Learning From Dharavi

October 25, 2009

1. Can’t Picture it: Demographic surveys and enumerations lie. They cannot possibly tell the truth about the number of people coming, going, living, working, renting, subletting and encroaching. Dharavi can only be effectively grasped on the ground and in real-time.

2. Many Dharavis: Dharavi is a collection neighbourhoods, each with their own specialities, languages, activities, festivals, rituals and aspirations. Each follow its own organizational logic.

3. Dharavi is not Poor: Dharavi is an Indian success story. It is full of opportunities. It doesn’t matter how small one starts, as long as one is allowed to fulfill one’s potential. That’s what Dharavi has meant for hundreds of thousands of people.

4. Artisanal City: Dharavi strives on artisanal energy. A house is an object like any other. To build one you need knowhow and materials. Dharavi is not an architect’s city by any means and yet architects are fascinated by it for this very energy it exudes.

5. Do it Yourself or Die: Landing up in Dharavi means having a foot in the door to India’s wealthiest city. Migrants either exploit it to the maximum (sometimes all the way to the top) or get their foot cut off.

6. A Cluster of Tool-houses: In Dharavi virtually every home doubles up as a productive space. A tool-house emerges when every wall, nook and corner becomes an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitant. When the furnace and the cooking hearth exchange roles and when sleeping competes with warehouse space.

7. Reading Dharavi’s Palm: Dharavi’s history can be read through its streets, they are like the lines of the hand. It reveals a history of incremental development configured through the biography of each migrant, family, or community that ever moved in.

8. Dharavi is a Mangrove Forest: Architecture, social networks, and economic activity are irremediably enmeshed, like the roots and branches of a mangrove. Destroy one and you destroy the others. Let one grow, and you develop everything.

9. Forest Economy: Like all jungles, Dharavi is full of resources for those who know how to hunt and gather. Dharavi is a knowledge and skill based economy.

10. Density is Wealth: If there are enough people passing by, (and there always are) – you’ll always be able to sell something to someone. Density means opportunities and Dharavi is Super Dense.

11. Space = K: Space is capital, human energy is capital, relatives, neighbors and community members are capital. Capitalize and maximize whatever you’ve got – that is Dharavi’s byline.

12. Las Dharavegas: Dharavi follows the same logic of hyper exploitation of space, people and opportunities as Las Vegas. Aesthetically, however, it is vastly superior to Las Vegas. Humanly even more so.

13. My Sweatshop: Dharavi is the libertarian version of totalitarian Chinese sweatshop, producing just as much with a decentralized web of producers. Just as exploitative but allows more individual mobility and initiative.

14. Live/Work or Leave Work: Work at home if you can afford it. If you can’t then live at work. Either way no space can have just one function, unless it is sacred space. Gods and spirits need some privacy.

15. Intimate with Neighbours: Intimacy means everyone knows about everyone’s life. You are intimate with your neighbors for better or worse.

16. Hell is the Other People: Hell is other people and Dharavi is loaded with other people from all over India. The relations are conflictual but without violence (usually). At the end the bazaar keeps the goodwill flowing.

17. Fractal Social Fractures: In Dharavi you find refuge in your community and family only to find out that they are a fractal image of whatever lays outside them. Social networks are not smooth. Dealing with them only means more creative and pragmatic solutions rather than the bourgeois sense of corrected consensus.

18. Mess is more: Neighbourhoods that looks messy and backward at first sight are often instead complex, dynamic and resolutely contemporary. The karmic potential of Dharavi is realized in Tokyo’s periphery. Dharavi shares its history of incremental development, its low-rise high-density typology and labyrinthine street patterns with many of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods.

19. With Love From Dharavi: Some say it has the charm of European old towns. Yes, the very same “romantic” old towns that we all love. Did they look as pretty back then when they had open sewage systems?

20. The Village Inside: Dharavi is made of the same urban fabric that can be found in many artisan villages and smalls town in India, just much more of it. Scratch the surface and you’ll see the village emerge, almost intact.

21. Invisible Ties: Dharavi’s biggest strength in tangible terms is community/caste ties. Shrines and sacred spaces abound in Dharavi indicating this connection. They evoke old cultural trajectories and support systems.

22. Dharavi Development Project: Dharavi is already developed, it doesn’t need to be redeveloped. It simply needs the same add-on civic infrastructure that is available in any other part of the city. The Dharavi “Redevelopment” Project means stopping its on-going development and kicking hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets of Mumbai and throwing them into a situation of penury. They will move to another slum or start a fresh one, making Mumbai worse off.


  1. fantastic way of seeing and telling a tale told many a times.

    Comment by shilpa — October 25, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  2. Amazing!So many lessons laid up right in front of our eyes. If, that is, we would only avoid turning our faces away uncomfortably from the surface squalor and grime.

    Comment by Sunita — November 9, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  3. Rahul and Matias,
    I am currently working on a documentary on Dharavi with a focus on the wonders of Dharavi as it is now. In June, I was in Dharavi conducting preliminary research through interviews and data collection. I would love to correspond with both you on your thoughts about the Redevelopment Project that the government is trying to push onto the people of Dharavi.
    Please contact me at the email address arjun.maniyar@gmail.com
    Thank you,
    Arjun Maniyar

    Comment by Arjun Maniyar — November 18, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

  4. The redesigning of Dharavi will require a very sensitive vision. All the modern amenities will have to be very carefully integrated so that not even an inch of space is lost by those who lived there. Most important of all the informal sector has to be satiated with the new proposal as it is the heart of this settlement. Most interesting and relevant part of the Dharavi is the mixed use of land. Like the workshops on the Ground flor while the living space on the upper level. All this will have to be carefully integrated. The designers would require to make it better by introducing the amenities like water, electricity and drain in a careful loop. The spaces in Dharavi is already a success- compact and functional. These people living here are wonderful human-beings, who care for their community and neighborhoods. Women here make all the efforts to keep the place clean. I hope that they do not make a mess of this project..or all they will see is another Dharavi in making!

    Comment by Richa Joshi — April 7, 2010 @ 8:20 am

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