A popular slogan of property-less urban dwellers often reverberates in housing rights demonstrations: “Jo zameen sarkari hai, woh zameen hamari hai.” The land that is entrusted to the government is land that belongs to us.

Ironically, the slogan now belongs to plutocrats and mega-developers.

At the end of November, the Adani group won the bid to redevelop 260 hectares of Mumbai’s Dharavi settlement – a bid that it had lost more than three years ago to Seclink Technologies from the United Arab Emirates. In 2020, under the pretext of including another 12.9 hectares of land belonging to the Railways in the project, the Maharashtra government canceled the tender.

A fresh tender was floated in September this year, with revised conditions that conveniently made the previous winner ineligible. Adani’s takeover of Dharavi is hardly a surprise. Almost anyone following the story knew in which direction this one was unfolding.

Dharavi, once a swamp on the edge of colonial Bombay, is now a thriving spread of dense settlements in the heart of the city. Carved out by railway lines on two sides and the Mithi river on the third, it is socially and spatially diverse, yet known around the world as a very large “slum”.

Monetising urban land

The fertile field of the Island City of Mumbai is yielding a bumper harvest, with reapers of land value jostling to grab their share. Infrastructure mega-projects such as the Eastern Freeway and the Coastal Road, along with regulatory revisions designed to shrink environmental protections and selectively inflate buildable potential of urban land have affected an enticing lift to land prices. Mega urban renewal projects such as those at the BDD Chawls, Mumbai Port Trust and now Dharavi are sites where real-estate giants will reap what they never sowed.

Nevertheless, the monetisation of land faces a serious political obstacle: the people who work and live on it. Therefore, rehabilitation for the “redevelopment” project will squeeze all “entitled” residents into a corner (in less than half the area) and squeeze out everyone else (more than half of the families).

While bureaucrats continue to feign concern for Dharavi’s residents and their “quality of life”, property consultants are more clear-eyed about the project’s actual objectives and beneficiaries. As one consultant explained, the social rehabilitation of residents may be the biggest “stumbling block” for the Adani Group.

Credit: A Savin, Free Art Licence, via Wikimedia Commons

The genesis of Dharavi

For more than a century, Dharavi has been a bugbear of land administrators and speculators, keen on subjecting it to “improvement schemes” for their own ends. This has fostered a long tradition of struggle by its residents.

The first attempt was made in 1919, when the Bombay City Improvement Trust notified the area to “improve the prospects” of its suburban residential projects in Dadar and Sion. The plan was to move tanneries in Dharavi elsewhere. But the tannery owners and the Dharavi fisher-folk resisted displacement so the scheme was eventually abandoned. Nevertheless, after the Improvement Trust was wound up, the land acquired under this scheme passed on to the municipal corporation.

The second major attempt came 75 years later, in 1985. Despite the predominantly municipal land ownership, the Indian National Congress intervened in Dharavi through the Maharashtra state government in the form of the Prime Minister’s Grant Project.

A committee was set up, led by the famous Mumbai architect Charles Correa, which provided recommendations that emphasised in-situ improvements, a bottom-up approach to planning, shifting the tanneries to Deonar and resettling a part of the population in the Bandra-Kurla area. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority was appointed as a Special Planning Authority for Dharavi in 1987. The Prime Minister’s Grant Project aimed to provide infrastructure and subsidise development through local participation – and would allow cooperatives to voluntarily undertake their own development by hiring architects and contractors.

The problem was the numbers. The Prime Minister’s Grant Project claimed that the project would require 20,000 families to be resettled outside Dharavi because it was too dense to accommodate everyone. The numbers were contested by an NGO-led survey that claimed that the actual number of displaced families would be close to 65,000. Eventually, due to multiple political and practical considerations, the ambitions of the Prime Minister’s Grant Project were scaled down and little was achieved.

The redevelopment project

The arrival of the “slum rehabilitation” approach in the 1990s transformed the very assumptions of slum improvement: from state financed/subsidised rehousing towards in-situ slum redevelopment by monetising urban land. Private developers would be allowed to rehabilitate slum dwellers on a small part of the plot, releasing land for houses or offices that the developer could sell on the market. The Slum Rehabilitation Authority was formed by the state government in 1997 to administer developer-led slum rehabilitation projects.

