Dharavi: User-Generated City

January 24, 2009

Dharavi Bazaar by Wahid Seraj. What would happen if Dharavi could develop on its own terms?

Why is it that Dharavi exercises so much fascination for architects, urbanists, researchers, students and journalists from all over the world? Is it because it is the “largest slum in Asia”? Is it because it is under imminent threat of being redeveloped? Is it because it is worth billions? Is it because the global media loves to recycle stereotypes of victimhood and third world poverty? These tired clichés and false alarms have filled the news for some time. But it is time to reload our browsers.

Let’s start by dissipating some of the most prevalent myths about Dharavi. It is not the largest slum in Mumbai, let alone Asia. There are more huts and structures around the airport. There are massive, sprawling informal settlements in the industrial suburbs of Kandivili and Vikhroli.

The infamous Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) has been decried as a land grab of the highest order by many residents, professionals and advocates in India and abroad. For better or worse it seems to have hit a wall after the financial meltdown. All that hot speculative money, which investment bankers were eager to cool off by injecting into real estate, has evaporated. Who can the government sell the land to now? Who wants to colonize that urban jungle full of political parties, slum dweller federations, NGOs, religious factions and angry residents?

The global media loves to work with the simplistic and highly problematic label of “slum”. City reporters, activists and non-governmental organizations also find the short-cut concept useful. Dharavi has often been pictured by the city’s media as a wasteland with barely standing temporary structures; an immense junkyard crowded with undernourished people hopelessly disconnected from the rest of the world, surviving on charity and pulling the whole city’s economy backward.

It is only recently, and in conjunction with informed local and global opinions that an alternative picture of Dharavi has begun to circulate. Where it appears as a developed urban area composed of distinct neighbourhoods, as a space where artisanship thrives, where commerce and business are the main defining moments of its landscape. Far from being depressed and isolated, the economy of Dharavi appears to be deep-rooted in the city and networked globally, with local goods being exported as far as Italy and Sweden.

If we deduct pity and voyeurism as the only reasons for the wide interest in Dharavi, what is left? Maybe there is something truly energizing and inspiring to be found there. Something so big that Mumbaikars don’t perceive it until they realize that the whole world is looking at it over their shoulders. Indeed, a certain detachment is necessary to get out of the general myopia. What fascinates so many people is no longer the misery of Dharavi, but its incredible capacity to develop and evolve in spite of all odds. Dharavi has emerged through the collective intelligence, skills and efforts of its residents. To use the language of the net generation, it is the ultimate user-generated city.

Dharavi Beach by Jose “Cole” Abasolo. Today the Mithi river is terribly polluted. Maybe that instead of throwing its untreated waste water into it, the five stars offices of the Bandra Kurla Complex could help cleaning it.

The fishing village in the neighbourhood, the potter’s community that settled there and the waves of rural artisanal migrants from different parts of the country came with their multiple skills and shaped this enclave in the most creative way one can imagine. In fact artisanal skills are primarily what has made Dharavi what it is. No wonder it is often talked about as the ultimate workshop-factory-residential space. The post-industrial, decentralized production processes through which most goods are produced in Dharavi stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese sweatshop model. Every wall, nook and corner is an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitants. Over here, the furnace and the cooking hearth regularly exchange roles and sleeping competes with warehouse space all the time. Space is the most precious resource in Dharavi, this is why it is used around the clock in the most efficient way possible.

The inhabitants of Dharavi have a fantastic capacity to solve their own problems. For many, Dharavi has been a platform for social mobility to middle-classdoom. However, one problem the inhabitants cannot get their head around is the threat of a top down redevelopment plan backed by the state. This burdens the residents of Dharavi more than anything else. Not only does the state not help, it even comes in the way of self-development. Why would anyone invest in their homes or business if it risks being bulldozed in a few months or years?

What seems to separate Dharavi from the DRP more than anything else is a generational gap. In the age of user-generated content, open-source and P2P, the net generation connects intuitively with the archetype of the squatter, who, just like the hacker in another realm, delves in and strives to overcome loopholes leftover by the system, and uses community and social networking as its modus operandi. In fact, it makes total sense to understand Dharavi as a self-generating post-industrial city.

While many are still chewing the blue pill, the world has experienced a paradigm shift, which most spectacularly manifests itself through the rise of information and communication technologies to affect all fields of knowledge. One of the principal characteristics of this shift is the collapse of distance between the expert and the layperson. The success story of Wikipedia, which lets anyone be a contributor to the most comprehensive encyclopaedia ever produced, is nothing but a reflection of the power of the Web, which was designed, in the words of Web pioneer Tim Berners Lee, “to be used for anything, constraining its users as little as possible … [and] built to enable, not to control.”

The user-generated approach to knowledge production is also injecting new concepts and viewpoints in the practice of urban planning. Top down plans such as the Dharavi Redevelopment Project have become objects of much criticism on the grounds that they completely ignore the knowledge and concerns of the residents themselves. Surely, they should be included in discussions and projects that will radically impact their sheltering and livelihood. How can one pretend to do any plan for Dharavi without drawing on the experience and skills of its inhabitants? After all, they are the ones who developed Dharavi generation after generation.

Slow, generational growth and incremental development is what created several European towns and villages that today are considered to be fine specimens of urban heritage. Close set streets, low-rise and high-density structures create vibrant neighbourhoods that have become major tourist attractions.

Tokyo Dharavi Remix by Matias Echanove. A chunk of Dharavi is inserted in a Tokyo landscape. The suburbs of Tokyo have the same urban typology as the informal settlements of Mumbai. This is because both share a history of incremental development.

In Japan, villages got absorbed seamlessly into new urban precincts and crop-fields converted effortlessly to residential or industrial spaces. A futuristic city like Tokyo emerged through such a process and reveals vast swathes of urban space that are dense with small, compact structures and labyrinthine streets, looking, from a distance, astonishingly like Dharavi.

More than a master plan, Dharavi needs a liberation of the imagination. Lets drop the heavy CAD maps and GIS surveys and zoom in to the street level. All Dharavi needs is some creative photoshoping and less of a patronising colonial gaze. If allowed to develop through their own internal skills, if provided for with basic infrastructural and amenities, the hundreds of enclaves, will keep improving their conditions, as they have always done. While no one can imagine what the neighbourhood may look in a couple of decades, it is certain to represent the city’s spirit like nothing else.

Published in Time Out Mumbai, Jan 20, 2009


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