Dharavi: a settlement, not a slum

Martina Spies, Mumbai Contributor

The picture unfortunately painted in most of our minds of Dharavi, which covers some 175 hectares in the heart of Mumbai, is that of an overcrowded, densely packed, filthy slum.

The more time I spend in Dharavi, however, the more I realize what a misnomer it is to label Dharavi as a slum.

UN-HABITAT defines a slum as a "run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security." The United Nations says that, in the developing world, the percentage of city-dwellers living in slums dropped from 47 percent to 37 percent between 1990 and 2005. However, due to rising population overall — and the rise, especially, in urban populations — the number of slum dwellers is rising. At the moment, one billion people worldwide live in slums, and the figure will likely grow to two billion by 2030.

Before I started visiting Dharavi many years ago, I too had this picture of rooftops and 'huts' densely stacked like a pack of cards and of people staying in houses without any ventilation. Sanitation, as I imagined it, happened in dark and dirty lanes, and residents basically lacked all the facilites we define as essential for survival. Don't get me wrong: there is a significant lack of proper sanitation, ventilation, and light in Dharavi. During the monsoon, the residents have to deal with flash floods entering their homes and are restricted in their activities. However, there's more to the story.

We, as outside observers, shouldn't romanticize these fascinating and colorful habitats that are connected to the tough and challenging living conditions of their inhabitants. But I must admit that when I entered Dharavi for the first time, I could immediately feel the verve and energy of the people around, being proud of their homes and self-created livelihoods. One of the most fascinating facts and qualities in Dharavi are the improvements on a very micro-level — all created by the people themselves, transforming Dharavi from a so-called slum into an established settlement. Their incredible strength and discipline has guided Dharavi's tenants in upgrading their homes by themselves with the help of small bank loans or private savings. Examples of these micro-improvements include setting up a waterpipe inside their house or replacing walls made out of metal with brick or concrete structures.

During the colonial period, Mumbai grew into an industrial town and, in the course of globalization, a megacity with about 18 million inhabitants. The economic capital attracted, and still continues to attract, tens of thousands people each year, who come in search of work from all the different parts of rural India. The development of infrastructure and housing construction, however, have not kept pace with this rapid rural-to-urban shift.

How Dharavi came to be

In the late 19th century, Gujarati migrants, unable to afford the rising cost of housing and land in the city's central area of South Bombay, moved north in the island city to a place called Dharavi. They built their first houses on a mangrove swamp by laboriously filling it with garbage, fish scraps and coconut leaves — the first of many signs of the ingenuity that would flourish here to make seemingly unworkable conditions work. Another community of leather tanners from Tamil Nadu settled nearby. Over the next few decades, immigrants came from all parts of India to work in the booming textile industry.

Over time, extremely dense and complex living and working quarters developed in Dharavi, which covers about two square kilometers of land. The area is characterized by a mix of small-scale settlements (usually a ground floor plus one additional floor) and tiny workshops, all built by the inhabitants themselves. Through the Slum Rehabilitation Plan, high-rise buildings sprouted up along the 90 Feet Road and Bandra Sion Link, two main Dharavi thoroughfares.

The 80 districts of Dharavi, the so-called "Nagars" (Hindi for "city"), were built and are dominated by different ethnic groups and communities. From their original villages, the inhabitants brought along specific occupations, food habits, clothing styles, and cultural and religious practices. What is most fascinating about Dharavi is how the migrants have reproduced these customs and traditions from their native villages in their spatial patterns and building types.

The few square meters of space occupied by one family in Dharavi are not only used for living, but also serve as a valuable and vital workplace. Space changes depending on one's particular life and work rhythm: During the day, spaces are converted into small factories and workshops; during the night, the entire floor space is transformed into beds. Most of the artisans set up their workshops in the backyard directly connected to their homes. Potters, carpenters, tanners, garbage collectors, papad makers, basket weavers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths (yes, you read it right!), embroidery craftsmen, tailors, printing press workers, dhobis (laundry services), and countless other workers make Dharavi a colorful, self-contained settlement — not a slum.

Upcoming posts and studies on this settlement will bring us inside Dharavi, with its vibrant occupation-based settlements, each of them challenging and interesting in its own ways.

Martina Spies is an Austrian architect and researcher who lives in Mumbai. She has been in India for several years, working for Laurie Baker's NGO Costford in Kerala, B.V. Doshi and Hasmukh Patel in Ahmedabad, and DCOOP in Mumbai. She is currently working on her Ph.D. exploring the qualities of livelihoods within Dharavi. She is the project manager of the research-collaboration project between the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the TATA Insitute in Mumbai titled "Dharavi — Ground Up: A Dwellers-Focused Design Tool for Upgrading Living Space in Dharavi, Mumbai." Martina explores the tangible and intangible spaces at a micro-level, starting with the smallest cell, a house in Dharavi, or the vibrant livelihood of the dwellers. She is interested in how people reflect their traditional living environments from rural areas in their new urban homes.

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