Inside Dharavi

1.2 million people in India call Dharavi their home. Sprawling over 500 acres of Mumbai, it is one of Asia’s largest slums. It sends its own member of Parliament to the central legislature and six representatives to the state assembly.

Dharavi’s inhabitants face more challenges than hunger and unemployment. Developers now want to evict the residents and use the land—a hot commodity in Mumbai—for commercial and residential projects. Glass and steel high-rises already ring the slum land, which poor fishermen settled on hundreds of years ago. As a result, land prices are rising. Real estate agents are even facilitating speculation in the slum land.

Vertical growth is the preferable model of development where land is scarce and money is on the table.  Mixed-use space, however, defines the slums, rather than the discrete housing units in the towers. The house usually doubles as a workspace, making it imperative that development projects provide a space to work as well as to live. Relocating to a housing project tower can destroy employment opportunities and disintegrate the socio-cultural glue that binds the community together. In Dharavi, such rehabilitation projects have been vehemently opposed, however.

Some would prefer to call Dharavi a “developed” slum. A city within a city, Dharavi has its own informal economy. A large recycling plant in the center of the slum provides work for many of the inhabitants. Walking through the alleys of the recycling center, one can smell sewage and burning plastic. Trash carpets the ground. Inside small rooms, men work at tearing apart old electronics, sorting refuse into piles, and shredding plastic. Though the conditions can seem hellish, the wage is better than most other jobs. Developers will have to fight hard to pry this land from the slum dwellers who have made this place their home.

Dharavi shows that there are at least two sides to every development project. For the denizens of Dharavi, asking the question “what is development?” is no theoretical exercise.  The aftermath of industrialization has poisoned the waters in Dharavi a neon blue and filled its canals with islands of trash. Undeterred by the squalor, outside developers continue to pressure the government to let them use the land. Although hundreds of acres of houses will not fall into the hands of developers overnight, unless politicians stop clamoring for development in India’s megacities, and start asking “development for whom?,” Dharavi will continue to live in its state of silent siege, watched intently by the glass towers surrounding it.