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Big dreams in Mumbai's Dharavi slum

When Hayad Ansari decided to create a mall in a slum, he must have known he was facing tough odds, but he remains hopeful that he will attract fashionable retail names.

Hayad Ansari built Badsham Mall in Dharavi, a slum area in Mumbai with a population close to a million, to attract business.
Hayad Ansari built Badsham Mall in Dharavi, a slum area in Mumbai with a population close to a million, to attract business.

Hayad Ansari, a small-time Mumbai builder, has spent every evening of late watching his team of painters and decorators putting whitewash on his new Badshah Mall.

Each of its four storeys has been adorned with bright orange and yellow cladding and wide glass windows - just like any other of the hundreds of malls found along Mumbai's shopping streets. But in one way Badshah Mall is different - it is right in the middle of Dharavi, Mumbai's most notorious slum. "This is 100 per cent the first mall in Dharavi," says Mr Ansari, who hopes to open the centre in about two months. "Everyone thinks the name Dharavi means only slum. But I want to build a commercial area, so that the businessmen from everywhere can come here and start a business."

Dharavi, with a population of close to a million people, was only recently surpassed by Karachi's Orangi as Asia's largest slum, and its rabbit-warren alleys and jam-packed huts featured heavily in last year's Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. But its location - sandwiched between Mumbai's richest suburb, its new financial centre and the old "peninsular" city - means that its inhabitants are not necessarily as poor as their cramped, unhygienic surroundings would suggest.

"No upper class, and no lower class is there in Dharavi," says Mr Ansari. "Sixty per cent of people are middle class." Mr Ansari says he and his brother have been speaking to corporate Indian retailers such as Metro Shoes, Big Bazaar and Reliance Fresh to try to lure them to the mall, where he hopes to sell space for 150 rupees (Dh11.85) per square foot per month, a heavy discount on the 200 rupees per sq ft for similar retail space in nearby non-slum areas - but still a record for Dharavi. That's if Mr Ansari has any takers - which so far, he admits, he has not.

"Inshallah, within two to three months, we are expecting to make agreement with some parties," he says. Normally, a builder would want a mall like this to be booked up a year before construction is even complete, he says. Mr Ansari's development may be the future of Dharavi though, as the Slum Redevelopment Project (SRP), a US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn) scheme to tender out the slum's 175 hectares in five packages to international and national property developers, has been looking doomed ever since financial bids were cancelled at the last minute last August. Shortly before this, a state-sponsored committee derided the scheme as nothing but a "sophisticated land grab".

The SRP would have made Dharavi fashionable, replacing the slums with shiny towers and hotel developments, with the slum's inhabitants housed in high-rise blocks interspersed among them. Mr Ansari's scheme may be a sign that even without this, the slum is becoming a little upmarket. "Currently, 200 sq ft housing in Dharavi will cost between 800,000 rupees and 850,000 rupees. There has been a steep appreciation in rates there," says Ashutosh Limaye, an associate director at the property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle in Mumbai. "The lowest rates there now start from 4,000 rupees per sq ft and a 225-sq-ft house would cost 900,000 rupees."

A walk down 90 Feet Road, the central avenue that cuts through the slum, reveals three or four smart-looking jewellers' shops, several banks with ATMs, and middle-class restaurants. Pockets of Dharavi are already fairly developed, Mr Limaye adds. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation "has their large office block at one corner of Dharavi already, and when such developments happen, the edge becomes thinner and thinner. Dharavi doesn't have to wait for the transformation to happen all in one go: the transformation is a continuous process and it's already happening."

Even where the buildings are indistinguishable in design from those in slum hutments, Mumbai is full of examples of such structures being redeveloped as fashion boutiques, shops and hotels. Dharavi has long drawn in migrants because of its thriving informal industries recycling, leather work, food processing and others. It generate some $650 million a year in total revenues, but increasingly inhabitants are getting salaried jobs outside the slum.

"The older the slum is, the more economically stable they are," says Adolf Tragler, an Austrian who set up the Slum Rehabilitation Society, one of Mumbai's oldest slum charities. "They've established themselves, they've got jobs." The most extreme example of this mobility is Devendra Tank, a young graduate from the slum's potters colony, who two years ago got a job at the US investment bank JPMorgan Chase.

"I think I'm unique," says Mr Tank. "I know one other person from JP Morgan, but he's on the technical side, and a few people with good salaries who work in the Merchant Navy. Most people are lower middle class." Mr Tragler warns that the rising incomes in Dharavi do not mean the inhabitants are not blighted by slum life. "Income-wise they may be middle class," he says. "But in terms of accommodation, they may be lower than that. The flat prices are so high that with a salary or small business you can't purchase a flat. You go on saving, but by the time you save, the prices go higher."

In fact, he points out, as the growth in Dharavi's families outpaces the rate at which people can escape the slum into low-end flats, the slum may be getting even more crowded. Mr Ansari's mall is itself a hangover from the piecemeal Slum Rehabilitation Authority schemes that preceded the SRP. Mr Ansari claims he originally got permission for the project some 15 years ago, when he was working for Mukesh Mehta, the architect behind the SRP scheme.

Mr Ansari demolished the huts of 242 slum dwellers and re-housed them in 34 225-sq-ft flats in the back of the mall building. Mr Mehta himself helped design the Badshah Mall building, and stands to be paid 2 per cent of the construction cost, but he nonetheless tried to persuade Mr Ansari not to go ahead, and many of the slum-dwellers today grumble about the quality of the flats Mr Ansari provided.

"I don't think it will attract mainstream retailers in its present condition," said Mr Mehta. "Mainstream retailers will only come in when the Dharavi redevelopment is completed." Today, as Mr Ansari and his brother sit waiting for a major retailer to decide to move into their mall, he still does not know whether Mr Mehta is right, or whether building Dharavi's first mall will turn out to be an inspired move.