Is Dharavi a symbol of Mumbai's failures?

Naresh Fernandes, Mumbai Contributor

While some Bombayites have adopted the Bandra-Worli Sea Link as a symbol of everything they believe is right with the city, I must confess that I'm quite astonished by how many others seem to believe that Dharavi is a shining example of the city's potential. That's a process that's been greatly accelerated with the success of the film Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, when Barack Obama visited Bombay in 2011, he made it a point to praise the people living in the "winding alleys of Dharavi" for their optimism and determination.

New urban studies jargon now refers to Dharavi as "an informal city" that has been created by the boundless enterprise of its residents. Almost every news report about Dharavi informs readers that its residents produce several hundred million dollars worth of goods each year — some estimates suggest a figure of $500 million or $600 million. As a corollary, this school of opinion believes that informal settlements like Dharavi and the hundreds of others around Bombay should be left undisturbed, so that they can continue to keep displaying boundless enterprise and keep being productive citizens. There's also an ecological edge to this argument. Dharavi's residents are praised for how efficiently they use scarce space and resources. Academics who celebrate Dharavi say that the world can't really afford to live any other way.

Don't get me wrong. I entirely support the right of the poor to live and work in the city. In fact, I believe that we must do a great deal more to ensure that they get a fair deal in Bombay. But to me, this fetishization of Dharavi makes a virtue out of very dire necessity. Besides, it's tinged with a condescending, neo-liberal lining. As I see it, this rhetoric implies that Dharavi residents should be allowed to live there mainly because they're contributing to our great economic machine — not just because they, as citizens, have the same rights to the city as we do.

Ask its residents about the struggle they face getting water in the morning, about how many people are packed together with them in their homes, about the rats that nibble at their toes each night, and then reconsider the alleged magic of Dharavi. Dharavi is now more than 80 years old and to me, it's a symbol of the failure of our society that we've allowed it to continue to exist in this squalid form all these decades later.

Naresh Fernandes is a journalist from Mumbai and former editor of Time Out magazine's editions in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. He is the author most recently of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age and the title essay of Bombay Then, Mumbai Now, a photographic book about the city's historical and comptemporary development. He has previously co-edited Bombay Meri Jaan, an anthology of writing about the city.

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