Dharavi is an enigma. Depending on how you see it, this claustrophobic community of 300,000 people sitting in the heart of Mumbai is either a filthy eyesore or a crucible of enterprise. It has both open gutters and air-conditioned leather boutiques, which is why opinion has traditionally been evenly divided on whether its inhabitants need sympathy or opportunity.
Dharavi is often called the world’s largest slum, though this sobriquet is in all probability an exaggeration. The National Geographic magazine’s recent cover story on Dharavi says that a barrio in Mexico City has four times more people while a slum in Karachi, too, is now bigger than Dharavi. But Dharavi is now in the news because of a more recent sobriquet—Asia’s largest urban renewal project. This project seeks to tear down the old slum and replace it with residential towers, industrial parks, golf courses, a sports complex and hotels. Grime is to give way to glitter. The statistics are truly mind-boggling: 300,000 people, 500 acres, 40 million sq. ft of space to be sold commercially, Rs9,000 crore, seven years— and one man championing it all since 1996.
One recent evening, I waited for Mukesh Mehta, an architect and the man whose name is most closely associated with the Dharavi redevelopment project, at one of the boundaries of the slum, not too far away from a black banner announcing a protest meeting against the redevelopment project. We moved through the clogged innards of Dharavi, and it’s clear he knows the place like the back of his hand.
Half an hour later, we are in the bar at the Grand Hyatt in Kalina. Mehta has a glass of Absolut vodka and tonic in front of him while my bronchitis forces me to stick to fresh lime soda. Damn.
“Have you read the novel Carpetbaggers?” Mehta asks me at one point of time. I haven’t, though I do know about the 1961 Harold Robbins novel whose protagonist, Jonas Cord, was loosely modelled on Howard Hughes. “One thing that Cord did when getting into a new project was to spend the first few months understanding the business. That’s why I spent six months in Dharavi meeting the people staying there and trying to understand them,” he says, partly explaining what was otherwise an inexplicable question in the midst of a chat on urban redevelopment.
During these meetings, Mehta says, he saw the slum dwellers as people striving to improve their lives. “These were not the stereotyped criminal slum dwellers, but tenacious, hard-working and aspiring people. They reminded me in many ways of my father.” Mehta’s father came to Mumbai from a small village in Gujarat, with only a few rupees in his pocket. He spent his initial years in a chawl, but later built a sprawling mansion in the Santa Cruz area, with a swimming pool and tennis courts. “My father got a break. Many of the people in Dharavi didn’t,” he says.
So how did he get involved with Dharavi? It’s a long story, he says. Mehta came back to India during the Emergency, after earning his master’s degree in architecture in the US. There was little construction activity happening at that time in India, so he got into the family steel business. The good times lasted till 1984. Then, worried at the growth of separatist movements in Punjab and Assam, he concluded that he should get out of India and create an alternate base in case the country splintered. “It was a completely wrong call,” he now admits.
In the US the second time round, Mehta got into high-end property development. “The US has been my biggest source of inspiration,” he says. That’s where he learned many lessons, big and small—that successful people should give back to society, that it is important to respect people, that one should not be late for an appointment.
Then, there was another turning point. Mehta and his brother fell out. And he came back to India in 1995. “That’s when I saw Dharavi as a redevelopment opportunity,” he says.
The project has had its fair share of critics, which is not surprising given its size and the fact that so many people are directly affected by it. The past decade has seen it weather many storms—political and popular. Part of the suspicion is understandable. Too many of the slum redevelopment projects in Mumbai—where the slum dwellers are stacked seven–storeys high in 225sq. ft apartments and the developer uses the rest of the property for commercial sale—have been scams. Many of these housing projects are as ugly as the Stalinist blocks outside Moscow and are as alienating as America’s inner cities.
Can Mehta do better in his dream project? The plans are undoubtedly impressive. The state government has put out a global tender to attract developers to rebuild Dharavi’s five sectors. The government is in charge and it has retained Mehta as a consultant. He promises global standards of construction and living. He has got the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad to retrain Dharavi’s potters and leather workers, and guide them into high-paying crafts such as ceramics. An organization of gem and jewellery exporters has agreed to set up 300 export units, each employing an average of 250 workers. Kangaroo Kids, which runs some of Mumbai’s most tony schools, will help build and manage the community’s educational requirements. A medical body will help get doctors to staff day clinics.
All this will be paid for by the 40 million sq. ft of built-up area that will be sold commercially for housing, offices and hotels. Dharavi sits in proximity to the Bandra-Kurla complex, one of Mumbai’s most sought-after business addresses and home to ICICI Bank, UTI, Citibank, the National Stock Exchange and many others. The rates here are close to Rs20,000 per sq. ft. Dharavi will have 40 million sq. ft on offer. You work out the numbers.
Mehta believes his model can be replicated elsewhere. He is already working with the state governments in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. He recently got a call from Mayawati’s people. “I told Bill Clinton that the world can be made slum-free by 2025,” says Mehta.
Perhaps Hillary can use him in the Bronx if she finds herself in the White House once again.
Name: Mukesh Mehta
Born: 1949 (Mumbai)
Education: Master of Architecture from Pratt Institute, New York. Bachelor of Architecture from M.S. University, Baroda.
Work Profile: Designed and developed property in the US. Has been the moving force behind the mega project to redevelop Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums.