Residents of Asia’s most famous slum fear a multibillion-dollar plan to transform the area into a Singapore-like enclave featuring luxury skyscrapers and shopping malls will destroy its vast informal economy.
Indian authorities have asked a developer to tear down and rebuild Dharavi, a bustling settlement in Mumbai known as the backdrop for Danny Boyle’s hit 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire.
Supporters have said that the project would uplift hundreds of thousands of lives, but critics have claimed that it will destroy Dharavi’s social fabric and have accused officials of pandering to property developers.
“Dharavi is the beating heart of Mumbai... The government wants to grab it,” said liquid soap manufacturer Ashraf Sheikh, who went on an eight-day hunger strike over the redevelopment.
Dharavi is one of Asia’s biggest slums. Estimates vary, but between 700,000 and 1 million people cram into tiny homes on the 210 hectare site; hundreds line up to use public washrooms.
However, the area defies most Western notions of a slum; Dharavi is a hive of economic activity and boasts an estimated annual turnover of more than US$1 billion.
Industries include pottery, leather and textiles — about 5,000 businesses operate from about 15,000 one-room workshops, according to estimates.
Masses of trash are also separated there for recycling.
Mumbai officials first tried to redevelop Dharavi two decades ago. Several attempts failed due to the difficulty of moving vast numbers of Indian slum dwellers who depend on informal work to survive.
“We have been living and working here for over 100 years... You’ll have to shoot us before building your towers here,” said potter Mepa Gudiya, who exports earthenware across India and abroad.
The state government of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is trying again and has put the redevelopment out to tender.
A Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based developer backed by royal families emerged as the highest bidder.
The ambitious scheme, projected to cost about US$4 billion, would include demolishing tens of thousands of dilapidated slum houses and replacing them with several hundred towers up to 30 stories high.
About 70,000 families could be eligible for free apartments about 28m2 in size “that will be as good as any in Dubai or Singapore,” said Nilang Shah, CEO of SecLink Group, the master developer.
He wants to turn the area into a “smart city” with separate commercial and residential zones, as well as creating a “New York-like central park” and a “modern marina” in a nearby polluted bay.
“Lives will be enhanced without destroying their social fabric. It can be a model for the world,” Shah told reporters in a telephone interview from Dubai.
Muskan Sheikh, 15, was excited by the prospect. She lives in a bathroom-less one-room house with five relatives sleeping head-to-toe.
“I often have to wait 20 minutes in a line to use the toilet. During the night I just hold it in, because I don’t want to step outside,” she said.
However, many Dharavi residents are skeptical. They would welcome new homes with private bathrooms and running water, but worry that the intrinsic nature of Dharavi, where people live and work out of the same room, will disappear.
“We’re afraid that it will just become another high-rise area and we’ll all be put in one tower,” petroleum businessman Fakhrul Islam said.
Dharavi originated as a swamp and grew rapidly in the late 19th century as migrants moved to what was then called Bombay to work in its expanding British-era factories.
Today, dozens of tourists armed with cameras meander through the area’s narrow alleys every day, dodging goats and handcarts as they peer into tin-roofed shanties and ramshackle workshops.
Dharavi is in the center of the coastal megapolis, close to the Bandra Kurla Complex business district, airport, a main railway station and a crucial waterway, making it appealing to developers.
SecLink has estimated that the revenue potential from the free sale of scores of towers is US$15 billion.
“Unfortunately, it’s the interests of the real-estate lobby that is guiding decisions about Dharavi’s development,” said Kalpana Sharma, author of the book Rediscovering Dharavi.
Authorities are soon expected to survey Dharavi to determine how many families settled there before 2000, making them eligible for free homes.
Work would then commence, said Shah, who predicted that all slum dwellers would be rehoused within five years.
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