Home >Opinion >Online-views >Opinion | India’s failure to address its urban slum problem

Dharavi is shorthand for the challenges and complexities of Indian urbanization. Various attempts over the decades to redevelop the slum occupying prime real estate in the heart of Mumbai have foundered on those complexities. Last week, the Maharashtra government signed off on the latest initiative: A special purpose vehicle with 80% private and 20% government stake to redevelop Dharavi as a whole rather than in separate sub-clusters as previously envisioned. If it is to make any headway, it must take on board past lessons.

Slum redevelopment is something of a Rorschach test. At one end of the spectrum are the Jane Jacobs maximalists -who take the urban studies pioneer’s credo of community-based urban planning and activism to an incoherent extreme. The fetishization of the favelas of Brazil or of Dharavi is unhelpful. The latter is undoubtedly a marvel of India’s informal economy. Concrete numbers are hard to come by but, by most estimates, half-a-million people or so live in the 230 hectares the slum occupies. A vast number and range of micro and small enterprises, ranging from leather and textiles to recycling, have an annual turnover in the $1 billion range.

All of this, however, is as much a mark of state failure as it is of Dharavi residents’ ingenuity. The opportunity cost in a land-constrained city like Mumbai, population density, crumbling or non-existent infrastructure and public health challenges all mean that Dharavi, as it exists now, is a problem.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘culture of poverty’ scolds. Those who bought into the theory—propounded by anthropologist Oscar Lewis and his ilk—that the poor have social and cultural characteristics that make them responsible for perpetuating their poverty were responsible for ruinous urban policies around the 1960s and 1970s. This was when the favoured approach to slum upgrading was to demolish them and relocate residents to public housing on the outskirts of the city. This has resulted in urban blight and ghettoization in ‘the projects’—public housing.

India has flirted with such policies as well. From the 1950s through the 1970s, forced demolition and relocation was common in various states. The Maharashtra government’s Maharashtra Vacant Lands Act 1975 was particularly draconian. Such policies ignore basic economic logic. Internal migration is a driver of growth and development, particularly in an economy like India’s where a large chunk of the rural population is seasonally employed in agriculture. More, urban India’s growth is built on the back of cheap labour in everything from construction to domestic work. Various combinations of rent control, opaque and distorted land markets, stifling regulation and laughably low floor space indexes have resulted in a severe lack of affordable housing in India’s premier cities. Slums are the natural outcome. Demolition policies degrade urban economies.

Subsequent policies took a different tack. For instance, the World Bank-funded Slum Upgradation Programme in 1985 was more inclusive, looking to lease slum land to cooperative groups of slum dwellers, along with loans for housing improvements. The Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, rolled out in Maharashtra in 1995 under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, looked to bring private developers on board. The idea was that if they built in situ pucca housing for residents of slums like Dharavi, they could develop the rest as they pleased. The 2004 Dharavi Redevelopment Project took this a step further. Under it, private developers would rehouse Dharavi inhabitants in 300 square foot houses in apartment towers.

None of them have been successful. There are many hurdles, both major and minor. The lack of adequate data and land titles in Dharavi and other slums meant expensive, time-consuming delays were common. Failure to take slum dweller representatives on board meant that the informal economic networks underlying Dharavi’s economy would be disrupted by the redevelopment. So would the community networks that fill the gaps left by missing social safety nets. Lack of common standards meant that the housing built for slum dwellers was often of execrable quality. As for the problem of slum dwellers selling or leasing the houses and returning to their previous housing, poor quality, unaffordable maintenance costs and disrupted networks often had a role to play here.

There is no one model that will deliver success in Dharavi and other slums in Indian cities. Much depends on local economic, political and social factors. Something like Thailand’s Ban Makong project where infrastructure subsidies and loans were channelled directly to slum communities might be impractical in slums where the residents are not sufficiently organized. Or there is Indonesia’s Kampung Improvement Programme which has implemented a policy of upgrading physical infrastructure and allowing slum dwellers to build on that for socioeconomic improvement. This wouldn’t work in those Indian cities where governance quality is poor; it would allow municipalities to abandon their responsibilities.

What is clear, however, is that unless the new redevelopment plan takes Dharavi’s residents on board and addresses the socioeconomic fallout of relocation, it will be unlikely to succeed.

Is this attempt to redevelop Dharavi likely to succeed? Tell us at

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