“Mumbai’s Shadow City,” by Mark Jacobson, tells the story of the largest slum in India, Dharavi, located in Mumbai. This slum serves as an example of urban planning in poor countries, and illustrates the problems that come along with it.
Dharavi is resident to one million people, who squeeze into an astonishingly dense area of 18,000 people per acre. It is also one of the most diverse places in India, due mostly to its history of being converted from a swamp for fishermen into a residential area. People from all around India moved into the slum over time, making it full of regional and cultural differences. One of the biggest issues in this slum appears to be hygiene and access to resources, for many places are without plumbing and electricity. Additionally, the very low ratio of bathrooms to residents makes this slum both unhygienic and very public. Due to the lack of resources provided by the government, a “land mafia” has arisen in the slum, offering to provide the missing water and electricity to the residents who need them. This clearly illegal activity is the result of the government’s inability to provide the people with what they need; as a result, residents (both legal and illegal) are at the whims of these mafia bosses for their basic necessities.
Despite obvious density and resource problems, Dharavi has spirit and emotion, and retains a deep connection to its residents. This is due to its long history and the presence of several generations who have all grown up in the same town, many times in the same house. For example, the potters, known as the Kumbhar, have garnished respect from all of Dharavi’s residents over time, and have established themselves as a cultural phenomenon of the region. Other dwellers have given character to the slum through “recycling” efforts; i.e. melting down materials, such as plastics, found in garbage for a variety of other purposes. The region is generally well-known for its spirituality, in addition to its geography, and has come to be one of the most important areas for low-income residents in India.
Dharavi is important from an urban planning perspective because it presents a problem between the desires of the government and the will of the people. Recently, the Indian government has made plans to destroy all of the current “informal housing” in the slum and erect new high-rise apartments that would allow all residents to have 225 square feet, in addition to a private bathroom. In addition to this government housing, private companies will be allowed in to build more luxurious housing for those who can afford it. The theory behind these changes in Dharavi is that India cannot become the world economic power it is seemingly destined for if at the center of its financial capital, Mumbai, is a slum with a million residents. It is not only an eyesore, says the government, but an inhibitor to the rise of India as a superpower. Additionally, Dharavi seems like a good place for developments because of its geography – it is located in the center of Mumbai, adjacent to two rail lines, and is very clsoe to the BKC, a “global corporate enclave.” Essentially, the government is trying to create a middle class in this currently low-class region. In the past, India has neglected to create middle-income housing, and restricted its residents to upper-class and lower-class housing. Therefore, as many of the successful residents are economically above living in a slum, middle-income housing can foster a middle class in Mumbai, where it is desperately needed.
While these plans are seemingly wise for an area overridden by hygiene and crowding problems, many of its residents are against it for economic and emotional reasons. For example, in the article, we are introduced to Amit Singh, a resident of Rajendra Prasad Chawl. Amit is against the plans for redeveloping Dharavi, mostly because his family has benefited from its conditions – they own a 400 square foot home (larger than the home he would get under the new plans), and run a business from it that earns them over 1,000 rupees a month. The family has no desire to change their “informal housing” situation, and no economic incentive either. Others, such as Tank Ranchhod Savdas, believe that Dharavi in its current state is actually more American (and, therefore, better in the eyes of many Indians) than it would be if reconstructed. Dharavi has been extremely good to his family, allowing them to own a 3,000 square foot home and a bustling pottery business/workshop. His experience stresses that hard work and success can, in fact, lead to a better lifestyle, even in the slums of Mumbai. Other people are against the project for the simple reason that Dharavi has been their home for so long. It is filled with history and culture, and makes up a big part of who the people are. Some, like the potters, even believe that it is their land, not the government’s to do with it what it wants. Although the government of India has denied these claims to ownership, the example emphasizes the degree to which the people are connected to their home and workplace.
Other concerns about the project to rebuild Dharavi stem from negligent management of previously rebuilt parts of India. Many places that have undergone such procedures leave with nothing but dilapidated buildings, many times sans electricity and water, and hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Even if the residents move back into their homes, the government’s incompetence forces them to go back to their “land mafia” for the necessities they need, but are once again without. The planner of the current project in Dharavi, Mr. Mehta, may also be seen as incapable or naive. For example, when asked where people would park when coming to a cricket game in what will be a 120,000-person stadium, Mehta was stumped. It seems this management is the kind that dreams big, but may not have its feet on the ground concerning the realities of the space. The disconnect between the Americanized Mehta and the rest of the Dharavi community has also led to a distrust of the man. How can someone unrelated to an urban space tell its residents what is good for them? The lack of connection Mehta has with Dharavi leaves him unable to empathize with its residents, perhaps. He may never know what it feels like to lose a home that encompasses so many people and businesses, and that has been around for so many generations. It is this sticking point that makes Dharavi special, and irreplaceable in the eyes of many people.
The example of urban planning in poor countries set by Dharavi highlights what is sure to be a problem in any part of the world – the fight between the government and its vision, and the will of the people. Countries often times seek to improve certain areas without ever thinking what it might be doing to the community at large. This can be witnessed here in New York, where the debate on Harlem gentrification is a hot one. People will always feel close to their homes, and be hesitant to make such drastic changes. However, it is important to also consider the manner in which these changes are made. For a place like Dharavi, where hundreds of thousands of people will be moved into likely inefficient and incomplete homes, change can be harder. The government’s reputation is bad concerning this policy, and certainly needs reorganization. However, for areas that have proper organization, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity, change may be welcome. Of course, this is much easier when the economic benefits of such change are easy to see. Even so, an unwilling people make urban planning a much more difficult challenge. If home is where the heart is, the battle to redevelop home may prove to be longer and tougher than once thought.