Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, is supposed to represent the quintessential Asian slum. Crowded streets and busy markets; domestic workshops cheek by jowl with sweatshops producing both real and fake Pepe jeans; brick houses rising as high as their microscopic footprints allow; high-rises mushrooming here and there like gigantic shacks; schools in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, English, Marathi, Urdu and other languages, usually with more than 50 pupils per class; temples of every Buddhist and Hindu denomination; flamboyant mosques so crowded that people have to pray on the streets during namaz; old churches with full congregations – remnants of the region’s seventeenth-century Portuguese history – and new evangelical missions converting low-caste Hindus by the dozen; community toilets that double up as marriage halls; piles of garbage waiting to be picked over by scavengers; open drains running along narrow back streets; thousands of water pipes branching off in every direction.
Dharavi invariably confuses those eager to capture its reality in shorthand. Visitors looking for an essence of the place often land on its edges and corners, in spots that most Dharavi residents themselves have seen only on TV. They may be rewarded for their intrepidness by the sight of barefoot children walking on water pipes against the obligatory backdrop of garbage – a cliché that resonates so powerfully with familiar discourses on poverty and inequality that it obliterates the depth and complexity of the place. Dharavi is diverse and rapidly transforming, and it deceives as much as it overwhelms. It is an enigma that cannot be resolved by simply labelling it one thing or the other.
From the rooftop of Mohan Kanle’s two-storey house, the neighbourhood seems part of the immutable story of urbanism, recalling medieval Italian towns, Istanbul’s bazaars, the by-lanes of Benares, old Delhi, Guangzhou’s urban villages and even Tokyo’s dense residential suburbs. From this vantage point, it seems embedded in the shadow history of human settlements anywhere in the world where planning and control give way to incremental and small-scale development. In some parts, one sees hundreds of low-rise structures so tightly packed that they appear to share one single cement-sheet roof. No wonder urban designers and architecture students love to imagine bridges connecting all of these houses, with new roofs acting as public spaces and gardens.
Mohan’s house was built by his father in the early 1990s. Mumbai’s extreme weather, with monsoon rain for four months and hot, saline air most of the year, has tested the limits of this humble structure. The roof has been leaking for a few years, forcing Mohan to install a shed as protection from the violent rains. About 18 people share seven rooms, which can be accessed from multiple entrances. The structure consists of a maze of connecting doorways and passages, and its uneven proportions are a legacy of its incremental growth. While not abnormally big for Dharavi, the house is larger than most others. There is no rule when it comes to the housing typology of Dharavi. Diversity is the only norm.
Mohan works with us. From our office in Dharavi we run URBZ,1 an experimental platform for collaborative urban practices, and the Institute of Urbanology,2 an urban planning and research studio. Our practice operates on the boundary between urban planning and anthropology, reflecting our own academic training. But more than anything else, we define ourselves as ‘urbanologists’. To us, urbanology is the art and science of engaging with local processes and narratives, through collaboration with users. We believe that the inhabitants of a place are experts in their habitats.
As followers of Patrick Geddes, Jane Jacobs, John FC Turner and Ivan Illich, we see ourselves as part of a tradition of activists and thinkers who are sceptical of grand urban gestures and meta-narratives of order and efficiency. These gestures tend to reduce rich and diverse urban fabrics into simplistic plans, and typically favour technocratic and capitalist logics over local economies and incremental improvement. We are not, however, opposed in any way to architectural and urban creativity. One of our goals is to establish better communication between residents and local builders and professionals in the fields of architecture, planning and engineering. We think that professional and local expertise can be combined to produce outcomes that could never have been foreseen by any of the parties independently. And rather than advocating laissez-faire, we believe that the government has a responsibility to provide a high standard of services for every neighbourhood – regardless of its history or demographics – and to actively support local initiatives geared towards the improvement of habitat and society.
