The iconic washermen’s colony in south Mumbai became part of another historic moment on Thursday. Residents of the Dhobi Ghat voted through a secret ballot to decide whether Lokhandwala Builders should be allowed to redevelop the century-old site under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) Project. 

The ballot followed a Bombay High Court-mandated referendum. Although the written consent of 70 per cent of the residents is mandatory for redevelopment projects under the SRA, this is the first time the authority conducted a poll to evaluate the builder. But as the overall turnout was way below the mandated requirement of 70 per cent, no decision could be taken.

“I went for the poll. There are many factions (and views) on redevelopment and the builder. So we were told that there would be something like an election. We went and wrote our answer on a piece of paper,” said a washerman. He refused to divulge whether he voted for the Lokhandwala Builders or its rival, Kimaya Constructions. 

The Dhobi Ghat at Mahalakshmi, known as the world’s largest open-air laundry, is a major tourist attraction in the city. Around 10,000 washermen use 731 individual units to wash lakhs of clothes here every day. Each of them has a washing stone. Films like Munnabhai MBBS and Dhobhi Ghat have been shot there.  

The redevelopment, pending for nine years, is slated to take place in the slum adjoining the drying ground. The Dhobi Ghat spans 28,000 square metres in the heart of the city, where real estate rates are at least Rs. 40,000 a square foot.

The SRA will now send its report to the State government. Since the poll remained inconclusive, the government will decide whether to hold a second referendum. The case is likely to come up for hearing in the High Court on March 21.

There are around 1,500 residents in the compound but only hutment owners are entitled to rehabilitation. The scheme involves shifting eligible slum-dwellers to 20-storey buildings.

The dhobis who make a living in the area are worried about the prospects. “Our drying ground will go. How can washermen do their job without hanging their clothes to dry?” asked Santosh Kanojia, chairman of the Dhobi Kalyan and Audhyogik Vikas Co-operative Society.