Mumbai: It started a decade ago. A golf-loving architect who made swanky homes in New York’s suburbs sauntered into the office of the then-ruling Shiv Sena party and demanded a “big rehabilitation project that no one wanted to touch.” The Sena gave him Dharavi.
Inside Dharavi, self-described “con man-turned-community worker” S.G. James can’t bother with logistics and says he “just wants to fight for a better deal for Dharavi residents—a bigger house.”
His gated, two-storey home looms over the shanties below, obviously the richest house on the street. On his terrace, the sky parts into strips of blue formed by high-voltage power lines between towers. Dragging deeply on his Gold Flake cigarette, he gets pensive: “We may be squatters, but we made Dharavi what it is. We must have a share of the money that the builders are making.”
The politicians, too, smell opportunity in this teeming slum. On the fringes of Dharavi, the back and forth, the uncertainty, the countless versions of Dharavi’s future have been a political bonanza for Dhansukh Parmar, busy plotting his own makeover into the voice of all potters in Kumbharwada, the potters’ village of Dharavi. Proud to be the only Gujarati Shiv Sena branch leader in Mumbai, he plans to run in the next election with a simple message: Vote for me and I will protect your homes.
Papads put out for drying in Dharavi’s back alleys, which have become a hub of small businesses (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
Beyond being a vital vote bank, Dharavi has emerged as an important issue. Last month, Shiv Sena leaders descended on Dharavi to change course and position on the project. Annoyed that the Congress government was milking favour through promises of a new Dharavi, the right-wing Sena switched role from conceiver of redevelopment to resister.
Now, all the pushing, the posturing, the politicking may kill the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.
It seems the various interest groups—the squatters, developers, owners, urbanologists and politicians—have a stake in the many versions of the future of Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum. Each has a different version of development, a different perspective on how to convert this valuable land into a vibrant business district in the heart of Mumbai, a starting point for sweeping changes in a city where creaky infrastructure always seems close to collapse.
But as the city explodes—the United Nations predicts Mumbai will become the world’s second largest city in 10 years—the only common ground found among the diverse voices is in their collective question: What’s in it for me?
This year, when 45% of the work should have been done, even demolition has not begun. For a decade, the government has persuaded residents to allow it to flatten the existing slums. In return, the state offered every displaced family a 225 sq. ft apartment in high rises. But the residents, mostly squatters with no legal rights to the land, believe that they built Dharavi and so, have earned a greater share of the pie.
A potter at his house. Vested interests may kill the redevelopment plan for Asia’s?biggest?slum (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
No doubt, the profits or potential for them are great. But so is the confusion. Some estimate that land alone to be worth $10 billion (around Rs40,000 crore) and depending on whom you talk to, anywhere from 57,000 to 90,000 families live on it. The project plans are based on the first number. But if the second number is true, the project will have to go back to the drawing board.
In an even worse doom-and-gloom scenario, if political parties cannot find a meeting ground on how much compensation space to give the slum dwellers, the project may be scrapped entirely.
Frustrated by the political interference, T. Chandrashekar, who spearheaded the project, is expected to resign later this month. He didn’t answer calls for comment, but people close to him confirmed that the executive officer of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) is stepping down. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Aware of the gold mine their homes have become, residents are caught between builders, government, politicians and their own aspirations and don’t know in whom to put their faith.
A little room
In Kumbharwada, the potters’ village at the fringe of Dharavi, brothers partition the house when they marry; children are born into both families and the trade; sons marry and they add a mezzanine floor for the new couple and the entire neighbourhood dotes on all the half-clad grandchildren playing amid the pots in the kilns.
“During the day, the house is covered in clay and pots. At night we move them to the side and sleep,” said Kishore Ranchod Chauhan, who lives and works with 20 others in the house that has belonged to the family for four generations. It was leased to the family for 99 years under the Vacant Land Tenant Act.
For now, the place, albeit small and dark, no windows, only one door, is rightfully his. His cousins work on their pots and tempers are frayed; sweat trickles down arms and clings to shirts while a noisy fan whirs without really beating the humidity. His home has room for everyone, but no place for privacy—the community bears witness to everything. “Even this is too small. How do they expect us to fit in a 225 sq. ft flat?” demands Chauhan, lifting his five-year-old nephew off the ground.
