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Designing Dharavi: Improving Life in Mumbai's Largest Slum


Contributed by guest writer, Augusta Dwyer

It is difficult not to be daunted by Dharavi. Mumbai’s largest slum – indeed the largest slum in all of Asia – many taxi drivers outside the train station at Mahim junction don’t even want to go there. Finally one agrees, negotiating the narrow streets around the station then onto a highway crossing the noisome mangrove swamp lining the Mithi River, its name, sweet, an insult to its present state.

When he was a boy, Santosh Sabat could see the train station from his family’s shanty house, and there was open space all around. People would put down stones or lengths of lumber to cross its streams and wetlands.

By now, however, 600,000 people live in Dharavi. It is packed with all kinds of shops and small businesses, 62 pongal houses, where legions of young men pay a few rupees a month to sleep, Mumbai’s largest recycling industry, which employs 5000 workers, leatherworks, potteries, and the infernal little place I see when I first emerge at T Junction, a murky room filled with a huge mound of discarded shoes and sandals, where three women toil in the suffocating heat, franticly rubbing and cleaning them for resale. In the dual-front attack of sun and desolation on this mean little lane, their ill-paid work -- and the life that must call for this -- seems as bleak as any could possibly be.

Santosh, 37, has lived here all his life; he brought his wife here from Orissa, and his two sons, Sagar, 11, and Samir, 7, were born here. Four years ago, after losing his job at a textile factory, he purchased a cable installation business. He earns good money by Mumbai standards, between 10,000 and 12,000 rupees a month, but not enough to find better lodging than what he has now, a two-storey structure typical of many Dharavi slum houses, plastered brick on the first floor and corrugated metal sheeting forming the walls and roof of the second.

But he has always had an interest in social work, he says, “ever since I was a child, so that’s how, when people were talking about National Slum Dwellers Federation, I joined. This was in 1991,” he adds.

By now Santosh is on the committee of a local Federation society representing160 families, and part of a movement of the poor with two million members across India. “I saw the work being done by the NSDF and that’s why I thought that, by joining, our lives would improve,” he says simply.

Improvement is also on the mind of the state government these days. India’s economy is growing at a pace rivalling that of China, and Mumbai, India’s largest city, is at its forefront, seeing rapid growth in its financial, banking and IT sectors. As the entire metropolis expands ever further north, Dharavi, a district once on the city outskirts, now lies at its very heart.

Originally a village of Kolis, or fisher folk, living along the banks of Mahim Creek, decades of migration and forced relocations of slum dwellers from other parts of the city have filled in the swampy land and carpeted it with a map of contiguous settlements, called nagars. Dharavi, as journalist Kalpana Sharma wrote, “is today an amazing mosaic of villages and townships from all over India.”

Santosh’s home now sits within a dense maze of lanes and alleys, down a corridor no more than two feet wide, a small flag-stoned space with lime-green walls, lit with a fluorescent light and filled with women and children. His wife Geetangeli wastes no time in switching on a large, square fan and sending Sagar, just back from school and still in his uniform, out for cold bottles of Coke.

The fan seems to take up an absurd amount of space, as does the large plastic barrel of water. A bunk runs across one wall, wedged beneath a staircase and a shelf loaded with electronics: a television, a sound system and a shrine lit with multi-colored fairy lights. While it has an upstairs loft, this has been lent to friends, another family of four, which means eight people make do in these two little rooms.

With spaces the size of a phone booth for cooking and for bathing, I can picture how Geetanjeli’s life in here is one of continually manoeuvring herself around bulky objects, children and visitors. Extending an arm through the doorway, she can easily touch the wall of the next building. The tap outside works for two hours a day, and the public toilet, while not far, is noxious and filthy. Garbage is simply thrown into any available open space outside, mixing its rotting odours with that of the running sewers. But worst were last year’s monsoon floods, and she points to Samir. “The sewage water came in higher than his head,” she says.


Yet for all its chaotic tangle of urban poverty, Dharavi is a slum with major real estate value. Thanks to Mumbai’s financial vibrancy, it now lies next to one of its most sought-after commercial districts, the Bhandra-Kurla Complex, and there are big plans to “rehabilitate” it.

The state government wants private developers to do that, the carrot being the so-called sales options: for every square metre of housing built and given to slum dwellers like the Sabat family, they can construct 1.33 square metres of luxury apartments to sell on Mumbai’s booming open market.

The city’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority has stipulated that apartments for slum dwellers need only be 225 square feet in size, with walls ten feet high. And these may be slotted like rabbit cages into multi-story blocks, like those that dot the entire city, usually surrounded by the shacks of slum dwellers who provide an array of cheap services to their more affluent neighbours.

