Karishma Dixit
4 min readNov 29, 2020

Dharavi — Reimagine, Reboot, Redevelop

“Instead of a neighbourhood characterised by misery, I find a bustling and enterprising place, packed with small‐scale industries defying their circumstances to flourish amidst squalor. Rather than pity, I am inspired by man’s alchemic ability to thrive when the chips are down.” ‐ Simon Crerar1

Dharavi, which to some urbanites is an eyesore, strategically situated at the cross roads of the Eastern and Western Highway in the city of Mumbai, has time and again amazed us; not only as one of the largest slums in the world, but also for its celebrated resilience, the width and depth of its local industry and the sheer ambition of its residents, captured through cinema (the Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire and more recently, Gully Boy).

Most recently, it has been commended by the World Health Organisation for the community-based approach adopted by the residents which successfully contained a killer pandemic — a model that is now being replicated in various parts of the world.

Most Dharavians are probably unaware of such accolades the country and the civic body is receiving from the who’s who. But they do know that for decades, they have been hearing about prospects of their living conditions improving — greater space, improved sanitation, better schools and healthcare facilities — but 16 years have passed since the Dharavi Redevelopment Project was conceptualised and it hasn’t seen the light of day.

The recent decision of the government to re-invite bids after scrapping the bids that were submitted in late 2018 on technical grounds, will further set the project back by another couple of years.

It is, without doubt, a complex issue trying to rehabilitate 593 acres of land housing over a million people, with various land ownership rights resting with the State Government, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Railways and some individual slum dwellers. It is also culturally extremely complex aligning the interests of various communities — for example “kumbharwalas” (potters) who consider vertical development a threat to their livelihoods, people running small scale industries who anticipate increased costs could render their business unprofitable, others who fear loosing their control and clout.

But there have been instances of large scale slum redevelopments in India and worldwide where community based approaches have eliminated the sense of mistrust among stakeholders, some of which could be:

  • transfer of property rights to a common entity which has representatives of all stakeholders,
  • slum dwellers themselves conducting surveys and contributing to the development of settlement plans,
  • engaging the woman population through all stages of negotiations (they can be major influencers if childcare and hygiene issues are taken care of)
  • ensuring jobs to community labour for construction,
  • involving local NGOs and faith-based groups

Now let’s look at another aspect, which goes beyond socio-cultural factors — the economics of this mega project for developers in particular; and the real estate sector in general. One obvious concern for a developer putting in a bid for the redevelopment is the ability to offload the inventory created in the market. With inventory build-up in the city of Mumbai, it probably is no surprise that there wasn’t much interest by developers to come forward. So is the actual hinderance to this initiative, a demand-supply imbalance which could hamper the real estate sector in Mumbai?

Can therefore the current cluster-based approach be modified to that of creating a city? Create zones housing different activities and attract different sectors’ investors for each zone — one zone could house a school or university; one a hospital; one large plot could be converted to a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which will ensure creation of new jobs and employ some of the local labour; one zone could house the redeveloped slum dwellers and one could probably then look at residential and commercial real estate. In this manner, a mixed-use development could diversify risks for all the stakeholders. The civic body could take up the task of overall planning and aspects such as water supply, sewerage, common road development etc. There is a need therefore to give a completely fresh look to the issue (‘reimagine’); go back to the drawing board (‘reboot’); and then come up with a solution (‘redevelop’).

There is not a single individual in the city of Mumbai whose lives are not touched by a Dharavian — either as household help, office help, supplier of the tasty savouries that get made there, the leather bags and accessories we use; garments we wear and the list goes on. Pre-pandemic, it is estimated that Dharavi’s economy was worth a billion dollars.

The pandemic has in a way instilled a sense of urgency among the resident associations and the state machinery to align their interests. All we can hope is that the project takes off before the current government’s term end; else it risks the next government reviewing it once again given that it has always been a big election agenda.

  1. Simon Crerar, “Mumbai slum tours: Why you should see Dharavi”, The Times, May 13, 2010 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mumbai-slum-tours-why-you-should-see-dharavi-r9q0sdxm3x8
  2. Slum upgrading and urban governance: Case studies in three South East Asian cities (Habitat International) https://mypsup.org/library_files/downloads/Slum%20upgrading%20and%20urban%20governance-%20Case%20studies%20in%20three%20South%20East%20Asian%20cities.pdf