Asia's largest slum braces for the bulldozers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 February, 2007, 12:00am

600,000 residents of Dharavi in central Mumbai say they will resist huge development because it threatens their way of life

The 600,000 inhabitants of Asia's largest slum are fearful of change. They are the victims, say activists, of a plan to raze Dharavi slum in Mumbai and transform it into a 21st century 'township'.

A tender process for the development of the slum would begin within days,' said Mukesh Mehta, an architect appointed by the government to oversee the project.

A sea of corrugated iron shanties and rubbish, Dharavi sprawls across nearly two sq km of central Mumbai.

The plan for its development is the latest and most dramatic example of a conflict that is sweeping India. On one side is a government committed to economic growth and freeing up land for residential and industrial development; on the other are poor peasants and slum dwellers, fighting to preserve their way of life.

For the government, the project is an innovative solution to a shortage of land in one of the world's most expensive cities. Developers will knock down Dharavi's tiny shanties and rehouse inhabitants in seven-storey blocks, using the remaining land for commercial development.

'Dharavi will be a township for the 21st century which will attract people from all over the world,' Mr Mehta said.

But many slum dwellers, suspicious of promises they will be rehoused, say they refuse to move. 'Not a single slum dweller has given his consent,' said Arthputham Jockin, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation. 'We will fight it and fight it'.

A private-public partnership, the project, which will cost more than US$2 billion, will be funded by developers.

The government will sell the land at below market prices, on the condition that the slum dwellers are rehoused. For every square foot of slum dwellers' accommodation, developers will get 1.3 sq ft for commercial use.

They will also build amenities including schools and medical centres and industrial zones.

Reishma Rathore lives in a dilapidated one-room hut in Dharavi. In place of a front door, a heavy rag hangs over a hole in the wall, and she and her two children share one toilet with 1,140 neighbours.

Last week, she was promised a new apartment with a bathroom and kitchen, free of charge. She turned it down. 'This is mine,' she said, patting the front step of her brightly painted home.

She may not have any choice. Mumbai's Slum Development Authority, which has already redeveloped pockets of the city, rules that developers may rehouse families and develop the remaining land commercially if 70 per cent of residents agree.

In Dharavi, the same conditions apply - but the government has scrapped the 70 per cent condition. The slum will be destroyed whether inhabitants like it or not.

In Jockin's office at Dharavi, slum dwellers queued to show him letters to the government begging for accommodation. 'People are getting scared,' he said. His main objection to the scheme, he added, was that Dharavi would lose its characteristic mix of residences and businesses.

Dharavi is as squalid as any slum, with stinking open sewers, rubbish dumps and jerry-built shanties crammed into tiny, labyrinthine lanes. But there are also more than 4,500 small-scale industries, manufacturing everything from plastic belts to soap and bread.

Forty per cent of Dharavi's inhabitants worked from home, Mr Jockin said. 'To separate Dharavi's homes and businesses will cause havoc,' he said. 'But worse is to divide it into areas for the rich and the poor. It will be like Manhattan on one side and a ghetto on the other.'

Mr Mehta said there was no danger of Dharavi becoming a ghetto. 'Dharavi will be divided into five sectors and in each there will be housing for slum dwellers and more middle class buyers,' he said, sitting in his sea-front office in Bandra, an upmarket district of Mumbai.

But he added that there would be separate schools for slum dwellers and more prosperous residents; 'otherwise the slum dwellers will not find it comfortable socially'.

There are also fears that people will be made homeless when Dharavi is razed to the ground. Replacement housing will only be available to those who were living in Dharavi in 1995. No one knows how many have settled in the slum since.

Dharavi's residents were planning protests ahead of the bulldozers, Mr Jockin said. In his office, he pointed to an aerial map of Dharavi, and the two busy railways lines that run along its borders.

'When the building starts I will ask a few thousand people to spend the night sleeping on the train tracks,' he warned. 'Mumbai will be brought to a standstill.'