But while these kinds of buildings are fine for the wealthy, says Sundar Burra, “they are a disaster for the poor. They cannot afford to maintain elevators, or the cleaning, or the electricity needed to pump the water so high.” Because of the expense and distance from work, it is not unusual for some to sell out and move back to the street.

Sundar works at the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, better known as SPARC, the NGO that supports the efforts of the NSDF and its sister movement, Mahila Milan, to obtain better housing for their many members. Along with their struggle for tenure rights, members of both organizations have learned to formulate their own strategies for achieving housing that meets their various needs. It was the women pavement dwellers of Mahila Milan who first started designing their own flats and buildings, as the city threatened to demolish their pavement huts.

Laxmi Naidu, who lived with her family on a sidewalk in Nagpada for 22 years, recalls how she and other women in her community first came up with the design, actually measuring it out with their saris. “In each house on the pavement, there are two or three generations living,” she says, “so when we knew we were going to be shifted, we asked, ‘how can we stay together?’ We didn’t have enough space for all the people in 225 square feet, so we decided to have another floor.”

Mahila Milan even held a street exhibit of this design, inviting members of government, local press and slum dwellers from all over the city to attend. Soon, the NSDF was holding such exhibitions in cities all over India.


Because of their 14-foot height and single tall window, the Mahila Milan flats recently constructed in the district of Mankhurd are well ventilated, bright, and less dependent on electric fans for cooling. Their loft spaces add extra room without seeming crowded, and include small spaces for bathing. But toilets are placed at the end of each of the building’s four floors, and kept clean by the two or three families who use each one.

The NSDF has put up three buildings in Dharavi as well. These also include the loft idea, as well as wide outer corridors, but no running water or toilets inside the apartments, decisions made by the slum dwellers themselves. They are wearily used to both electricity and water shortages, and wanted to avoid having to climb several sets of stairs with heavy cans of water. And the corridors allow families to sit outside their flats and socialize with neighbours. In a country where inter-religious strife has been deadly, maintaining good relations between Muslim and Hindu neighbours is crucial.

Recently, students at the Komla Rajevi Vidananaya Institute for Architecture have also become interested in Dharavi. They began their project by doing something developers never do: talking to the people who are going to be re-housed. The result is a slew of innovative ideas, combining living and work spaces, and even including environmental benefits like water harvesting, that challenge the Goliath of high-density housing.

One student has created a multi-storey building with wide outer corridors connected by ramps, what KRVIA professor Ninad Pandit calls “spaceways in the sky,” to replicate the street. “There are certain parts of Dharavi where various sorts of related economic activity goes on in several houses,” he goes on, “rather than just one house.” So the apartments can be modified, allowing neighbours sharing a particular manufacturing process to open joining walls on one floor, while maintaining a secluded living space on another. Communal open space on various levels allows women to preserve an afternoon tradition, getting together to do embroidering.

Another design lifts the building right up over an open plaza, high enough so that, as Ninad puts it, “you don’t feel you are under a stilted building.” Along with space for socializing and children’s games – cricket being a bit of an obsession in Mumbai -- the plaza could also be used for another prevalent Dharavi trade, drying poppadums.

In an area called Social Nagar, scores of khumbars, or potters, ply their craft, and one of the KRVIA’s most interesting designs focuses on them. This student looked at the existing houses, with their living space at one end and a place to make the pots at the other. The designer “took the psychology of the long house,” says Ninad, “and put these long strips throughout the building.” These are then staggered, so that each has an additional open terrace on which to make pots, which are fired in a community kiln. Situated near a busy rail station, commercial premises would take up ground floors, but an inner ramp departs from the sidewalk to weave through the complex itself to more micro-business units. “So it leads you somewhere,” said Ninad, “it’s not a dead end. People will actually use it.”

But it is difficult to keep him off the politics of the development. So far, he says, there is no indication of how increased traffic, the need for more schools and clinics, flooding problems and other complications will be dealt with. Ostensibly, they are to be left on the shoulders of developers. Tenders will be decided based on how much “bonus” – the percentage of floor-space sales profit -- the developer will hand back to the government. The question for the government, he remonstrates, “is why are you looking at it as a tool to earn money? You’ve got 60 per cent of the population living on six to eight percent of your land and you still want to make money off them?”

While the KRVIA exhibited the student designs to the public last month, authorities have yet to decide on whether their smart ideas will be incorporated into Dharavi’s future.
Yet the template is there, and it works. As the National Slum Dwellers Federation has repeatedly proven, housing the poor works best, costs less and is better for the environment, when the poor themselves have a say in what is being built.


Augusta Dwyer is currently working on a book about the success and growth of grassroots social movements in Third World countries, and what they can teach us.

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