Potter’s Tale

December 30, 2008

Ranchhod Savdas Tank from Kumbharwada, the potters neighbourhood in Dharavi, has very clear dreams and ambitions. He wants Kumbharwada to be known as the best pottery production center in the world. He wants the new generation of youngsters in Kumbharwada to find this traditional occupation so lucrative that they would take to it spontaneously. He wants to modernize production techniques, respond to the latest demands in terms of designs and choices and generally build on the hundred year old dynamic history of this neighbourhood that was founded by his ancestors and their families.

He is also very annoyed at the inability of the city, its media and civic authorities to see the value of his dreams and the fact that they are inextricably linked to those of the city at large. After all the city has been built on similar ambitions; it has seen enterprises emerge from nothingness, it has been nourished by the sweat of its hard-working resident-workers and it continues to evolve and modernize in many sectors.

Smoke coming out of the ovens where the Kumbhars bake their pottery.

He finds it difficult to believe that the authorities cannot see a simple thing. That his neighbourhood is primarily an artisanal space around which the resident artisans have woven an intricate and interdependent structure of residential and work spaces that are so enmeshed, that it is impossible for one to be conceived off without the other even for a minute.

Tank, like other members of Kumbharwada in Dharavi, believes that for the city to do justice to its history of enterprise, it must rise to the occasion and recognize this simple fact. The best way of recognizing this is by letting this neighboruhood continue to evolve through its own inner logic. Not impose a development plan on it and learn to give importance to the voices of its residents and their choices.

Coming across someone like him is indeed an important reminder to all of us so invested in transforming the city. It is an important lesson for all urbanists, urban planners and urban historians. What the story of Kumbharwada represents is a vital moment in the history of cities that has the potential of making Mumbai a trendsetter.

A history, which acknowledges that homes and workspaces were decisively cut-off from each other only as recently as the industrial revolution and the impact of this incision was most strongly felt in the house of the artisan. Historically, if there was any space that used itself most creatively and productively it was the artisan’s workshop-cum-home that produced goods that circulated in the pre-industrial economy.

The gigantic scale of the modern city was unleashed through many forces – mainly energy-based revolutions – but its architectural character owes most to the atomic split that happened when the workshop-home of the artisan was splintered. Since then, the logic of separating residences from places of manufacture has shaped much of the way we think of cities.

However, cities like Mumbai are living examples of built-forms that do not reflect this neat divide. The artisanal home continues to exist in many different forms. Consider the fact that this form exists functionally, in some way or the other (as studio-homes, artists lofts and so many other examples) in the contemporary global economy.

All it needs is a little bit of imagination to transform neighbourhoods like Kumbharwada and use it to showcase Mumbai’s amazing spirit of enterprise. The pottery industry represents one of the few lucrative artisanal occupations that has survived mechanical competition thanks to the tastes of its consumers.

It would be nothing short of foolishness to over look this precious history.

Photo credits: All but last by airoots team. The last taken by KRVIA

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, December 31st 2008

Opium City

December 26, 2008

Amar Farooqui’s slim but potent, ‘Opium City: The making of Early Victorian Bombay’ (Three Essays Collective, 2006) takes you on a journey of Mumbai darker than the city’s industrial waste.

Farooqui, makes absolutely no compromises. He leads us out of the sepia-tinted memories we fancy so much and forces us into the squalid eighteenth and nineteenth century streets of Bombay in a manner that would make most heritage conservationists squirm.

You get to see the city in pretty much the way we know it today – a city of crowds and pathetic facilities for those unlucky to live outside its privileged, inner circle. A city dominated by administrative uncertainty, yoked to the larger imperial project headquartered in Calcutta much in the manner that it is today to Delhi. A city energized by small business communities from across the region, but who are always kept subservient to its suspicious rulers. A city economically addicted to forbidden trade – opium – an addiction that shaped the rules of the trading game and one, which remains a shadowy presence in the city’s underbelly, where the lines between business and crime are still seen as blurred.

Such an account of the city’s past means that those who lived through the city’s effervescent post-independence optimism – the celebrated decades of the fifties and sixties – have to re-cast their nostalgia and see them as freak moments. As soon as the dust settled, the city reverted to its wicked old ways.

But then, Farooqui’s story is still half-told. Historians often get so carried away by the austere fact that lies in the archive that they forget there’s more.

