Friday, November 02, 2007

The Dharavi Dilemma

That Dharavi’s make-over will change Mumbai’s landscape is fairly obvious. Nearly as obvious as the fact that the execution of the scheme will be a huge challenge. Relocating people and relocating businesses is going to be much more difficult than getting a bulldozer and razing a few huts and shanties.

And we’ve made a great start. We have no idea how many people stay at Dharavi. That’s right, the redevelopment plan of Asia’s largest slum, till some time back, was being done without any idea of how many people staying there, save for a vague number of 57,000 families (do a google search here to see how widely quoted this arbit number is). No surveys done, no approval from the slum residents required. The only voice we hear is that of builders and politicians, both of whom are already talking bids, designs, houses, commercial complexes, artists renditions, etc.

Thankfully, with the appointment of Dr. T. Chandrashekhar (Ex MMRDA chief) as Officer on Special Duty, there’s at least some move towards transparency. Take, for example, his first move – to do an extensive biometric survey to establish how many people actually live there. The survey itself has run into a controversy, but let’s leave that there.

A few days back, in an HT op-ed piece, noted urban planner Shirish B. Patel wrote a brilliant piece (link here, but since its an e-paper link, it will probably vanish in some time) which raised pertinent questions on the project, citing earlier slum rehab schemes in Mumbai and Delhi which didn’t work out right.

For example: 55 years back, pavement dwellers from Matunga and Sion were relocated to Janata Colony, Chembur. Over time (by the 1970s) the colony grew large, but it also became surrounded on three sides by the Atomic Energy Commission, which wanted them out. In the monsoons of 1976, the colony was bulldozed and the people relocated to Cheetah Camp where the monsoons drove water to just under their beds. They live there even today, and Cheetah Camp, like Janata Colony is thriving with activity.

Mr. Patel recalls the Shiv Sena which finally gave slum-dwellers their due. Which reminds me of the fruity logic thrown by some people. Logic which goes “Slums are illegal, therefore all slums should be demolished”, or the really kooky one which goes “Slum dwellers don’t contribute to Mumbai’s economy” (Read the article for why those arguments are incorrect). But I digress.

The Shiv Sena formulated the Slum Rehab Scheme, recognizing the legitimacy of slum-dwellers. The Scheme, simply put, provided for free, new housing for slum-dwellers at their existing location. The extra land would be built open by builders, fetching exponentially higher revenues and thereby financing the re-housing of the slum-dwellers. The brilliance of the scheme probably lay in its simplicity. The slum-dwellers are happy (they put their new homes on rent and build a slum elsewhere to profit similarly), the builders are happy (loads of money), the politicians are happy (solid vote-bank built). Now, just to clarify, its not that I’m saying that this was the incorrect way of doing things (I wish I knew the correct way), but this scheme has been known to be a failure and to have been plagued by corruption.

Coming back to Dharavi, Mr. Patel gives an amazing statistic. The Kalbadevi-Bhuleshwar area in Mumbai is the densest in the world – 70% worse than Shanghai. If you’ve already been there, you probably didn’t need that statistic. There’s barely anywhere to walk, leave alone drive. Dharavi, he says, is similar. Mr. Patel asks
So, if everyone living in Dharavi is resettled there, where is the space for newcomers? How will anyone move around, whether he is a newcomer or an old resident?.

Something has to give. Either the State Government resiles on its promise to re-house all of Dharavi’s occupants in-situ, compensates some of them (handsomely, one hopes) and asks them to move out. Or it accepts a programme of in-situ incremental improvement such that Dharavi remains in the possession of Dharavi’s residents only, with no new occupants (unless someone chooses to sell out)
Besides all this, there is also the issue of the slum-dwellers themselves. Now that their say doesn’t count (remember that the rule of 70% consent for the project, has been done away for Dharavi), what’s stopping them from going to courts? Or for any political vested interest to take advantage?

The issue is not one of whether the re-development should be done or not. The issue is not that opposition to the project implies opposition to development. The issue is who do you trust? What gives you any assurance that post redevelopment, the very problems we're seeking to resolve don't come back to haunt us? It's about execution. About building confidence, perhaps even a consensus, that this scheme, and/or any modification, has a sure shot of working, rather than be soaked in doubt.

But, the only people who are optimistic that the Dharavi Re-development Plan will transform Mumbai are the builders and the politicians. I’m thinking Mill Land redux.

So, redevelopment, land-grab, make-over, pick your term and lets see where this goes.