x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mumbai's Dharavi set for a makeover

The federal government prepares to transform the grubby slum, which is the largest in Asia, to multi-storey buildings.

A boy sifts through garbage in an open sewer in the Dharavi slum, which houses 57,000 families.
A boy sifts through garbage in an open sewer in the Dharavi slum, which houses 57,000 families.

MUMBAI // A low-voltage tube light sputters to life, illuminating Parvati Mani's dingy one-room tenement. The windowless dwelling is a tight squeeze as Ms Mani's family of six cook, eat, take turns to sleep, and survive. Squeals of scurrying rats are heard from the rooftop. Just outside is an open, litter-strewn sewer, and there is sparse relief from its stench. However, the Mani family is inured to the wretchedness of Dharavi. "I spent nearly my whole life in this slum," said Ms Mani, 62, who shares her dwelling of 60 sq ft with her widowed daughter, who is a housemaid, and four grandchildren. "But I hope for a dignified existence for my children."

Dharavi is a labyrinth of a slum - Asia's largest - and home to more than a million people. More than 17,000 people are crammed into one acre. A majority of them are migrants, all scrambling for space in a sea of weathered iron shacks and mildewed tenements. Now, after years of delay, the federal government is set to implement an ambitious project that will transform Dharavi from a grubby slum to multi-storeyed buildings. Shanties will be flattened, and Dharavi's 57,000 families will be moved into apartments - 300 sq ft in size - built by private real estate developers free of charge. In return, the developers can reap profits by using the space from the rased shanties for commercial projects.

Dharavi's makeover plan, said architect Mukesh Mehta, who drew the blueprint, is a rare effort to revitalise a slum. This project, he said, will help improve the abominable living conditions of the people here. Cholera and other water-borne diseases are endemic in Dharavi. Sanitation facilities are scarce, with one toilet for every 1,500 people, according to the World Bank. Drinking water is in short supply as families of 15 share one water tap. Many of Mumbai's elite view Dharavi as an excrescence that must be purged if India's financial and entertainment capital is to be given the aesthetics of a world-class city. Local politicians have long dreamed of transforming Mumbai into "India's Shanghai". With Dharavi's makeover, people such as Mr Mehta believe that dream will eventually come true.

Gautam Chatterjee, the chief executive officer of the Dharavi Development Authority, hopes that the slum's makeover will ease its large population density. After slum dwellers are resettled, developers will be permitted to develop only commercial space, such as malls, in the newly available land, and no residences. "No residences and only commercial buildings will generate a mobile population that will not crowd the area," Mr Chatterjee said. "That will reduce the population density of Dharavi."

Mr Chatterjee said six per cent of the space in a rehabilitated building will be used as a multi-facility community space to promote small-scale business enterprises to boost the incomes of the slum dwellers. Development of the slum has enticed many Indian as well as international real estate developers such as DLF, Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Engineering Associates and the Dubai-based Limitless. Dharavi's economy currently comprises some 100,000 people producing goods worth more than US$500 million (Dh1.836bn) a year. These businesses are carried out in ramshackle one-room sheds where men labour, often in sweltering heat, to manufacture everything from leather products and clothing to food items and artificial jewellery. They also include a large recycling industry, which handles such discarded plastic goods as medical syringes and telephone instruments.

The makeover plan, said Mr Mehta, will give a boost to Dharavi's myriad industries. But, Mushtaq Memon, 40, the owner of a large tin recycling factory, is displeased with the authorities' handling of the makeover. His chief complaint is that owners of industrial units were not consulted while the plan was being developed and he does not know whether he will be given a new place with the same floor area after the construction work is done or even if his new unit will be in the same area. "Who doesn't want development?" he said in his office, with the sound of machines whirring in the background. "But you need to take all those people into confidence who you propose to bring about this development for. We want our rights." But if one cuts through Dharavi's squalid quarters, a tangle of slender, rubbish-choked lanes, to the Bhuminetrawala compound, the community's future is in view, both the potential and the problems. Here 250 apartments are being remodelled in one of the few buildings already being worked on under the makeover plan. With one phase ready, 50 families were given new homes in Bhuminetra compound six months ago. Palan Aramugam, a 37-year-old labourer, moved here with his elderly mother, wife and four children. It is an airy, spacious apartment, he said, markedly different from the claustrophobic 10 by 10 shanty he spent nearly a decade in. But the plumbing is faulty, the roof leaky, and even though there is an indoor bathroom, the family members often use an outdoor pay toilet for lack of water supply. There are many loopholes that need to be plugged, said Sundar Bura, an adviser to Mumbai's Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, a non-governmental organisation that works with slum dwellers. But, after years of delay, he is pleased that the makeover plan is finally under way. "The main aim is to make Dharavi more liveable for its people," he said. Meanwhile, the Mani family is eagerly waiting for the moment they will be given the keys to their new apartment. Mr Mani's 18-year-old grandson said he has heard politicians rattle away promises of moving slum dwellers into apartments since he was six. "We are waiting for that dream to finally come true," he said. * The National