And one is not talking about the spirit of the city at all. That has been done to death, by novelists and writers – and with good reason. One is talking about the fuel that keeps the city going – the act of exchanging goods and services.

We detect in Farooqui’s rendering a lot of prejudice about conducting business itself. And the familiar disdain that many misguided historians in India have towards this act. A disdain that is a mirror image of the equally pathetic attitude that the city’s economic elites show towards the traders that rule its streets – the feriwalas or the hawkers – treating them like criminals.

Such extreme attitudes yield two contrary but complementary stories; of the city’s heroic working class past that focuses exclusively on its industrial, trade union-lead history and the false hagiographies of its corporate heroes.

In reality, the complete story of Mumbai lies in its very humble origins as a trading city, which incidentally, Farooqui draws quite accurately. The problem is the way he tells his story.

He does not do adequate justice to these real characters – the petty traders, small shopkeepers and street-hawkers – who were crushed in the past by a colonial regime that treated them suspiciously. But they were all over the place, building the foundations of the city and making it what it remains – an economically successful and cosmopolitan city.

The tragedy is that even such well-researched historical accounts condemn these characters into insignificance because they do not fit into a larger story of working class history.

And that’s the reason the city keeps stumbling.

Instead of making the symbol of the feriwala or the street trader, its mascot, the city criminalizes them while the prejudiced scribe ignores them altogether.

No wonder the city’s thwarted identity spews out weird mythologies where the underworld refers to itself as a business company!


December 18, 2008

The immense ferment that Dharavi has seen in the last few years has settled a bit. A tiny bit maybe, but there has certainly been some calming. It is to do with the global financial crisis that translates into the expected cold-shouldering of the promised private investment in the Dharavi redevelopment plan.

According to many involved sources, there is hesitation on the part of several parties to say anything definite about where exactly the plans are headed now. Especially if they were linked to private investment and real-estate development rather than the masked rhetoric about slum redevelopment and rehabilitation.

However, those activist groups working in the field of housing who did not directly connect with the feverish rhetoric find themselves having some more breathing space. What they do eventually with this breather only time will tell.

According to a few unconventional urban planners, this is the best time to bring to notice the fact that a really effective transformation of a space like Dharavi is only possible from within. In other words, to rely on the resources that exist inside the community in terms of skills, willingness to mobilize resources and raising funds. However this has to be framed within the logic of incrementalism – the idea that slow, step-by-step growth and changes over time and stimulated by the needs of natural growth of families and communities is the best way ahead.

If we look carefully at those spaces within Dharavi where some level of incrementalism has occurred spontaneously, due to relative economic, we see the way economic mobility has spurred a natural improvement. Homes have been improved upon and built over. In some cases the communities have gotten together to build sewage and improve drainage systems on their own.

The residents of Dharavi have always aspired to better living standards, and demonstrated extraordinary resilience and creativity in the face of social exclusion and economic hardship. Many commentators, including The Economist, have been impressed with the dynamism and entrepreneurialism displayed by its residents. Studies show a very high degree of absorption of new technologies by the population. Every lane in Dharavi has a cell phone retailer, and cybercafes are flourishing.

If these internal energies are allowed to spill over into the space of self-development – or what are also called auto-built urban environments, then the government does not have to play a role beyond providing a support system.

From within the logic of incrementalism, Dharavi does not appear to be a complex, overcrowded, chaotic space but one that is teeming with resources. Of course the several decades of political and social indoctrination – in which patronage has been the norm has had its toll. Often it is difficult for the residents themselves to have faith in their own capabilities simply because the local leaders and political representatives brow-beat them into a passive role. Activists should have cut through the space of centralized leadership to create structures for organic participation. Processes that have worked, often by default or accident. Unfortunately, the language of activism that Mumbai and the country at large has become used to is an extension of state patronage. If the non-governmental organization also speaks a version of statism, then there is slim chance of a genuine break from old thought processes. In this scenario, it will be impossible to make ‘incrementalism’ part of a policy statement. That would involve the same level of synthetic intervention as wholesale manufacturing of consent.

Instead, the best way ahead would be to take advantage of a situation where the overheated markets are correcting themselves and also correct a bit of the overheated political rhetoric that we have also become attached to!