If that sounds like common sense, it is light-years away from what the government is planning for Dharavi. True, the situation is unusually complex. Dharavi is an expression of the best and the worst of what can happen when residents and ‘users’ have to take charge of the development of their habitats. This is the contrary reality we must engage with. And it is precisely because we felt that professionally trained architects and urbanists have so much to learn from user-generated neighbourhoods that we set up our office in Dharavi.
The office is located on the last stretch of Mahatma Gandhi Road, in New Transit Camp. The area was created to house people displaced in an earlier effort at transforming Dharavi, but since no one was able to decide on their final destination the residents stayed put, many others moved in, and the area took on a life of its own. The street is lined by trees planted by our landlord, who arrived here 30-odd years ago from the southern state of Kerala. His house – acquired from one of the original residents of the camp – is used as both a family home and a source of revenue. Besides our office, the incrementally expanded three-storey structure now contains a communications centre, a soft-drinks shop, a Chinese fast-food restaurant, three families and an embroidery workshop, which doubles up as a dormitory by night.
Deafening music often blasts from Ambedkar Community Hall across the street, congratulating newly weds or celebrating traditional festivals from Ganpati to Eid Ul Fitar or Christmas. Right next to the hall is a gym used by Schwarzenegger-wannabes, a karambol parlour, a Tamil temple, a fish market, a busy public toilet and a garbage dump that is not regularly serviced. A municipal truck periodically picks up the accumulated garbage, but we often have to tiptoe around piles of organic and inorganic waste. Incidentally, this up-close acquaintance with garbage is a fact of life even in middle-class areas of Mumbai, especially near local railway stations and bazaars. In Dharavi you have the same DNA of crowds, the same density and intertwining of human lives, that you find in the city’s older neighbourhoods or in small towns all over the country – only perhaps in more concentrated form.
Knowing this, we started wondering how the subtle differences between Dharavi and other parts of Mumbai got magnified to create a narrative about the Great Slum – one that belongs to Mumbai but at the same time remains firmly outside it. Even after decades of debate and reporting, Dharavi remains in the popular imagination an anachronistic collection of temporary shacks inhabited by migrants from Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
This image is far from the reality we have been observing, documenting and engaging with over the past seven years. It is as important to understand what is so special about Dharavi as it is to debunk its mythified image. But the issue is not just an intellectual or an academic one: there are immediate practical concerns to address, relating to the many proposals put forward by the government and developers for the makeover of Dharavi. A series of interventions has so far led nowhere, because no one has been willing to negotiate the many dimensions that make up Dharavi’s complex fabric.
All talk of participation and people-centric planning has remained at a superficial level. Every proposed ‘solution’ has ignored the vital fact that transforming Dharavi’s appearance without engaging with its social and economic reality is a recipe for failure. It is our contention that any serious attempt at imagining Dharavi’s future must begin with the recognition of its multi-faceted quality. Its diverse habitats, modes of subsistence and aspirations must not be bulldozed by a masterplan – even at a conceptual level. Nor can anyone continue to pretend that, after more than 100 years of growth and development, Dharavi is still an illegitimate zone populated by squatters.
This essay is about the lived experience of Dharavi and the particular ways its inhabitants have shaped their environments over the years. It is also a plea to all those who are involved in imagining the future of Dharavi to begin from a consideration of its morphology. The point is not to preserve Dharavi in its present form: on the contrary, the history of this place is one of constant change and adaptation. Rather than freezing Dharavi into a masterplan defined by speculative interests and old-school urban planning – which are biased, respectively, against its population and its spontaneous spatial arrangement – we must invent another model of urban development entirely. This model has at its centre the ‘end-users’, considered as ‘generators’ of urban form. In Dharavi the user-generated city is not a theoretical proposition, but a reality. And although this reality may be far from perfect and in need of professional engagement, it needs to be factored in as a starting point. While we are not laying out a specific methodology of engagement in this essay, we try to share our knowledge and experience of Dharavi. We also present concepts that we have generated in our efforts to make sense of its complexity.