Largest slum is prized real estate

Asia’s largest slum sprawled over an area of 144 hectares and a population of a million is being redeveloped. Located on prime land with prices of real estate rivalling New York and Tokyo, from an eyesore the slum is all set to get a makeover. Shiv Kumar traces the evolution of Dharavi from a tiny fishing hamlet to a much sought after city property

With ambitious plans for its makeover, Dharavi might not look like this any more
With ambitious plans for its makeover, Dharavi might not look like this any more

LONG before some politician thought of naming the road after his long dead ancestor, migrants who made Dharavi their home came up with a practical moniker for the main street that meandered through Asia’s largest slum. 60-Foot road they called it, though shopfronts mirroring the expanding expectations of the residents had greatly reduced its width by the 1990s. Mumbai’s swish set discovered Dharavi shortly after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in his initial burst of enthusiasm, announced a mega-redevelopment project in the mid-1980s.

The Prime Minister’s Grant Project put up squat Stalinist-style buildings in a small stretch of this slum. But enterprising owners of small tanneries made full use of the media attention to set up retail units selling cheap leather goods along the main street. Braving the stink of the swamp that merged with the bubbling cauldrons in which boiled hides of animals newly despatched at the abattoir nearby, Mumbai’s Beautiful People clamoured for cut price rip-offs of Armani, YSL and Fendi. Soon, the makers of the originals came calling and Dharavi’s tanners emerged as original suppliers to some of the biggest names in international fashion.

A potter looks at rows of earthen pots at a workshop in Dharavi. Plans for development of the slum have been opposed by the kumhars
A potter looks at rows of earthen pots at a workshop in Dharavi. Plans for development of the slum have been opposed by the kumhars. — AFP photo

Besides being home to more than a million people, the slum houses many small-scale businesses
Besides being home to more than a million people, the slum houses many small-scale businesses

Residents of Dharavi want to have a say in its development plans
Residents of Dharavi want to have a say in its development plans

For several decades Dharavi remained a major eyesore, a rite of passage that linked the airport to the glittering lights of South Mumbai. The fishermen who inhabited the area during the British days had long made way to the potters from Saurashtra who found in the swampy soil, the raw material for earthenware.

The Tamils came in around the 1930s and in the succeeding four decades turned the slum in to a hub of small business. Soon, the 144-hectare area became home to a million people. Boxed in between the newly expanding suburbs of Bandra and Sion, the denizens simply chose to expand vertically. Today, two and three-storeyed shanties with only a rickety ladder linking them to terra firma is a common sight.

No amenities

With no drainage system worth its name, Mumbai’s untreated sewage unceremoniously dumped into the Mahim creek simply backs up into the slums during high tide. "Malaria killed many people when they first came to live here," says a wizened Parvati Thevar who first came here as a bride. Despite the stink and the filth, business is booming in Dharavi. Thevar’s son Manickam has a major plastic recycling business. An army of rag-pickers who scour Mumbai’s corner garbage dumps keep Manickam supplied with plastic bottles that are melted in a small smoky furnace adjoining the shanty which houses the family. "We don’t suffer from any lung diseases and our children are healthy," insists Manickam.

Over the years, the family has acquired the trappings of material wealth. A Maruti car and a tempo ‘strictly for business’ have joined the mandatory television and refrigerator. The cacophony emanating from scores of music systems along ‘mini-Madras’ indicate that Rajnikant’s latest set of antics in Sivaji have been watched, analysed and assimilated. "Business is good and we even send plastic pellets all the way to Surat," insists Manickam. What goes unsaid is the rampant pilferage of electricity that fuels much of the recycling business in Dharavi.

Attempts by Reliance Energy Ltd, the private power supplier in Mumbai, to stop the pilferage of electricity has resulted in several units switching over to smoky generators fuelled by kerosene bought slyly from ration shops. Two shanties away, Manickam’s neighbour Jagdishan has a different business. He makes fried snacks like banana chips and chickpea fryums for sale to the cheaper country liquor bars in different parts of Mumbai. The blackened oil in which the food is fried indicate that Jagdishan is managing costs by sourcing used oil from restaurants.

"We supply snacks to even the five-star hotels," boasts Jagdishan unconvincingly. Inside, his family is busy stuffing thin plastic bags with the fried snacks which will be loaded onto bicycles and distributed by nightfall. Till recently, most residents here swore allegiance to the home state where they hailed from rather than the parcel of swamp they called home. Since the 1980s, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s brilliant idea of getting Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK to contest elections here has given sleepless nights to the Congress party candidate in every poll.


While the Tamils walk away with the spotlight, activists functioning here point out to several ‘mini-Indias’ that thrive in the slum. People from Uttar Pradesh have their own enclave just as work gangs from Andhra Pradesh crowd into shanties every night after toiling in road construction crews by day. The seasonal trainloads of bearded devotees who make it to Sabarimala every year indicate that the Kerala contingent is alive and kicking. Behind the struggle for quotidian survival, the threat of displacement looms over the denizens of Dharavi.

The Maharashtra government has decided to carve up the slum into different zones and hand it over to various builders for development. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme has already gentrified the area on either side of the 60-foot roads. Towering sky-scrapers on either side indicate that Mumbai’s army of yuppies are no longer shy of flaunting a residential address here. "The original residents have sold out or moved upwards," says Ajmal Sheikh, a leather exporter. Having begun life in Dharavi, Sheikh did well in his business and when the plush Diamond Apartments tower came up, bought a house for his family here. The government’s redevelopment plans are already pushing the famed leather tanneries out of Dharavi.


