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As Adani Group clinches project to redevelop Dharavi, dreams and doubts abound in Asia’s largest slum
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With the Adani Group clinching the project to redevelop Asia’s largest slum, located on premium land in the heart of India’s financial capital, lakhs of people who live and work in the area’s cramped lanes are looking forward to a better life in a high-rise with constant water supply and proper sanitation. However, worries linger over the fate of the 12,000-odd small-scale manufacturing units that thrive in Dharavi, creating an informal economy with an estimated annual turnover of $1 billion, and the residents who do not meet the eligibility criteria for free housing under the project

December 16, 2022 02:38 am | Updated 07:25 pm IST

On the cusp of change: An aerial view of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, where around 11 lakh urban poor live cheek by jowl in over 1.2 lakh cramped, tin-roofed shanties in a maze of crowded, winding alleys spread over 600 acres.

On the cusp of change: An aerial view of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, where around 11 lakh urban poor live cheek by jowl in over 1.2 lakh cramped, tin-roofed shanties in a maze of crowded, winding alleys spread over 600 acres. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Every morning, Asha, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, wakes up at the crack of dawn to help her disabled mother get ahead of the long queues outside the community toilets in central Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, where around 11 lakh urban poor live cheek by jowl in over 1.2 lakh cramped, tin-roofed shanties in a maze of crowded, winding alleys spread over 600 acres of premium land in the heart of the country’s financial capital.

“All I want from the redevelopment is a house with an attached toilet,” she says, referring to the ₹20,000-crore Dharavi redevelopment project, which Adani Realty, the real estate arm of the Adani Group, bagged on November 29, with a bid of ₹5,069 crore. The bid is an initial investment for the project, touted as “the world’s largest urban renewal scheme”, which aims at demolishing hutments and rehabilitating around 6.5 lakh residents within seven years in 300 sq. ft flats in a cluster of high-rises. The project will cover the entire 600-acre area and free up around 5 crore sq. ft of saleable built-up space that can be used as upscale homes and offices to help the developer recoup costs and make profits.

Once a small fishing village, bounded by the Mahim creek and its mangroves, on the banks of the Mithi river, Dharavi today is one of the most densely populated areas in the world (3.6 lakh people per sq. km). The area is sandwiched between the city’s Western and Central suburban railway lines, located close to the airport and sits near the Bandra-Kurla Complex, India’s richest business district, where commercial office premiums are among the highest in the country.

Hopeful and anxious

In the works for the past 18 years, the redevelopment project has left thousands of families hopeful and anxious as this is the fourth attempt by the Maharashtra government to get the project going. Numerous residents are looking forward to a better life in a swanky high-rise with constant water supply, electricity, proper sanitation, sewage disposal and piped gas, and the area’s transformation into an integrated planned township with access to schools, hospitals and green spaces.

However, worries linger over the fate of the 12,000 small-scale manufacturing units that thrive in Dharavi, creating an informal economy with an estimated annual turnover of $1 billion, and the residents who do not meet the eligibility criteria for free housing. Only those who can produce documents to prove that their residential unit existed in the area before January 1, 2011, are entitled to a free house. Those who are ineligible will be provided homes after paying the cost of construction. Such conditions might result in the displacement of a large number of residents.

“I have three mouths to feed and I don’t know if our lives will ever change as I have no idea about all the documents required for us to secure a permanent house”Manisha LakdaResident of Dharavi and mother of three who lost her husband to COVID-19 last year

Ramaben, 69, who has been living in a 10x10 ft. hutment in the locality for the past 50 years, is hopeful of change. “I have lived my entire life with my three sons in the dirt and filth of these slums. I don’t want my grandchildren to have the same life. The government owes it to us. I cast my vote and my children pay taxes. We deserve clean drinking water and proper sanitation. I hope this happens in my lifetime,” she says.

Lalita, a government schoolteacher in the nearby locality of Subhash Nagar, is optimistic yet sceptical about the project. “It has been 18 years since I and many others in Dharavi have been listening to promises and assurances of rehabilitation. It has been a game of wait and watch.”