December 7, 2008

Published in The Hindu on Sunday December 7, 2008

In the last week of November, all of us living in Mumbai went through a succession of mental states. Ranging from incredulity, rage, cynicism, disbelief, shock and nervousness, to fear, sadness, numbness, hate, and and the most disturbing of all, fascination. A morbid fascination for the ability of a handful of young guys to create mayhem in the city, shake Indian politics, and hypnotise the global media.

Surely these were no ordinary kids. They were well trained, fully equipped and possibly driven by faith. Thanks to GPS technology they could navigate an ancient sea route that connects two colonial cities partitioned by history. Thanks to their urbane appearance they could sit down at Leopold café and enter the city’s best hotels without raising any suspicion.

They checked in at the Taj next to the general manager and transformed their quarters into a five-star control room. After brutally killing scores of tourists they cool-headedly recharged their AK-47 and rampaged the city. They killed Mumbai’s top cops and hijacked police cars, twice. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them.

Before last week, a movie script based on this sequence of events would surely have been deemed far-fetched. The audacity of this attack is indeed incredible.

The accomplishment of extraordinarily audacious objectives has precedents throughout history. Not too long ago, the word audacity was being brandied in a completely different context and with a completely different meaning. In fact, at the other end of the spectrum altogether. A group of determined men and women succeeded in carrying their candidate all the way to the highest office, beating the most powerful political apparatuses in the US: The Hillary campaign and the Republicans. The Obama campaign provided magical inspiration to people all over the world and revived some hope for the world’s most powerful (and dangerous) democracy. Such a comparison is itself audacious, but there is a reason for making it.

If anything could be learnt from last week’s event, it is the lesson about the power of audacity. Audacity is precisely what Mumbai has been lacking, especially since the 1991 communal riots. Instead of defending its multicultural identity, forged by a history of trading and migration, it allowed goons turned politicians to rule and tear apart its unique brand of cosmopolitanism. Innocent scapegoats were killed and cowardly mobs were rewarded, setting in motion a cycle of violence that just took a new spin last week.

A response to last week’s events driven by fear and paranoia against our immediate or distant neighbours –which seems more than likely– will only feed into a further destructive spiral. If we don’t want to stand mute witnesses in the face of history, we will have to reclaim audacity for ourselves, and prove against all odds that yes-indeed all things are possible; including transforming our city’s mindset and reclaiming diversity and openness as Mumbai’s main strengths.

To do that we will have to rise above our prejudices against certain communities, neighbourhoods, slums, even ordinary people. These prejudices put us at threat more than anything else. Here is a concrete example: Of all the failures that paved the way for last week’s disaster, the biggest was that the police didn’t follow up on an alert given by members of Mumbai’s oldest communities, its fishermen. They were the first to report abnormal activity on their shore. Unfortunately they were not heard.

Read another airoots article on this topic published in the Mumbai Mirror, December 3, 2008

DOT project, Dharavi-Mumbai

December 2, 2008

We are looking for funding for a project in Dharavi. We need your help! Please contact us if you can contribute or if you have any suggestions!!!

The Context:

Dharavi is usually described as the “largest slum” in Asia. Home to at least half a million people, it is one of the most diverse and culturally vibrant parts of Mumbai. About 95% of the residents of Dharavi belong to what are officially called dalits and ‘other backward castes’. This partly explains why the authorities have largely ignored their needs. Political parties and NGOs have been present in Dharavi for many years, providing support to many residents and speaking on their behalf. However, to this day, it is nearly impossible for individuals and grassroots groups of Dharavi to get heard. Mass media is generally sympathetic to the hardships endured by the residents, but again usually misrepresents Dharavi as an homogeneous community, when in fact it is composed of about 88 communities, each with their languages, practices and cultures.

One of the highest stresses faced by the residents of Dharavi today is uncertainty regarding their housing and workspaces. The Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), which is the government agency in overseeing slum redevelopment efforts in Mumbai, has divided Dharavi into 5 sectors and requested proposals from real estate investors from all over the world for each of these sectors. This project, known as the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), requires developers to provide a 300 sqf flat to each family that can prove that it settled in Dharavi before the year 2000. In exchange for rehousing residents in new buildings, the builders get construction rights in Dharavi.