By 2004, about 86 projects were approved in Dharavi. Soon, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority developed greater ambitions for Dharavi – to transform it into an “integrated township”. It declared all of Dharavi as an “undeveloped area”.

The next attempt to transform Dharavi was after the Slum Rehabilitation Authority was appointed as the Special Planning Authority in 2005. It proposed handing over large areas to developers and using incentive Floor Space within Dharavi itself to redevelop the area that was divided into nine sectors (later reduced to five).

The Floor Space Index or FSI – the ratio of permissible built up area to land area – was increased from 2.5 to 4. The Dharavi Redevelopment Project was born, almost instantly resulting in a 40% increase in Dharavi’s land values.

Questions were raised across the board. A major source of controversy was the list of eligible households. Between 2007-’09, an NGO called Mashal was appointed to carry out a survey. Only the ground storey of structures belonging to those having documents to prove residence prior to the year 1995 (later revised to 2000) were considered eligible – excluding those living on rent or on the upper floors. The survey listed 58,243 eligible structures, 46,755 of which were residential, and 11,158 that were either commercial or industrial.

The various protests and representations that emerged in response to the Dharavi Redevelopment Project embarrassed the government enough to take urgent steps for damage control. Meanwhile, the global financial crisis had dampened investor interest; for several reasons, the Dharavi Redevelopment Project process was stalled. While its outlines remained on paper, its original enthusiasm was gradually eroded through years of sustained negotiations of residents and activists with the authorities.

Dharavi residents during a demonstration against a redevelopment plan, in Mumbai in June 2007. Credit: Reuters.

The SPV company

It is in this context that the establishment of the new Adani-led Special Purpose Vehicle company for Dharavi must be examined. First, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority/Dharavi Redevelopment Project has reduced its own economic and voting share to 20%, rescinding its powers while ensuring a share of the project’s profits.

Secondly, in all of the earlier schemes for Dharavi – even in the Dharavi Redevelopment Project for that matter – there was some room for residents to negotiate at the planning or political level. This scope may now be reduced to virtual non-existence. Third, the entire process of public debate, deliberation and negotiated settlement that has emerged since the Dharavi Redevelopment Project was announced have been erased in one stroke.

The Special Purpose Vehicle is armed with extraordinary powers. The details are enclosed in the tender document that has been circulating privately, but unavailable to the public. The Special Purpose Vehicle will carry out its own survey to finalise those residents who will be ruled eligible and ineligible.

It will prepare an entirely new master plan – and there is nothing in the tender document that suggests that this plan will be open to public scrutiny. It will prepare an entirely new Slum Rehabilitation Scheme for Dharavi. Redevelopment will include slum and non-slum areas, as well as on-site and off-site infrastructure.

Most of all, it will be supported with a dedicated police force for “maintaining public law and order, security and for vacating and removing the occupants from the illegal construction”.

A ‘vital public purpose project’

As a result of Bombay City Improvement Trust intervention in Dharavi in the 1920s, a large part of Dharavi’s land is owned by the municipal corporation. Consequently, land acquisition has never been a major cost in any rehousing proposal. Furthermore, the project has been given the status of a “vital public purpose project” – meaning that it is of importance not only to the residents, but to society as a whole.

This begs the question: why involve profit making at all? Almost everything admirable about Dharavi is made by its numerous communities, and almost everything that is disagreeable is the result of municipal neglect. Dharavi’s staggering land value has been collectively produced over the decades, much of it by the labour of residents themselves.

They transformed a swamp on the periphery of the city into habitable land, and produced an industrial and residential economy that provides homes and jobs to millions. Why should this be siphoned away by a company that has done absolutely nothing to make it what it is worth?

An art installation of Dharavi, at an exhibit in 2018. Credit: Pulakit Singh, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This has been the plea of Mumbai’s veteran planner Shirish Patel, who argues that all of Dharavi’s land ought to be used only for homes, workplaces and amenities of the people who have made it a thriving settlement in the heart of Mumbai. Once we remove the obsession with profits, an entirely different set of possibilities emerge.

Out of the 260 hectares of the new planning area in Dharavi, approximately 145 hectares is buildable. At 500 tenements per net hectare, this works out to 72,500 households. This could accommodate all the entitled households and commercial enterprises, as well as many more that have been excluded from the survey. These units could be built as much as 40 sq m per unit in walk-up buildings by utilising not more than 2.0 FSI.