Even the squatters, who live in wretched, waste-strewn hovels, don’t mind waiting. Alishamma Suthar, 65, came with her husband and two children from a small village in Andhra Pradesh and spent her life as a construction worker; building homes for others while living in makeshift huts before squatting in Dharavi.
Fifteen years ago, she bought this house for Rs3,000: a cramped room where her daughter and three-month-old granddaughter now sleep. A little door brings in little light but many smells from the street. Like most other homes, it has no bathroom.
So every morning, under the cover of nothing but a fading night, she hikes to the open ground 10 minutes away. “These days, they padlock that too. So if I have to go, we have to go to one toilet that everyone shares. You should see the lines, oh God,” she said. “You go at seven, your turn will come by 10. In between you will see fighting over who came first—women, tearing each other’s hair.”
She says a home fit for human habitation cannot come soon enough. But even so, if there is a chance that her grandchildren can have a bigger house, say 400 sq. ft, she is willing to wait a few more years. “After all, families only expand,” she explained, admiring the baby next to her.
Residents’ bigger concern is the fate of the small businesses that have mushroomed in the back alleys of Dharavi. Local entrepreneurs have converted it into a hub: one million idlis leave here each day to be eaten by people across the city; and these entrepreneurs ply the city with “homemade” papads, chaklis and other savoury snacks made in the open by the sewers, or in 10-by-10 rooms where the air hangs still with the stench of oil and haze of flour.
On mezzanine floors of tiny hutments, where the ceiling is so low that one can only sit, tailors hunch over intricate zari work, stitching glittering laces on fine chiffon that look regal and oddly out of place in their hands.
And while these businesses tell a story of grit in the face of hardship, a tale of entrepreneurship and success, very few businesses pay taxes and certainly don’t offer their employees humane working conditions. Reports of deaths and child labour have hounded Dharavi for a long time and last November, the Mumbai police rescued 50 children from small zari and leather sweatshops here.
Spoiling for a fight
“This is our whole life,” defends Raju Korde, a political worker and member of the Communist Party of India, who started the Dharavi Bachao Andolan, or the Save Dharavi Movement.
Korde, who owns a mobile shop, a printing business, and has a stake in a local bank, insists that livelihoods have to be protected: “We have set upour lives here. People have made a living here. They have nothing else.”
When he began running the Dharavi Times newspaper, he did not realize it would make him the leader of a movement and bring journalists from all over the world to his door trying to understand Dharavi. The exposure has helped raise his status in the party from a worker to leader. Last month brought coverage in The Economist magazine. “I interviewed Mukesh Mehta. I studied his plans, and realized it was anti-people. So I decided to mobilize people against it,” he says.
In private, Korde says he realizes that these are Dharavi’s final days: “This plan will be implemented. And it should, because development is good.”
But only if he gets what he wants, he adds. “If I can get them 400 sq. ft, instead of 225, then it is good.”
All other slum rehabilitation buildings in the city provide only 225 sq. ft apartments. Dharavi is different because it has one million people and, quite practically speaking, most of them vote. Space is an intensely human problem that resonates with every Mumbaikar, and is an issue that poll-bound parties cannot ignore.
Last month, Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray threatened the Congress in a rally at Dharavi: “We will not allow laying of a single brick in Dharavi if the residents did not get 400 sq. ft home instead of the proposed 225 sq. ft.”
In true Thackeray style, he issued a deadline: eight days. He gave the state government the deadline to draft a new blue print for the project.
That was 23 days ago. There has been no new draft.
But the rally rattled the government. Last week, in a closed-door meeting, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh asked for feasibility studies and see if there is any way to meet the 400 sq. ft demand.
Trying to appease everyone will be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” a person closely involved in negotiations said, on the condition of anonymity. Naming the official may jeopardize ongoing negotiations, but he said everyone cannot have 400 sq. ft. To do so, he says, would make the project unviable and compromise quality, and “after all this, Dharavi will remain Dharavi.”
Rahul Chandran in New Delhi contributed to this story.