Makeover pangs grip Dharavi as it readies to redevelop

Adani Group has won the tender for the long-delayed project to redevelop Dharavi with the bid of  ₹5,069 crore.
Adani Group has won the tender for the long-delayed project to redevelop Dharavi with the bid of 5,069 crore.

Summary

The world’s largest slum will go into redevelopment. What does it mean for its residents and businesses?

MUMBAI : In the last week of November, Adani Properties Pvt. Ltd, an Adani Group company, won the bid to carry out what could be the world’s largest urban renewal project: the redevelopment of Dharavi.

Asia’s largest slum, situated in the heart of India’s financial capital of Mumbai, Dharavi is spread across 259 hectares. It is home to nearly one million people and thousands of commercial units with an estimated turnover of $1 billion. The plans to redevelop Dharavi have been mooted since 2004 but they have fallen through largely because of the scale, magnitude and complexity of the project.

Now, billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani’s group has won the tender for the long-delayed project with the bid of 5,069 crore. The project, to be completed over a period of 17 years, is estimated to cost 20,000 crore.

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The news has been met with hope, anxiety, scepticism and resistance in the sprawling slum.

Rekha Gayakwad, 45, who has lived in Dharavi for 27 years, said she was delighted to hear that the slum is going to be redeveloped. “Our life is done but at least our kids should get a better life," she said. “We have been hearing about Dharavi’s redevelopment for years. People have died waiting for it to happen. I hope it works out this time."

Rekha lives with her two children and husband in a cramped 60 square feet apartment, which doesn’t even have a toilet – the family has to go out to use the common one. Her daughter is 22 and son is 16. “The kids also need space when they grow up," she said. “But for us, our kitchen, hall and bedroom are the same."

A narrow alley runs perpendicular to Rekha’s home, in which the residents wash their vessels and clothes. The home is covered in off-white tiles and has an ageing refrigerator against a wall. The cooking stove is located parallel to it, leaving a sliver of space for the person to cook. At a time, a maximum of four people can squeeze in on the floor to have lunch or dinner. “We can’t have guests over," lamented Rekha. “We can never host a gathering or a party. People find excuses to not visit us."

Rekha’s neighbours echoed her feelings. One of them added that the young men in Dharavi find it difficult to get married. “Who would send their daughter to live in a place like this?" asked Rekha. “A redevelopment project will do us a lot of good. A bigger apartment and an attached toilet will improve our lives."

If the project goes through, Rekha and residents like her will get an apartment of 350 square feet plus fungible, which will total up to 400 square feet. Fungible floor space is the additional floor area developed, over what is set by the government. A formal approval from the state government is awaited.

While residents in Dharavi can’t wait for the project to work out, people with commercial interests are anxious.

‘Don’t want to move away’

There are thousands of industries and single room factories employing lakhs of people. According to an official survey conducted in 2008, there are about 13,000 commercial units, which would have substantially risen in the last 14 years. The industries include pottery, leather, textile, plastic recycling, and small restaurants, among others. Many workers live where they work, and so are wondering what might happen to their livelihoods.

Mohammad Kaish Ansari, 50, is among them.

As a labourer, he makes bags for women in a single room unit above his apartment. A steep, rickety ladder leads up to the congested room, where he works with nothing but a tiny table fan providing some semblance of ventilation. “I am worried I would lose my livelihood during the redevelopment project," he said. “I have been here for 25 years."

He sells 80-100 bags a month making 200 behind each one. “This is all I know," he added. “It would be reassuring if someone gave us some clarity about what is going to happen to us."

The anxiety is even more among bigger businesses.

Jitendra Shinde of Leather Goods Manufacturing Association, Dharavi, said there are at least 200,000 people dependent on various leather-related industries. “Dharavi is a hub for leather," he said. “People make goods that are exported and sold locally as well. There are over 200 boutiques of leather selling different kinds of products. Dharavi produces products worth 500 crore every month. It is located at the centre of Mumbai and very convenient for business. We don’t want to move away from here."

‘Won’t brush them away’

SVR Srinivas, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Dharavi Redevelopment Project, the planning authority for the redevelopment, said that the commercial units will be suitably rehabilitated. “Dharavi is the brownest of the brownfield projects," he added. “It is an extremely complex project and we are aware of it. Each of the industries would need a solution of its own and we are in the process of detailing it. A project of this scale and complexity can’t succeed without consulting the community and taking them into confidence."

Srinivas admitted there will be disturbance to livelihoods during construction but the authorities have come up with something unprecedented. “For five years, whatever state goods and services tax (SGST) they are going to pay will be reimbursed to them," he added. “That will ensure they are not disturbed during the redevelopment process and their cash flow will be intact."

