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Dharavi residents wary of new project

By Meena Menon

Huge plastic recycling units at Dharavi. — Photo: Vivek Bendre

MUMBAI, AUG. 7. Kumari Selja, Union Minister of State for Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation, visited Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, this past week to evaluate a new re-development project, which is already being questioned by the people living there.

Residents of Dharavi, spread over 213 hectares in the heart of Mumbai, are slowly waking up to the fact that a Rs.7,500-crore plan (revised from the initial Rs.5,300 crores) to revamp their existence will begin shortly even though they have not been consulted.

With over 50 per cent of Mumbai's residents living in slums, the complexities involved in redeveloping such an area are relevant for similar efforts in other cities in India.

Approved in February

The Dharavi project, titled "Support Our Slums", was approved in February this year by a Government resolution. It has been proposed by NRI architect Mukesh Mehta, appointed adviser to the Government of Maharashtra. It envisages dividing up this huge slum into 10 sectors of which two will be reserved for commercial development. "I have taken an integrated view, instead of a marginalised approach and for the first time, instead of a haphazard plan, we are looking at Dharavi in a holistic manner", says Mr. Mehta.

The Central Government has already announced a grant of Rs.500 crores for the project, which will go towards the infrastructure. "I would like to integrate Dharavi with mainstream Mumbai and convert it into a cultural, knowledge and business centre. The main idea is to convert the whole population into a middle income community by 2010," adds Mr. Mehta.

Mr. Mehta and officials maintain that consistent attempts have been made to reach out to people. Meetings have been held with heads of over 50 cooperative societies, NGOs and local corporators.

The residents of Dharavi, however, have a different view. Raju Korade of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) says, "So many surveys are going on for the new project but people don't have a clue as to what exactly the plan holds for them." On July 4, hundreds of Dharavi residents, including representatives from all political parties who are opposing the project, held a meeting and formed the Dharavi Bachao Samiti. Since then several large meetings have been held in the area.

Magsaysay award winner Arputham Jockin, who is president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), says, "The most important thing about Dharavi is that it's built by the people, and the community has always been involved. Mukesh Mehta is not rebuilding Dharavi, he is inventing Shanghai in Dharavi. This is bottom-up planning, contrary to all international norms." He adds, "Mr. Mehta is only an architect — he has to make a design based on people's needs and not the other way round. The design has to be for the real world."

Opposition to eviction

The real world is where people like 95-year-old Natalbai Killekar live. Sitting in her 5,000 sq ft single-storey house in Dharavi's Koliwada, she recalls, "Earlier the sea used to come up close and our boats used to dock here." The new Dharavi project proposes to re-develop the area and allot people flats measuring 225 sq ft each. "How can we leave our old houses and resettle in these small flats," asks Ramkrishna Keni, former Shiv Sena corporator and a local leader. "The Government should have at least informed us about the project. I don't want to oppose the project but we cannot be evicted from our ancestral lands," he said.

The Government has not yet decided how to deal with private land in Dharavi. About 20 per cent of the land or 43 hectares, is privately-owned, much of it by the Kolis or the fishing community, the original settlers of the islands of Mumbai. Teresa Killekar, vice-president, of the Koli Mahila Sangharsh Samiti, affiliated to the Shiv Sena, asks, "Why should we allow our land to be developed by someone else, we can sell it to the builder ourselves. Four generations have lived here — so why we should leave?"

Apart from the thorny issue of private land, residents are worried about livelihood. Sitting opposite a wide gutter in the long row of plastic recycling shops, Purshottam Bhanushali, a plastic and scrap dealer, says, "Yes, I know people are surveying the area but they did not tell us anything about the project. There are about 1,200 plastic and scrap shops and they are very old. My shop is about 4,000 sq feet, and I doubt if I will get the same space."

For Waljibhai Jethwa, one of the 10,000 potters who inhabit the 2.5-acre Kumbharwada, space is a big issue. "We need space to keep the mud, make the pots and then bake and dry them." Govindbhai Chitroda, of the Potters Cooperative, says, "We fear if the area gets developed, we may not get work."

Space problem

In Indira Gandhi Nagar and Shiv Shakti Nagar, rows of papads, briskly rolled out by women, dry on large circular inverted cane baskets, over rooftops and inside houses. There are over 15,000 families in Dharavi who earn their livelihoods from papads, according to Shashikant Kawle, a local political party worker. "We don't want to stay in a building. Where will we dry our papads? They are saying take them to the terrace. How do you expect us to cart piles of papads up and down," asks Bhagobai Sherkare, who has been rolling papads for 22 years.

The annual turnover from Dharavi's myriad enterprises is anywhere between Rs.1,500 crores and Rs.3,000 crores. According to official sources, there are 4,902 industrial units in Dharavi of which textiles form 1,036, pottery 932, leather 567, plastic processing 478 and Jari stitching 498.

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