News & Current Affairs

August 14, 2008

Mumbai’s slum solution?

Mumbai’s slum solution?

Courtesy BBC

By Mukul Devichand
BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents


Dharavi is a bustling hive of activity and commerce

Mukesh Mehta wears a crisp shirt and tie as he picks his way past makeshift shacks and stinking open gutters in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum.

Dharavi is a dense labyrinth of dirt roads in the centre of India’s biggest and most economically important city, Mumbai (Bombay).

Estimates of its population size vary but it is likely that up to a million people live in these crowded lanes.

But now the slum faces complete demolition under an audacious plan designed by Mr Mehta.

As a wealthy architect turned property tycoon, Mr Mehta makes an unlikely development visionary. A decade ago he became a government consultant after returning to Mumbai from his career designing bespoke mansions for rich clients in Long Island, New York.

His scheme is unique because it uses India’s surging private sector to develop slums, instead of relying on government funds or international aid. It is being closely watched as a potential blueprint for a slum-free future across the developing world.

But will it offer a fair deal to the urban poor?

Win-win solution

Mukesh Mehta

Mukesh Mehta says he hopes others make money from his plans

“I’m not ashamed or embarrassed that I’m going to make money out of it,” Mr Mehta told me late last year. “In fact I hope that others do too.”

I first met him in his own sea-view mansion flat, in a salubrious part of Mumbai worlds away from the tower blocks being built for Dharavi residents.

He explained that the urge to turn a profit is what drives the scheme forward.

Private developers are being asked to demolish the low-rise slum and re-house the residents in tower blocks on the same site, rather than moving them out of the city.

But Dharavi is right next to a prime office district, and is surrounded by three important railway lines. The companies can use the plum real estate left over after they’ve built tower blocks, to build lucrative shopping malls and office blocks for the middle classes.

The poor get a home in a block in a prime location, the companies make money and Mumbai’s residents get a posh new city quarter.

Theoretically at least, everyone wins.

‘Bombay Dreams’

But Mr Mehta is facing an avalanche of opposition from slum locals.

His visits to Dharavi are an exercise in diplomacy. I watch him press flesh and bat away questions as crowds of industrial workers confront him.

Although Mumbai’s transformation is being closely modelled on Shanghai, China’s glitzy commercial capital, India’s democratic system means the demands of the slum’s myriad opposition groups cannot be ignored.

Annapa Konchikor is an affable, portly Dharavi shopkeeper who wanted to show me why he opposes the plan. So he invited me to sleep over in his home in the heart of the slum.

Dharavi pottery

The entrepreneurial spirit of Dharavi can been seen everywhere

Late at night we strolled around his local lane, alive with a sea of human bodies and the whirr of industry.

In parts of Dharavi almost every shack doubles up as a small scale industrial unit, where the residents stitch garments, recycle rubbish, make pots or handicrafts, melt scrap metal, or do just about anything else to make money.

They are taking advantage of what Mumbai is famous for in India.

Bollywood films celebrate Mumbai as a city where even the poorest migrant can “make it” in the informal slum economy if they work hard enough.

Annapa told me that he fears this aspect of slum life will be lost after redevelopment.

Self-made man

“If the government were developing Dharavi for the people who have been living here, it would be OK,” Annapa told me.

Instead he suspects the planners real aim is to serve what he call’s Mumbai’s “hi-fi” groups – in other words the burgeoning middle class of white collar workers – in pushing the poor out of the city centre.

Annapa Konchickor

Annapa Konchikor worries about the prospects for the people of Dharavi

His own family were once snake charmers who migrated from south India.

Annapa was born in Dharavi and worked as a taxi driver and security guard before saving enough to open a shop in his slum shack.

Now he is a self-made man with four concrete rooms, an air conditioner and a grandchild he sends to boarding school.

His fear is that although each slum family will get a free flat of 269 square feet, the poorest locals will find it difficult to run small scale industries high up in concrete blocks.

Winners and losers

The next morning, he took me to a block where redevelopment had already happened.

The block had problems with running water and there was a pungent smell in the stairways. But despite the dire conditions, I found middle class families had snapped up almost all of the tiny apartments.

Highrise tower blocks being built for the residents of Dharavi

Block like this are being built to house the people of Dharavi

“We bought it from some lady in a slum area, she was given it by the government,” I was told by a girl in American-flavoured English in one of the flats.

Her father, the main bread winner, was not home – he lives and works in Switzerland.

It will be illegal at first for slum-dwellers to sell their free flats. But the supporters of the demolition plans point out that eventually if they do sell, the poor stand to make a sizeable profit, despite having illegally squatted on slum land for free.

Poor country

So far the political campaigns and litigation by the slum activists have kept the bulldozers away.

The lobbying has seen Mukesh Mehta’s plan altered in several ways that benefit the poor – allotting more square feet for the free flats, and allowing more families to apply for them.

These changes have gone some way towards pacifying the scheme’s opponents. The demolition is set to start soon.

But even if many of Dharavi’s current residents profit from the plan, it remains unclear whether the floods of migrants who still pour in from India’s countryside will find a place to live in the redeveloped Mumbai.

Despite its economic growth, India is still a country where hundreds of millions of people live below the bread line and for many families, moving to the big cities is the only option.

City planners seem to have accepted that building a world-class financial capital is more important than catering to this influx – although few are bold enough to say this openly.

“We firmly believe that this is likely to be the way not just for Dharavi, but for the rest of India’s slums and the world’s slums,” says Mukesh Mehta.

After all, he says, decades of aid and socialist planning have done little to remove slums. “Give me a better solution,” he demands. “Until then you might want to accept this one.”

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