The DRP has been highly criticized by NGOs and independent experts, notably for leaving out of the plan hundreds of thousands of residents who cannot prove that they settled in Dharavi previous to 2000. Some experts have also pointed out that any plan that might increase the current population density of Dharavi was irresponsible, since the density levels are already unsustainable. In any case, the DRP is severly compromised by the current financial crisis, which has caused many of the bidders to withdraw or simply disappear.

Dharavi residents may be temporarily off the hook but that also means that Dharavi will also certainly fade away from the media and government’s limelight and go back to being what it always was, a shadow city. One of the reasons for the media frenzy that surrounded Dharavi is that it epitomizes the urban crisis that Mumbai, India and the world are facing as more and more people move to cities. Global economic recession will not stop rural immigrants from coming in mass to urban areas. In fact, as the crisis hits rural areas, it might well accelerate the influx and therefore the informal development of shelters on the city’s pavements, along the railways, and in the periphery.

The recent attacks in Mumbai will almost certainly translate into a renewed attention on security and a greater insularity of middle-class and upper class enclaves in a city where about 60% of the population is said to be living in slums. This deepening of the class divide will only isolate the poor majority further and exclude them from a process of development and globalization that has benefited many middle-class Indians.

The residents of Dharavi are not only aspiring to better living standards, they have also demonstrated extraordinary resilience and creativity in the face of social exclusion and economic hardship. Many commentators, including The Economist, have been impressed with the dynamism and entrepreneurialism displayed by Dharavites. Local industries, such as leather and embroidery, are even attracting the attention of shoppers and investors. Moreover, researchers, including Nokia’s R&D team and Microsoft Research India, who have performed market studies in Dharavi have noted the extremely high absorption of new technologies by the population. Every lane in Dharavi has a cell phone retailer, and cybercafes are flourishing.

The Urban Typhoon workshop, which took place in Dharavi in March 2008, and was supported by Asia Initiatives in Japan and PUKAR in Mumbai, clearly confirmed that residents are willing to be involved in the development process and have more than physical manpower to contribute. Foreign participants were utterly impressed with the positive attitude and great motivation displayed by local residents, as well as by  their genuine willingness to be part of the solution.

The Concept:

DOT stands for Dharavi.organic Technology Centre. It combines several initiatives taking place in Dharavi, including the PUKAR Youth Fellowship, the Urban Typhoon Workshop, and the dharavi.org platform. These initiatives are described in the last section of the proposal.

DOT is a space of self-expression for all residents of Dharavi. It aims at helping those who are willing to voice their opinions, ideas, visions, and plans out to the rest of the city and the rest of the world.


The DOT center will provide a space, tools and training in English, Marathi and Hindi for all those who want to use dharavi.org and access other websites.

Dharavi.org already serves as a link between people interested in researching Dharavi and local residents. DOT will now allow residents to reach out to people, community groups and organizations from around the world who are dealing with the same set of issues.

The Urban Typhoon workshop sparked the interest of Dharavi residents from various parts of the neighbourhoods. DOT will provide an infrastructure that will allow the multiplication of such initiatives. DOT will help connect Dharavi with students and schools of architecture, engineering, planning, and economics as well as social workers and generally with people from all walks of life who want to spend some time to help local projects in Dharavi. It will constitute a physical connection point for the outside world into Dharavi.

DOT will not only allow Dharavi residents to access the Web free of charge, it will also help them to use it to fulfil their needs and aspirations. It will for instance support local business initiatives and the pursuit of educational goals.

In addition, DOT will provide vocational training in hardware repair and software development to young people in Dharavi. It will then connect trainees to potential employers.

The space itself will have versatile usage and will be usable for different functions, such as parties, youth, women’s groups and various workshops and classes.


PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research) is a NPO (Not-for-profit-organization) in Mumbai. It is a Research Collective that has an ongoing three-year-old research project with 40 groups all over the Mumbai Metropolitan Region involving 300 youth from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, as barefoot researchers.

Dharavi.organic is a multimedia open source Wiki website dedicated to Dharavi, one of the largest informal settlements in the world located in the heart of Mumbai. This is an URBZ project.

Urban Typhoon is a participatory design and planning workshop organized by a global network of urban researchers and practitioners. The first Urban Typhoon workshop was held in Tokyo, 2006, the second in Mumbai, 2008 and the next one will take place in Istanbul, 2009.