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Modernizing Dharavi (an urban slum in India) IF YOU BUILD, WILL THEY COME?

Dr. Abhijit Roy, D.B.A.

Dharavi is one of the largest slums in Asia and is located in Mumbai.

Even among the countless high-rise developments that have sprung up in Mumbai over the last decade, it is impossible to miss the vast rows of corrugated tin roofs covering the squalor of Dharavi. The slum, which was featured in the widely acclaimed movie Slumdog Millionaire, spans a total of 535 acres (about the area of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center combined or about two-thirds the size of Central Park in New York) and accommodates about 600,000 residents (approximately as many as a city the size of Boston, Seattle or Baltimore). Mumbai’s quest to be a world-class city with a globally comparable quality of life has prompted the local, state and national governments to dramatically reengineer the area with a $2.3 billion ten-year program. This provides the backdrop for our case study (co-authored with Mousumi Roy, Ph.D., Independent Scholar): “Modernizing Dharavi: if you build, will they come?” which recently won a runner up award in the 2013 Oikos Global Case Writing Competition, St. Gallen, Switzerland, in the Corporate Sustainability track.

The case is viewed from the perspective of the protagonist, Mr. Mukesh Mehta, a celebrated realtor who has made a name for himself by building expensive custom homes for the rich in Long Island, N.Y., and now longs to build homes for the poor in the slums of Dharavi. He shares this dream with his family. While his son, Shyam, is very enthusiastic and regards him as a “versatile” person capable of serving both the rich and the poor, his wife considers him “confused,” with incompatible priorities. He is, however, dedicated to pursuing his dream of seeing these impoverished individuals live a far better life in a revamped Dharavi, free of slums.

One of the largest slums in Asia, Dharavi has a set of unique characteristics: a great location of high real estate value and a population of hard-working artisans, factory workers, and small business owners whose annual income contributes significantly to Mumbai’s economy. Katherine Boo’s 2012 National Award-winning Book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, vividly describes life in Annawadi, a similar Mumbai slum. However, Dharavi is considered the city’s major eyesore because of its central location and size.

Real estate prices in Mumbai are among the highest in the world – the city is home to the sixth most number of billionaires, more than Shanghai, Paris or Los Angeles. Furthermore, it is also the home of the largest film and television industry in the world, popularly known as “Bollywood.” In 2004, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai is located, declared his mission to transform Mumbai into a world class city with a vibrant economy and globally comparable quality of life by 2015. To achieve these goals, the Indian government initiated the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) with assistance from Bombay First, a local organization, and McKinsey & Company.

This case presents the uncertainty of the future of the DRP. Mr. Mehta, the architect and consultant hired to radically redesign Dharavi, empathizes with the hard working and honest people of the locality, who sometimes work up to 15 hours a day in order to make a living. He wants to grant them the better lives they deserve. His proposal has three main objectives:

• Improve the living conditions of the slum dwellers and maintain their occupations, unless they are hazardous to the environment;

• Create a radical plan in which Dharavi will be rebuilt as a new urban center - it will provide a better and more

sustainable way of life for the citizens of Mumbai, and serve as an exemplary slum redevelopment project to the other cities of the world; and

• Develop a feasible scheme that will benefit all stakeholders of Dharavi.

Dharavi’s central location, proximity to the financial district of Mumbai, commuting access to many areas by two main train lines, and closeness to the main airport make it an asset. The master plan for DRP presents an eco-friendly, self-sustainable, and modern course of development, which incorporates the five principles of HIKES: health, income, knowledge, environment and socio-cultural development. Many of the earlier redevelopment plans were unable to significantly improve the lives of these slum dwellers. Mr. Mehta’s argument against past failures of slum improvements is that this is not only a housing problem – it is also about human resources. Unless development projects are planned with a holistic and sustainable approach as described by HIKES they are likely to fail.

DRP is a very high profile redevelopment project which is being watched at national as well as international levels.

Besides the slum dwellers, many other stakeholders have become involved over the years, including political leaders, government officials, state agencies, civic societies and various NGOs, international donors, builders and developers. Mr. Mehta’s philosophy for creating a successful development project is to meet the interests of all stakeholders and create a win-win situation for everyone involved.

The large budget and radical design of the project have been the source of many questions and much confusion. Maintaining communications and resolving personal conflicts among stakeholders has turned out to be a major obstacle. Mr. Mehta communicates with fourteen different organizations in the government and distributes information to all related parties.

The slum-dwellers worry that their businesses will be harmed if they have to move to the allocated areas: 225-square-foot spaces in multi-storied buildings. Many already own bigger living spaces and do not see anything to be gained from living in these dwellings, even free of cost. Furthermore, they are not comfortable with the idea of living in multi-storied buildings where they have to ride elevators. The concept of personal toilets is also a strange one, and new regulations for keeping the upgraded Dharavi free of hazardous and toxic materials are a cause of concern for leather tanners, potters and other artisans.

The most outspoken individuals in this debate are the representatives of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). In the past, they have helped Dharavi’s residents organize protests against eviction from their settlements by local and state authorities. Their main objection is that the local residents have not been informed about the DRP. The NSDF’s main spokesperson, Jockin Arputham, is concerned about the eligibility issue; according to his estimate, only 35 percent of Dharavi’s current residents are eligible for free housing under the government’s plan. His other complaint is that Mehta’s plan neglects the futures of such residents as rag pickers, who help recycle the city’s garbage and keep it clean, and food vendors.

Can builders be trusted to provide what is promised? Arputham reflects the concerns of Dharavi’s residents to the rich and powerful builders and developers, who have not gained any favor from their earlier housing projects for the poor. He also believes that slum dwellers should receive a fair share of developers’ profits, considering the current estimate of Dharavi’s real estate value is $10 billion. Even the Dharavi Development Authority is apprehensive about the future of slum dwellers in new developments. They fear that they will lose their status as entrepreneurs and end up as servants for the rich, who will pay premium prices for rest of the development. The slum dwellers demand complete social justice and will not settle for anything less.

Gazing out of his office, which overlooks the Arabian Sea, Mr. Mukesh Mehta sighs. He recalls when he first dreamt of creating a modern Dharavi – free of slums, where the hardworking poor could finally enjoy a better quality of life and be integrated with mainstream citizens. He compares how immigrants in the United States often begin as financially poor and persevere with the belief that one day they’ll achieve some version of the “American Dream.” He wants to provide the same opportunity to slum dwellers: the chance not to be looked down upon, but to gradually become a part of Mumbai’s middle class. However, he knows in his heart that the slum dwellers and Arputham need to be convinced that he shares their dream of not only a better life, but also a unique role in society.

Is he the “versatile” individual that his son, Shyam, thinks he is, capable of serving both the rich and the poor, or is his wife’s characterization of him as a “confused” person a more appropriate one? Can he convince the residents of his good intentions? If he rebuilds Dharavi, will they come?


Abhijit Roy, D.B.A.
Management and Marketing Department