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Squatter Settlement Case Study: Dharavi, Mumbai, India

 
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Slums separate Bombay from its future

Sudhin Thanawala, Chronicle Foreign Service - San Francisco Chronicle - Thursday, October 12, 2006.

Dharavi - Workshop

Potter Ranchhod Tank, 40, shown in his workshop outside his home in Dharavi, opposes the redevelopment project. Photo by Sudhin Thanawala, special to the Chronicle

Many Indian authorities here proudly claim this seaside metropolis -- the nation's largest -- as an Asian financial hub on par with Shanghai and Tokyo.

But critics quickly point out that India -- touted as an international powerhouse in the 21st century along with China -- will never become an economic success story until it eradicates its many urban slums. More than 40 million people, or 14 percent of the nonrural population, live in shantytowns, according to the 2001 Indian census.

India, which has 1.1 billion people, is expected to expand its urban population to 575 million by 2030 from 285 million today, making an increase in slums one of the nation's most pressing problems. Urban blight is most evident in Bombay, more than half of whose 16.4 million inhabitants reside in shantytowns. Also known as Mumbai, Bombay is often called "Slumbai."

"With so many people living in slums, we can't take baby steps anymore. Unless we take dramatic leaps, we will not be able to make a difference," said Bombay architect Mukesh Mehta.

Mehta, a former New York real estate developer, has created a seven-year plan to turn Bombay's Dharavi neighborhood -- Asia's largest slum -- into a middle-class area that some experts say could become a model for slum redevelopment in other Indian cities. This former fishing village of about 600,000 residents is a bustling maze of ramshackle homes of corrugated iron and cement, tiny shops and open sewers prone to flooding during the monsoon season.

Just last month, state officials began seeking corporate partners for Mehta's $2.1 billion plan, which would raze neighborhood homes and shops. In its place would rise a new town complete with modern apartment buildings, parks, schools, markets, clinics, industrial parks, and even a cricket museum and an arts center.

"What is unique about this plan is its attempt to provide new, on-site housing for such a large number of families," said Vinit Mukhija, assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA.

Iqbal Chahal, the state official overseeing the massive project, said Dharavi's 535-acre marshland will be transformed mainly by private developers. In exchange for land, they will be required to build 225-square-foot apartments for families. Profits will come later by selling additional apartments at market rates. Until the new homes are complete, slum dwellers will live in free temporary housing.

"I can assure you that seven years from now, Dharavi will be one of the best places to live in Bombay," Chahal said.

But critics call the plan simplistic and suspect its real aim is to appropriate land that has become extremely valuable given the slum's proximity to Bombay's domestic and international airports and a new, emerging business district.

Social activists also cite the lack of involvement of slum dwellers in the project.

"Development will be successful if you have a bottom-up approach," said Arputham Jockin, head of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, a community organization that has helped Dharavi's residents build apartments in the past. "But in this project, everything is imposed from the top."

To be sure, Dharavi residents who oppose the plan could stop the project, observers say.

The slum is home to thousands of cottage industries, ranging from embroidered skirts and snack foods to belt buckles and pottery items. The slum generates between $330 million and $670 million annually, according to the Hindu, a Bombay daily. Many locals worry how their businesses will fare under the proposed plan.

But Mehta said slum entrepreneurs will be given new jobs at gem, jewelry, leather and ceramics factories built at five proposed 7-acre industrial parks.

On a recent morning, about 60 potters met under a tarp near the only paved road running through the slum. With smoke billowing from nearby kilns, they agreed to form a committee to stop the project. Unlike the project's proposed small apartments, their homes are expansive, with ample space for kilns.

"Our forefathers developed Dharavi when it was a jungle with no drinking water, no electricity, no place to live," said potter Ranchhod Tank, 40. "We know what we want. We can do it (build homes) ourselves" through their own housing association.

"They say they will give us apartments to live in," added Abdul Ansari, 70, who makes belt buckles and other metal items and has lived in Dharavi for more than 30 years. "But if we can't work, how can we afford to live here?"

Ansari said he saw similar development projects in the 1980s and 1990s when thousands languished in a transit camp for years without seeing new homes promised by government officials.

"How can we trust anyone now?" Ansari said. "This plan looks good on paper, but we don't have faith it will become reality."

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Finding a better future for Dharavi

DIANE SQUIRES - Monash Univeristy - Monash Magazine

Dharavi - Water Pipe

Giant water pipes carry water to Mumbai and serve as a shortcut for Dharavi residents. Photo by Robert Appleby

Midway between the airport and main business district of Mumbai, in India, is an area few visitors dare venture into. Known as the Dharavi slums, it is strewn with rubbish, excrement and pools of filthy water. One and two-storey houses so densely populate the area that there is no public access for service vehicles or open space for children to play.

With a population of just over one million, it is one of Asia's largest slums, and there are repeated calls for its buildings to be knocked down to make way for new housing.

But Monash Asia Institute director Professor Marika Vicziany believes that although the area is chaotic and in need of an overhaul, the solution is not as simple as destroying buildings.

Working with Professor S. Vichare from Tadomall College in Mumbai, Professor Vicziany has started speaking to the residents to generate a list of priorities for the area.

The project, which started last year, includes investigating the area's sanitation, sewerage, solid waste disposal, water management and food distribution needs.

"What we are looking at is if you have one dollar to spend on the area, what would you do with it? Would you put it towards providing a crèche, new buildings or amenities for waste management?" she says.

"We need to be able to provide a list of priorities to the government as well as organisations in the area, which will identify what needs to be done first, based on what residents need most."

Professor Vicziany says her initial reaction to Dharavi was that the buildings should be knocked down to make way for new housing.

But despite the appearance of the slums, she says, the area is full of hard-working people who are extremely house-proud.

"The living conditions look terrible - they are terrible, but when you go inside the homes, they are spotless," she says.

"These people are not hopeless - they are the most energetic people in the city. The women make and sell textiles and food such as papadums. They are not people picking through rubbish - they are a population crammed into a small area, surrounded by filth because there are no private amenities and no roads providing vehicle access to the area."

A survey of toilet facilities in Dharavi in 1997 revealed that there was one toilet for every 1488 people. However, 80 per cent of these mainly public toilets were unusable because of blockages, filth and disrepair. While some homes have their own facilities, these are few and far between.

"Public sanitation is certainly an area in which outside intervention could play a critical role. Better sanitation means better health and less expenditure on medicines and visits to clinics," says Professor Vicziany.

Slums such as Dharavi also have implications for engineering studies within India, she says. Courses should include the study of how poor people survive and how their knowledge of slums can be incorporated into planning processes to provide solutions for future developments.

The Dharavi project is just one of a series in Asia that Professor Vicziany is involved with through the Research Unit on Cultures and Technologies in Asia (RUCTA).

RUCTA was established in 2001 by the MAI and the UNESCO International Centre for Engineering Education and brings together expertise on Asia from Monash's faculties of Arts, Business and Economics, Engineering, Law, and Information Technology.

Members have already started research projects on urbanisation, corporate governance, environmental degradation and global responses to the eradication of mass poverty.

"The Dharavi project will have implications for other slums," Professor Vicziany says. "By 2020, most people across Asia will be living in cities - how will the cities cope?".

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