Death of the Urban Village

Page 1 of 1
Mumbai’s Shanghai dream involves ‘saving’ Dharavi by first razing it. As this extract shows, this benefits nobody more than the corrupt builder-politician lobby
Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World | Jeb Brugmann | Harper Litmus| 330 pages | Rs 399

Visiting a workshop that specialises in collecting, cleaning, and sorting the intestines of goats and sheep to supply Johnson & Johnson Company’s Dharavi-based sterile sutures factory, a call came inviting us to meet the successful Long Island mansion-builder Mukesh Mehta. He shared our fascination with Dharavi and had studied it for years.

We met Mehta at a new four-star hotel not far from Dharavi. The hotel was typical of new construction in Mumbai, a lavish high-rise that towered above old residential colonies, maturing slums, and vestiges of other Mumbai city models from earlier times. Rushing through introductory niceties... Mehta fired up an animated PowerPoint presentation that summarised his proposals for Dharavi.

“Every person is entitled to the dignity of a secure shelter,” it intoned, sounding like a declaration from a United Nations summit. He bemoaned the “sub-human conditions” and the stifling of “enterprising slum dwellers”. Crescendoing, Mehta then showed how his plan would help transform Mumbai into “a new Shanghai”! Dharavi, the erstwhile slum, would be converted “into a world-class cultural, knowledge, business and healthcare centre”... The current migrant city would be razed and cleared. Households with an established residency in Dharavi would be provided with a free 225-square-foot, two-room apartment in a high-rise building near their current location. If people wanted more space, they could buy it at market rates. Sewer lines, drains, and private toilets as well as a safe electricity network would be installed. Recreational areas would be relocated and upgraded. Non-polluting industries would be “rehabilitated”, and polluting industries would be relocated to new manufacturing zones, many outside the area. To him, this plan was a humanitarian no-brainer and an urban development win-win solution... And then he dropped the real news, still to be publicly announced: in a closed door meeting, the chief minister of the state government had decided to implement his plan...

I was numbed by what I’d heard. How could anyone who had observed Dharavi for so long miss the most obvious fact about it: that the residential-industrial citysystem was proving itself every day in the marketplace to be worldclass? It stood as probably the most successful, scaled poverty-reduction program in the history of international development. Within the Indian context, Dharavi’s migrant generations had developed an accessible, replicable citysystem for the advancement of the country’s poor majority. It was a stunning example of Indian entrepreneurial ability and ambition. With millions of poor households migrating to India’s cities each year, it seemed almost obvious that this migrant citysystem just needed to be accompanied with the same public investment in urban infrastructure offered to every other Mumbai city model...

Mumbai is known for its powerful builders. The nature of their organisation remains murky, but stories about corrupt deals between the “builder’s lobby” and politicians, or relationships with the criminal underworld, are common. As in any city, local developers typically specialise in a set of city models... Once they adapt the models’ business and design elements to local conditions, developers put together projects—cultivating local political support and acquiring land, permits, finance, and anchor tenants—to construct the models’ increasingly predictable products for predictable returns across the city.

Mumbai’s new suburb city model is a hybrid of the high-rise, mixed residential, office and retail complexes... A typical project involves a clustered arrangement of apartment towers adjacent to an office plaza alongside a shopping mall. This cluster suggests a potential citysystem... But as a city model, it generates no community of residents who seek these particular locational arrangements. Few large employers have established offices in these new developments... Similarly, the new generation of Indian professionals changes jobs frequently. So for now, the new suburb model hosts a residential population that leaves in the morning and a workday population that leaves in the evening, creating little joint advantage together. It works as a shadow of a citysystem...

Other options for Dharavi’s renewal are clearly available. The latest urbanist revivals of Europe, North America, and Latin America favour incremental redevelopment of deteriorated low-income areas to increase the equity of established residents and match their building investments with new public infrastructure and facilities. Rio de Janeiro leads the way. Having learned the futile folly of slum clearances and high-rise relocations in the 1960s-1970s, in the mid-1990s Rio started to convert its famed migrant city favelas into more stable, lawful, sanitary, mixed-use neighbourhoods, with minimal clearing and relocation. In the first phase they organised all of the city’s departments—planning, public works, and social services—into a single team that went to each favela to research, design, plan, and build new drainage, toilet and sewerage systems, roads, clinics, and recreational centers in close working partnership with the communities. Then, in 2002, they steadily granted legal titles to the residents, in exchange for each household’s compliance with official building codes.

In Europe, planners learned the folly of ghetto clearance and masterplanned urban renewal in the 1960s-1970s, so incremental renewal strategies are now common practice in dilapidated districts... Even in Asia, there is a history of city building that offers an alternative to the clear-and-rebuild approach. As we were meeting with Mukesh Mehta, urbanologist Matias Echanove was also exploring Dharavi. He concluded that Mumbai’s migrant city had remarkable similarities with, of all places, the development of modern Tokyo. After Toyko’s destruction in World War II, he explains, the city rapidly recovered by melding two traditions of city building into a unique citysystem that Echanove calls the Tokyo Model... The country’s central planners focused on rebuilding Tokyo’s wrecked water, sewerage and road systems. But the rebuilding of the city’s housing and commercial spaces was left to residents. Tokyo did not impose Western-style zoning to regulate and separate land uses and building types. Its citizen city-builders reached back into their traditions of small-town life and created a flexible city of village-like, residential-commercial settlements, in some ways remarkably like the migrant-entrepreneurs of Dharav…

The plan to “save” Dharavi seems all too crass: if you take close to a million people living in one- to three-story buildings and resettle them into smaller units in seven-story buildings, then you create vast amounts of new, undeveloped land. In Dharavi’s case, this land is located in central Mumbai—some of the most valuable real estate in the world. Mehta would later say that Dharavi also represented “a gold mine that the government was not seeing ... I’ve tried to take the opportunity to cash in on that”. ‘Slum-Free Dharavi’ would create a massive real estate boon for its proponents and establish a central strategic foothold for Mumbai’s emerging new suburb city. It would also create a windfall for the city’s political class. Bribery is an industry in Mumbai.