developers bidding for the sectors had to meet stringent technical specifications, including previous experience of dealing with projects of this size and complexity, it seemed odd that the government had appointed a consultant who had no proven record in this regard. The CoE also pointed out that there was a conflict of interest as MM Consultants had been developers of SRS projects in Dharavi.  How then could they be consultants for a project covering the entire settlement? 

Even before the CoE was appointed, it was apparent that the planning for the project had been done without a detailed survey of Dharavi.  The figure of 57,000 households to be resettled seemed to be carved in stone.  Yet, when a survey was finally done, much after the DRP had already been notified, the figure of eligible households kept creeping upwards.  Today it is closer to 80,000 or even more.  Furthermore, some 35,000 households, that live in lofts and are either tenants or members of the same family as lives below, have been left out of the reckoning altogether.  Given this change in the basic calculation of how many people need to be resettled, how would the economics of the project as it stands today work?  This is a question that the government has studiously chosen to ignore. 

Another point that has been raised persistently ever since the project was first announced is the absence of consultation and prior consent of Dharavi’s residents.  In fact, the DRP has done away with a provision in the SRS that requires developers to get the consent of at least 70% of the people to be rehabilitated.  When Mukesh Mehta of MM Consultants was appointed as the technical consultant for the DRP, he insisted that his team had consulted people in Dharavi.  Yet, journalists who visited the settlement, including this writer, found that most people did not have a clue about the DRP or what it entailed. 

Over time, due to media coverage and interest, and political mobilisation, people have become aware.  As a result, a number of objections have been voiced not only about the size of the flats that will be given or about eligibility, but also about the future of the settlement as it exists, about specific precincts like Kumbharwada (potters’ colony) and Koliwada (fishermen’s colony), and about the future of hundreds of production units that generate revenue and jobs.  The central core of Dharavi is the ability of its residents to work and live in the same place.  This saves them costs in time and money. The DRP, with its token acknowledgement of the importance of people’s livelihood options (it plans to allocate just 6% of the total area allotted for rehabilitation, which is less than 47% of the total 223 hectares comprising Dharavi, for household-based work activities), would in one stroke destroy this uniqueness.  

Six years after the first thought about redeveloping Dharavi was first floated, most people living in the settlement have some knowledge about the DRP, although not the details.  They also realise that their voices, their objections, their apprehensions are simply not being heeded.  There is no mechanism for consultation.  And with a plan devised by one consultant, there is no room for flexibility, for imaginative and sustainable alternatives. 

Fortunately for Dharavi, the assembly elections have arrived in time to save the situation from becoming irreversible.  This gives a window of opportunity to those who believe the very premise on which the DRP is based is flawed, and to come up with specific and workable alternatives that could be considered. 

In any case, if there is a change of government in Maharashtra following the elections, with a new set of political parties holding the reins of power, it is highly unlikely that the DRP will be implemented as it stands today. In fact, it would not be surprising if the DRP were placed on the backburner for some time even after the elections.  

This might be just the breathing space that Dharavi needs. Many architects, urban planners and activists have been discussing alternative approaches to Dharavi’s redevelopment. The main thrust of most of this alternative thinking is that Dharavi should be viewed as a thriving and functioning urban settlement and not as a slum that needs to be flattened and rebuilt.  That what it needs is greatly improved infrastructure, particularly water and sanitation, and that the housing solutions should be tackled specifically, area-wise, keeping in mind people’s livelihood needs.  

Such an approach might result in more land being used than is currently envisaged in the DRP for Dharavi’s inhabitants.  It would definitely mean lower profits for any developer who ventures to undertake such a project.  But in the long run, it would allow Dharavi to redevelop in a way that retains its uniqueness but at the same time is environmentally sound and physically attractive. 

Infochange News & Features, September 2009