For industries like leather or plastic recycling that are hazardous and cause pollution, Srinivas said that incentives will be given to them to move towards cleaner technologies. “We will deal with it in a multi-prong way," he said. “Dharavi is a bustling economy. But it has a serious shortcoming of no security or defined rights to its workers. We need to look at that too."

Raju Korde, who heads the Dharavi Redevelopment Committee, made up of residents, said the redevelopment project has a cut-off date of 1 January 2000. Whoever has settled in Dharavi after that would be ineligible according to the tender. “It will devastate the lives of 30-35% people of Dharavi," Korde said.

Many of the industries that operate from the slum are technically illegal, which means the residents stand to lose their home as well livelihood if the project goes through. Srinivas said the authorities will “look after them and address their concerns too". “We won’t just brush them away," he said.

Korde wants people of Dharavi to get priority once the place is remodelled. “The employment in Dharavi may change its shape or form," he said. “Once new industries come up, our youngsters should get priority in employment. Once new schools come up, our kids should get preference in admission. There should be no doubt that the project is for the betterment of the people of Dharavi and not Adani."

Four tenders, one battle

The redevelopment plans had its twists and turns.

The Maharashtra government has so far issued four tenders for Dharavi since first mooting the plan. The official survey was carried out through an organization called Mashal in 2007-08. The subsequent year, the tenders were floated. However, there was no response from developers. The second tender was issued in 2016, which did not get any response either. “There were no takers for the project because it is a very complex and risky project for investors," said Srinivas.

In 2018, the then chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, decided to look at Dharavi’s redevelopment files from 2004. In early 2019, he floated an international tender and UAE based Seclink Technologies emerged as the top bidder. Interestingly, the company it outbid was Adani’s. But it did not go through.

After Seclink won the bid, the state government decided to add a railway land near Dharavi to the project. It was decided that the state would pay 800 crore to acquire the land from the Railways and use it for rehabilitation of slum-dwellers.

The advocate general at the time, Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, advised the state government to, therefore, cancel the existing tender and issue a fresh one because the railway land was not incorporated in the original tender.

The general elections of 2019 were looming large and then, the state of Maharashtra went to polls, at the end of which Fadnavis was no longer the chief minister. In August 2020, Uddhav Thackeray, the new chief minister of the state, cancelled the 2018 tender, accepting the advice of the advocate general.

In December 2020, Seclink filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court, where it reportedly said that the state government “stymied the project by delaying the issuance of letter of award". By July 2022, Thackeray was no longer the chief minister— Fadnavis was back in power after ousting Thackeray and forming a government with rebel MLAs who were earlier part of the Thackeray-led government. Seclink has now sought to cancel the fresh tender issued in October 2022. On 16 December 2022, the high court accepted the petition and asked the state government to respond by 12 January.

In late November, Adani Properties outbid DLF Ltd and bagged the project to rebuild 259 hectares of prime land in Mumbai. The Adani Group, which is currently not a big player in the real estate business, will immediately be among the top Mumbai builders with this project.

The next steps

Once the formal approval comes from the state government, Srinivas said, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) will be formed with 500 crore, out of which the government will invest 100 crore and the Adani Group will invest the rest. Shortly after that, the Adani Group will further invest the bid amount of 5,069 crore and the project will commence.

Explaining how this redevelopment project is different from the earlier ones, Srinivas said that the earlier projects were developer driven and the government was not involved. “Now, the government will be there on the SPV board of directors," he said. “Even the chairman will be from the government. With an official support agreement, the state has fully backed this project, unlike the earlier ones."

Once the project starts, the SPV will carry out several activities in parallel. “There will be another survey; we will clear the land; construct rehabilitation tenements and chalk out a masterplan, which will be a blueprint of the project," said Srinivas.

“The earlier plans did not include an SGST cushion to the industries. But the big difference is that the earlier project did not include ineligible people. This time, we have recognised the ineligible people and we realize they need to be accommodated."

The ‘ineligible’ people are of two kinds: those who settled in Dharavi after 1 January 2000. And those who live above the ground floor. “Any construction above the ground floor is illegal in Dharavi," informed Srinivas.

For now, these assurances haven’t calmed those who live in floors constructed above the ground floor.

Pipesh Pandey, 29, runs a stationary store right across the municipal school in Dharavi. He is busy selling pencils, erasers and notebooks to students returning home after school. Right above the store is his house where he lives with his family.

“My grandfather arrived here five decades ago," he said. “We have been here ever since. This city and Dharavi has given us everything. I am not against development. But I hope we don’t end up devastated at the end of it."

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