If we assume construction cost of Rs 10 lakh per unit, the scheme could be built at the cost of Rs 7,200 crores. To be on the safe side, let us double it: say Rs 15,000 crores. This is a large amount, but hardly unaffordable for the state or the municipal government. The Mumbai municipal corporation currently sits on Rs 82,000 crore reserves (in fixed deposits), and is spending Rs 15,000 crores for an astonishingly wasteful Coastal Road project.

Surely, if Dharavi redevelopment is a “vital public purpose” project, the money can be found. The phrase, however, belies an ominous intent – not the inclination for public investment, but the ever looming threat of state coercion to enable private profiteering.

The Special Purpose Vehicle’s likely gain from the redevelopment helps contextualise the eagerness to redevelop Dharavi. If we conservatively assume 65,000 rehabilitation units constructed by the Special Purpose Vehicle at 30 sq m per tenement (rehabilitation, renewal and rental households), with incentive FSI of 1.33 times rehab area, we get 2,593,500 sq m of saleable area for the Special Purpose Vehicle – almost equal to the whole planning area of Dharavi. At Rs 250,000 per square meter, this works out to Rs 65,000 crore.

In short, Dharavi may not be the “largest slum in Asia” – as many like to declare – but it is almost certainly Asia’s most lucrative site for profit-focused redevelopment.

The myth of Dharavi

Yet, in this long history of scheming for Dharavi, very few have asked what Dharavi is, what the people who live in this part of the city worry about and look forward to, and how they would themselves like this area to be transformed.

As Mumbai’s tireless journalist Kalpana Sharma writes in her timeless book, Dharavi is a creation of the government, of academics, social workers (and we must add, the media) – none of whom actually live in this “connected and disconnected world of contiguous settlements”.

The one “big slum” called Dharavi is a myth – a name that has served sometimes to stigmatise, at other times to celebrate, but rarely to understand it.

For the state and real-estate capital, Dharavi is little more than under-capitalised land. For reform-minded planners and architects and activists, it has abysmal physical conditions. For those whose craft is image making, it is either an embarrassment, or the manifestation of enterprise and ingenuity. In all of these views, Dharavi remains one place – not particular places and specific communities.

A woman outside her home in Dharavi in April 2020. Credit: Reuters.

Social, economic geography

While the main purpose of official surveys in Dharavi has been to establish who can stay and who must leave, other surveys of subjective well-being in Dharavi defy the single-focus perspectives of its outside observers.

As the Dutch scholar Jan Nijman shows, 60% of Dharavi residents surveyed consider their quality of life better than the Mumbai average. Sixty-two per cent believe that their life has improved over the past five years. Seventy-three per cent of the residents do not refer to their dwelling as a slum – instead they use the term chali or single room tenement.

The most valued aspect of living in Dharavi is “community”. Second is its “advantageous location” in the city. But almost all residents admitted that the most negative aspect of their neighborhood was poor waste management and the absence of a sewerage network.

While Dharavi’s housing may be substandard, it combines residential and social functions (social geography) with economic functions (economic geography) – evolving into what Nijman calls “economic and social self-organisation”. In other words, Dharavi is a place for living as well as a generator and incubator of production and employment – the main contributor to its impressive stability and longevity.

Grand plans for Dharavi have stumbled because they have assumed that its complex socio-economic life can be instantly and geometrically reorganised in high-rises. But while the various communities who reside there understand the problems of their neighborhoods and desire better conditions, they have never been in the mood to forget how they earn their living, or to watch their social life being ripped apart.

In 2009, a committee of experts wrote to Ashok Chavan, who was chief minister at the time, that the Dharavi Redevelopment Project is a “sophisticated land grab...being driven by personal greed rather than the welfare of the residents of Dharavi”. This time round, it is a brazen handout of prime urban land – one that forebodes unimaginable hardship for millions of Dharavi’s residents.

Dharavi could develop more fruitfully through a self-organising process, provided it is allowed a lot of time, and a good deal of material support and planning aid. A rapid transformation of this spread of settlements is impossible without extreme coercion and violence. Is this what the new overlords of Dharavi have in mind?

Hussain Indorewala teaches at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) in Mumbai.