In popular imagination, Dharavi is a dirty, pest ridden locality without basic services where thousands of people live in subhuman conditions. It is partly this-but it is much more. For the truth of the matter is that Dharavi a settlement with almost a million people, spread over 175 hectares is a bustling collection of contiguous settlements, each with its own distinct identity. The dividing line between these settlements is sometimes a nullah (drain), sometimes a small road, sometimes a wall-constructed hastily at times of conflict.
The real dividing lines are based on the history of migration patterns in the city of Mumbai, on the State’s policy of dealing with the urban poor, of village industries that have translocated in an urban setting and of language, religion and region.
Dharavi was not born yesterday. It is not a ‘slum’ in the sense that one refers to the so called ‘illegal’ or informal settlements of the urban poor found in every Indian city. It existed when Mumbai was still Bombay, when the city comprised seven islands separated by the Mahim creek from the hinterland.
The original inhabitants of Dharavi were the Kolis, the fisherfolk who lived at the edge of the creek that came in from the Arabian Sea. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, by accident and design, some of the swamps and the salt pan lands separating the islands that formed Bombay were reclaimed. A dam at Sion, which was adjacent to Dharavi also hastened the process of joining separate islands into one long tapered land mass. Thus began the transformation of the island city of Bombay. In the process, the creek dried up, Dharavi’s fisherfolk were deprived of their traditional source of sustenance and the newly emerged land from the marshes provided space from the new communities to move in.
The history of Dharavi’s development is also closely entwined with the migratory pattern which has marked the city of Mumbai. The migrants could be roughly divided into broad categories. The first were people from Maharashtra and in particular from the Konkan coast as well as some groups from Gujarat. These communities first settled in south Mumbai on vacant plots of land. As the city grew, the authorities could not tolerate the existence of these informal settlements. Entire communities were pushed out of south Mumbai to what was then the edge of the city-Dharavi. Thus the potters from Saurashtra settled in south Bombay had to relocate twice before they were allocated land in Dharavi to establish today what is still called Kumbharwada. As a result, a part of history of Dharavi is closely linked to the state’s policy of demolitions- a policy that it continues to pursue even today, albeit in a modified form.
The other settlers were direct migrants to the city, many of them trained in a trade or a craft. Muslim tanners migrated from Tamil Nadu and set up the leather tanning industry. It was located in Dharavi because the slaughterhouse was close by in Bandra. Other artisans, like the embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh, started the readymade garments trade. From Tamil Nadu, workers joined in the flourishing business of making savouries and sweets like chakli, chiki and mysore pak.
As a result, Dharavi today is an amazing mosaic of villages and townships from all over India. As the Kolis and the new migrants reclaimed and developed the land on which they lived, their kin would join them. The tanning industry grew into a thriving leather trade. Today, only a handful of old tanneries exist but the public face of the leather trade can be seen in air-conditioned leather showrooms on the main road which display every conceivable designer label. Small time garment manufacturers, working out of their homes with a couple of machines, expanded their units into export oriented garment ‘factories’.
As long as Dharavi was at the edge of what constituted the city of Bombay, the city authorities could ignore its existence. It was a suitable site to send communities of ‘iilegals’ from other parts of the city as the land on which they squatted was required for other purposes. As Mumbai expanded, its population grew with new industries such as textiles, coming up in the island city, the pressure on the land increased. The city began to expand on the hinterland. As a result Dharavi became much more central; it was not at the edge of the city as in the past. Today, it is located in the heart of Mumbai.
This new, accidental and more important location of Dharavi has been crucial to its recent development. Dharavi’s importance was finally recognized in the mid 1980s and for the first time funds were offered to make the place more livable. Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Dharavi in 1985, sanctioned a grant of Rs 100 crore to Bombay of which a substantial amount was allocated to Dharavi. It was called Prime Minister’s Grant Project which was the first attempt to redevelop parts of Dharavi.
Thus began Dharavi’s transformation, albeit a superficial one. The appearance of high rise buildings on Dharavi’s periphery accelerated greatly during later part of the 1990s after the Slum Redevelopment Scheme was launched by the government in 1995. If the scheme had been better devised, it was possible that many more such buildings would have been constructed by the year 2014. Instead, there were more schemes on paper than on ground. The successful schemes were those were communities were genuinely involved in the planning and implementation of the project. The paper schemes were those where the builders rushed in, hoping to make huge profits and left just as swiftly when they realized that the project was not half as lucrative. Profit was the only motive, not philantrophy.
These efforts to redevelop Dharavi- by reorganizing its informal settlements and converting them into formal housing-illustrate the complexities of slum renewal and redevelopment. ‘Redeveloping’ a place like Dharavi is no easy matter as successive governments and planning authorities have discovered.
(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000))