You can enter Dharavi through several different routes. It is in easy reach of three stations; Matunga, Mahim and Sion and two major expressways.
Dharavi’s size is very daunting. It has an enormous spread, almost that of a small township. The density is assumed to be 18,000 per acre. In this densely packed area you will find 27 temples, eleven mosques and six churches. The oldest mosque was built in 1887, Ganesh Mandir in 1913 and the Cross in Koliwada in 1850. ‘Khamba Deo’, Hindu Koli’s temple is at least 200 years old. At one end of Dharavi is the Rehwa Fort, known as Kala Killa. You cannot see it for the houses around it but there it stands, a stone rampart or tower built in 1737 by the governor of Bombay.
Despite some redevelopment, the overall landscapes of Dharavi remains that of low rise structures, most of them not arranged in any particular order. The huts came first, the roads, lanes, drains afterwards. But there is an order in the apparent disorder, an order which you can only really know about if you live in these lanes. On private lands, particularly those vacated by the tanneries that moved out when the government ordered them to do so, high rise buildings have been constructed that sit oddly in the middle of the generally slum like surroundings.
Dharavi, like other slums or slum-like areas, is an inescapable reality in Mumbai. There are practically no areas in the city where you can avoid the sight of a slum because the urban poor, or people forced to live in informal settlements, are half the city’s population. The engineering approach to this problem has been tried and not worked—clear land of slums, push slum-dwellers out of sight, and expect that life will go on. The purely architectural approach has not worked either—where you plan for a well-designed settlement that will be pleasing to the eyes of the elite but will be dysfunctional for the people who need to live there.
While some settled communities have had to move several times as the city grew, those who found themselves in Dharavi did not have to move again. The reasons for this are very special. Dharavi has emerged in a triangular strip that comes in no one’s way. To its west is the Western Railway with Matunga and Mahim stations. To its east is the Central Railway and Sion station. And to its north is the Mithi river. This triangle of different settlements which gradually merged into one large conglomeration is what is called Dharavi today. Its location ensured that the land was not needed for any other purpose. As a result, the people who came to live there—by choice or because they were forced to do so—did not have to move.
Another reason for people remaining in Dharavi is because it provided work. Unfortunately, town planning, since colonial days, has been in the hands of engineers and architects who have not bothered about employment. The reality, however, is that people live where they can find work.Town planning has been elitist because it failed to understand the employment needs of the poor. The elitism of town planning concepts, continues to determine the attitude of the city towards slums and is the root for the problems that Mumbai faces today.
To overcome slums, we must regard slum-dwellers as people capable of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests, which they certainly are. We need to discern, respect and build upon the forces for regeneration in real cities. This is far from trying to patronise people into a better life, and it is far from what is done today.
"The men and women who live in the incredibly crowded lanes and bylanes of Dharavi and other Mumbai slums certainly know what they want. They have survived without any assistance from the State. Some of them have devised solutions to their problems that are realistic and workable. Now that assistance is being offered, it should not stifle the spirit of enterprise that so dominates urban settlements like Dharavi. Instead, it should build on it. Unfortunately, the basic attitude of the State remains paternalistic—of a father doling out favours to children who do not know what is best for them," Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000))