- This Is Not a Slum: What the world can learn from Dharavi
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MUMBAI—A little over half of Mumbai’s nearly 12 million residents live in communities that emerged incrementally, without guidance from the state. In these often labyrinthine neighborhoods, the clanging of machines gives way to the crowing of a cock; side-stepping a car can be followed by dodging a bull pulling a cart. In typical urban administrative parlance, these are “slums,” but such nomenclature does them a disservice. These are better described as “home-grown neighborhoods.” They often lack infrastructure, but they nonetheless provide livelihoods and affordable housing for families who don’t have any other access to the city. [End Page 19]
In these areas, a home is not just a residence. Houses double as tiny factories, shops, and hostels. This quality makes the whole area enormously productive. The international media repeatedly highlights one such famous Mumbai neighborhood, Dharavi, which attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year thanks to its frequent representation in movies and tourist guides.
Magazines and newspapers tout Dharavi’s “enterprising spirit” and its “hard-working and skilled labor force.” But the laudatory words and celebratory stories seldom highlight the specific features that make this neighborhood work and often re-inscribe Dharavi as an illegitimate urban space. And so it remains a “slum”—no matter how many jobs and lives it sustains or how hard its inhabitants work to improve their homes and streets.
Most of Dharavi’s estimated 1 million residents—from the period of its earliest demographic expansion in the 1950s to the most recent arrivals—are members of marginalized communities. Many were landless laborers or from families with very small land holdings and came to the city with little money. In terms of educational access, they were often kept out of schools in rural areas due to traditional prejudices, making it more difficult for them to integrate into a rapidly changing modern economy.
When people began to occupy Dharavi, the most important thing they had was the tenuous hold over the land they rented, either from government authorities or some political intermediary. These tiny plots became their start-up capital. People made small-scale, makeshift structures that have, over a generation, been transformed into well-constructed homes. In some cases, people had to first fill in the land they occupied, building on the area’s marshy terrain.
Ramachandra Korde, now in his 70s, talked of seeing the neighborhood grow from simple shelters made of cloth or cardboard to the brick and concrete homes that line its streets today. The biggest wave of people, he said, though, didn’t come until the end of 20th century. He told The New York Times, “After 1990, immigration was tremendous. It used to be that 100 to 300 to 400 people came to Dharavi every day. Just to earn bread and butter.”
In a 2003 documentary titled Naata about Korde’s work to resolve conflicts in the neighborhood, Korde explained Dharavi’s diversity stemmed from its ability to provide opportunities to people regardless of their background: “When the poor migrate to Mumbai from various states in India, they feel that in Dharavi, they will find shelter, some work, and food to get by. This is why Dharavi is like a mini India.”
“SLUM”: A FOUR-LETTER WORD
Even with its solidly constructed homes, the neighborhood may still look shabby, even “slummy,” to an outsider, but despite its limited civic infrastructure, Dharavi is one of the most productive parts of the city, contributing hugely to its economy. Dharavi, according to conservative estimates, produces about $500 million in exports a year.
If we can understand what makes Dharavi such a creative space, then these features can become the basis for a policy framework that can be brought to other urban areas.
We must start by challenging the negativity attached to a place like Dharavi. The most powerful way of doing this is by no longer using the world “slum,” a term that evokes backwardness.
Traditional urban villages, old municipal housing, and unplanned neighborhoods with ad hoc...