With assistance from trade associations, Dharavi’s leather businesses are being relocated to Bhiwandi on the outskirts of Mumbai. "We will have state-of-the-art processing equipment of European standards," says Sheikh. While the established businessmen are happy at the prospect of moving out, the newcomers fear bankruptcy. The Maharashtra government’s plan envisages the division of Dharavi into five sectors. Each of these will be developed by investment companies which will accommodate each family into a 225 sq. ft flat. Apart from developing parks, gardens and civic infrastructure investors expect to earn money from selling houses to buyers at market rates. According to the original plan, the redevelopment programme required the consent of 60 per cent of the residents in a locality. However with public protests and long delays, the Maharashtra government is doing away with the need for consent from residents as a prerequisite for redevelopment. "The entire stretch of land at Dharavi belongs to the state government and we do not really have to take consent from the slum dwellers," says a senior state government official.

Prime property

Some of the biggest real estate development companies like DLF, Unitech and HDIL are salivating at the prospects of developing Dharavi. The slum is bang in the middle of the Bandra-Kurla complex, Mumbai’s new financial hotspot. With Reliance Industries, the Bharat Diamond Bourse and international banks putting down roots here, Dharavi is ideal for housing the executives who come to work here. Only, the residents here are planning to put up a tough fight to protect their ‘lifestyle’. "The 225 sq ft they are promising each family is too small for us," says Thevar. Where, for instance, he asks can he put up his furnace that melts plastic bottles in a multi-storeyed building. Residents also fear having to pay maintenance charges for the amenities like lift, power and water. People like Thevar are demanding that the authorities provide them with small workshops along with the flats that are being offered. Others are demanding that the government provide them with larger flats since the former ground storeyed slum has sprouted at least two more floors.

Brain behind plan

The plan to redevelop Dharavi has been thought up by Mukesh Mehta, an America-trained architect. Mehta’s plans to build a golf course and recreation centres apart from new multi-storeyed housing has caused much heart-burn in Dharavi. "This will become the socio-economic centre of Mumbai," says Mehta. Real estate companies say they expect a rich haul since prices in the vicinity are some of the highest in the world. Built-up property in Bandra-Kurla costs upwards of Rs 30,000 per ft, higher than in areas of Hong Kong and Singapore. Understandably activists are unhappy. Jockin Aruputham who unveiled his own low-cost housing scheme is dismissive of the new plans. "It is a Rs 55,000 crore scam with the whole of Dharavi given to one man-Mukesh Mehta," Arputham told journalists recently. He feels the residents who actually live here have been bypassed while plans are made by bureaucrats and the corporates.

The Left parties are the most opposed to the redevelopment plan. The Dharavi Bachao Samiti backed by the Left Front has organised protests and promises to intensify the agitation even further. "They have not taken anybody’s consent and are planning to redevelop Dharavi by force," says Raju Korde, president of the Samiti. Reports say that Mehta himself would earn Rs 100 crore as fees if the project comes through. The project estimated at Rs 9,430 crore at today’s prices will make a add five million square feet of office and residential space in the next two years and as much as 40 million sq.ft in the next decade. The new Dharavi will also be home to about 4,500 industrial units. Among the big names that have shown interest in developing Dharavi are Dubai’s Emaar Properties and Al Nakheel, Reliance Industries, Larsen & Toubro, DLF, Hiranandani Constructions, Mahindra Gesco, K Raheja Universal, HDIL, Kohinoor Realtors and Gammon Infrastructure.

Tourist attraction

Inspired by Prince Charles and former US President Bill Clinton who included Dharavi and other slum areas of Mumbai in their travel itineraries, a travel agency here is exploiting the tourism potential of the city’s hovels. Reality Tours and Travels, a travel agency promoted by a former British social worker and some of his local associates, is now taking foreign and Indian tourists on a guided tour of Dharavi, Kamathipura, (the city’s red-light area), and Dhobi Ghat for as little as Rs 600 per head per day. We started with Dharavi, but after we got a good response we included Kamathipura and other areas," says Krishna Poojari, a partner of the company.

Poojari says the success of the novel, Shantaram, which has graphic details of Mumbai’s slum areas, has also provided a big boost to the business. According to the agency’s website, it "specialises in guided tours of Dharavi —Asia’s biggest slum—a place of poverty and hardship but also a place of enterprise, humour and non-stop activity". The agency claims that 80 per cent of the profits after tax from these slum tours go to local NGOs who work for the less privileged members of the society. The idea for this tour package came from the agency’s British co-promoter Chris Way who was inspired by similar ventures in Brazilia’s slums. RTT’s tour groups are small so that the visitors to the slum areas are unobtrusive and do not intrude in the lifestyle of the people they are going to see, its promoters say. The slum tourists can choose from long and short tours. The long full-day tour has tourists travelling by an air-conditioned car from Colaba to Dharavi in Central Mumbai via the sprawling Dhobi Ghat, the red-light district, and other "attractions". The short tour consists of just a tour of Dharavi. Tourists are picked up from Mahim railway station and taken on a tour of the slum colony. — S.K.