Taking the ‘Slum’ Out of Dharavi

February 21, 2009

This is the original version of our piece that appeared in The New York Times on February 21st 2009.

It does not take much to galvanize protest against a movie in India, but few thought the word Slumdog would cause so much anger. Especially as hundreds of Bollywood titles translate into much worse. We had to pay attention though, when friends from Dharavi joined hands with the protestors. The Indian media widely reported popular outrage at the word ‘dog’. But what we heard from Manju Keny, a 19 year – old college student living in Dharavi – was something else. She was upset at the word ‘slum’.

We could not agree more.

Dharavi is the celebrated Mumbai neighborhood in which some the most spectacular scenes of Danny Boyle’s movie were shot, including the anti-Muslim riots of 1992. The opening sequence, however was actually filmed near the airport, with kids playing on the plane field, being chased by policemen and landing up – in a moment of pure Hollywood magic – a few kilometers away in Dharavi. Rather than name an actual location, the movie constructs a cinematic slum out of many pockets around Mumbai.

This imagery represents what most middle-class residents in Mumbai (and now all over the world) imagine Dharavi to be. The urban legend has taken root only because few of them have ever been there. It is the same reason why most Manhattanites still avoid stepping anywhere near Bed-Stuy, that beautiful and vibrant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Times might have changed since Barry Stein described it as the “largest ghetto in the US” but old prejudices die hard.

Likewise, the slum imagery does little justice to the reality of Dharavi. Don’t expect to see the familiar clichés about urban poverty here. Well over a million “eyes on the street”, to use Jane Jacobs’ phrase, keep Dharavi safer than most US cities. Yet, Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into an oppressive feeling. The crowd is efficiently absorbed in the thousands of tiny streets branching into bustling commercial arteries. Also, you won’t be chased by beggars or see depressed people loitering. Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an already incredibly industrious city.

What you will see however are piles of garbage uncollected by municipal authorities. These are favored by a certain brand of photo-reporters and slum tourists. But then again, one has to remember images of Naples during the garbage crisis. In comparison, things are nowhere as bad in Dharavi where people have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state – including the setting up of a highly functional waste recycling industry that serves the whole city.

This resourcefulness has aroused the curiosity of people from all over the world. They cannot get their head around this phenomenon, which in sixty years emerged out of marshlands to become a multi-million dollar economic miracle that provides fresh food to Mumbai and exports crafts and manufactured goods to places as far as Sweden.

No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the success of Dharavi. It was entirely built by successive waves of immigrants who moved there in response to rural poverty, political oppression or natural disasters. They managed to produce a place that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself. In the words of its resident-activist Bhau Korde – “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression.” The fact that it developed with internal resources, through the sheer resourcefulness of its inhabitants is something truly special.

Not surprisingly an increasing number of students, researchers, activists and writers are feeding off Dharavi to produce new concepts, participatory methodologies and architectural systems. They come not to help poor people but to learn from Dharavi. The Net Generation in particular recognizes itself in the story of this self-developing city, which is powered by the collective intelligence and individual aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people.

Why can’t government officials, real-estate developers and NGO workers think about Dharavi in any other way than as a slum that needs to be cleared and redeveloped? Maybe it is simply a conceptual and generational gap. Why can’t they see that development is in fact the main driving principle of Dharavi? Its apparently messy organization is not a problem in itself but rather an expression of intensive social and economic processes at work. In an age of complexity, artificial intelligence and wiki-logic, this should be self-evident.

Any attempt to segregate living and working would not make any more sense in there than in an artist’s loft in Brooklyn. In typical post-industrial fashion, in Dharavi homes double up as productive spaces. When the morning comes, mattresses are folded and tens of thousands of units emerge to sustain a decentralized production network rivaling in efficiency with the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops.

Dharavi is the ultimate user-generated city. Its urban and economic development relies on the intensive use of social networks and communities. Each of Dharavi’s 80 plus neighborhoods has been incrementally developed by generations of residents updating their shelters and businesses according to needs and means. This organizational logic is neither new nor unique to Dharavi, but we have never been in a better time to understand it. Just as the development of open source software requires guidelines and coordination; all Dharavi needs is some support from the government – mostly in the form of giving its functioning some legitimacy by providing the same services as in any other part of the city– and then trusting its inhabitants to continue from there.

For this to happen, urban planning needs to come to terms with some of the fundamental changes that the information age has brought to all fields of knowledge and practice. The role of the expert, for one, must be reinvented. It is no longer possible for planners to work in isolation. Instead we must find ways to plug into local knowledge and respond with new ideas, tools and practices. Besides, the complexity of a neighborhood such as Dharavi should never be blanketed under a generic term such as ‘slum’. One way to deal with it, is to disaggregate and localize planning and design interventions. This should build on existing dynamics and incentives and work through the internal logic of each community.

This is no fantasy wishlist. Sometimes, historical accidents show the way for such spontaneous urban evolution. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise high density and mixed-use cityscape, which appears messy and chaotic to western planners, has emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference was that it modernized, legitimized and was supported by economic growth, which its inhabitants themselves contributed towards.

Maybe all that Dharavi needs is a recognition of such spontaenous processes that have always sustained its development. As Ramesh Misra, lawyer and life-long resident puts it, echoing the aspirations of many in Dharavi: ‘We have always improved Dharavi by ourselves. All we want is permission and support to keep doing it. Is that asking for too much?’

1 Comment »

  1. While Slumdog Millionaire has provided a vast array of discussion on the internet, I am pleased to see an argument of such substance and open-mindedness. I have recently been lucky enough to travel to India, and although I was unable to visit Mumbai, I feel that cities such as Delhi and Varanasi were of significant comparison in regards to your thoughts. The cinematic collage of Mumbai, which ultimately culminates as the image of Dharavi in the film, struck an eerily familiar tone from my days in India. People who have never experienced these pocket neighborhoods would find it easy to draw negative conclusions about them; however, I agree whole-heartedly that there is a definite lesson to be learned from the “sheer resourcefulness of its inhabitants” and the organic nature of these areas. What I enjoyed most about my visits, also shared by that “certain brand of photo-reporters and slum tourists,” is the urban palimpsest quality that has been laid over time. The locals drying clothes and selling food amongst the grazing cows all superimposed on centuries of architecture that has been broken, patched, rewired and adapted over time. This serendipitous charm and the sensory overload that you receive with every turn is what makes India worth seeing. But perhaps this is the attitude of the fortunate visitor and not the viewpoint of the end-user of these areas. I cannot help but wonder whether these people are truly benefitting from the landfills that they inhabit. Albeit, they provide a level of economic value in the way that they recycle, but there must certainly be a better, cleaner, more sustainable method to the madness that occurs in Dharavi. I believe the people here make do with what they are given and are incredibly resilient, which results in the photogenic nature of these regions, but is that reason enough to say that they are happy with their current situations? I also agree that spreading development of Mumbai over the area would be a negative, but do you think there could be some way the area could be developed to enhance the cleanliness, safety, and economic production of Dharavi without displacing the local residents?

    Comment by timothy nguyen — March 10, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

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