In 2009, a preliminary survey by Mumbai’s civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, in one of the five zones in Dharavi found that only 37% of families (3,127 of 8,478 hutments) were eligible for new homes, sparking fear that a majority of the residents would be deprived of free housing under the project.

Manisha Lakda, 46, a mother of three who lost her husband to COVID-19 last year, fears her family may not figure in the official list of 56,000 families that meet the cut-off date for rehabilitation. Ms. Lakda, who hails from Bhilai in Chhattisgarh, says she may not possess sufficient documents to establish proof of residency in Dharavi before 2011. “I am an uneducated woman and I run my household by working as a domestic help in two houses. I have three mouths to feed and I don’t know if our lives will ever change as I have no idea about all the documents required for us to secure a permanent house,” she says.

A pall of smoke hangs over a house that doubles up as a pottery manufacturing unit in Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony in the southeast corner of the slum cluster.

A pall of smoke hangs over a house that doubles up as a pottery manufacturing unit in Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony in the southeast corner of the slum cluster. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Uncertainty over livelihoods

The project also casts uncertainty over the livelihoods of lakhs of residents who work in the informal economy as potters, tanners, weavers, savoury makers, and waste collectors and sorters in thousands of small-scale units that flourish in Dharavi. In Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony in the southeast corner of the slum cluster, most dwellings double up as workspaces. The neighbourhood is named after the Kumbhars, the community of potters who fled drought and famine in Saurashtra, Gujarat, in the 19th century and set up kilns in an area in south Bombay. In the 1930s, they were allocated land in Dharavi.

Dhansukh Bhai, 69, says his family has been engaged in the pottery business for five generations. “My children and I were born here. Our lives are secure because of our business. I don’t know how the government plans to rehabilitate our pottery units. There are thousands like me here. We even export our products. I don’t know what this project has in store for us,” he says.

A pall of smoke hangs over the house of Yusuf Karim, 33, who lives in a 200 sq. ft hutment in Kumbharwada with his family of eight. As the potter’s ovens emit heat while baking clay lamps, Mr. Karim says he is looking forward to the redevelopment project, but is worried he may not be eligible for it. “I am not only waiting to live in a bigger house but also for the rehabilitation of my workspace. My establishment needs to move with me the way it is right now, else my work and the livelihood of 13 staff members will suffer.”

“I am not only waiting to live in a bigger house but also for the rehabilitation of my workspace. My establishment needs to move with me the way it is right now, else my work and the livelihood of 13 staff members will suffer”Yusuf KarimPotter in Kumbharwada 

Two brothers, Abbas and Rameez, who live in the same locality, run their own pottery unit, which has started manufacturing terracotta water coolers, water cups, bowls for yogurt and ornamental vases. The duo has created a website that features their products, which are exported to several countries. “We have employed 10 workers and have an entire set-up to turn clay into terracotta, paint the wares, dry them and pack them before shipping. How will all this be shifted? We need an open space for the products to dry. If we are going to be moved into a four- or five-storey building, how will we work there?” says Rameez, emphasising that such units cannot be operated from flats in high-rises.

Surekha Kamble, 31, makes farsan (savouries) at her home-cum-workspace in Dharavi’s R.P. Nagar, which reaches confectionery stores across the city every morning. She says the project might break her supply chain as she now hands over all the cartons of snacks to her mother-in-law’s distant relative, Sanand Bhai, who lives just 15 minutes away in King’s Circle. “He delivers the goods to shops and malls in the city. If we are forced to move out of Dharavi, will it be possible for him to come and pick up the food every morning? Our family has been able to sustain itself for all these years because of this business,” Ms. Kamble says.

A man fashions an earthen pot at a potter’s wheel in Kumbharwada.

A man fashions an earthen pot at a potter’s wheel in Kumbharwada. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

High rate of property tax

Another cause of distress for slum dwellers is the high rate of property tax that will be levied on their businesses when they will have to move out of Dharavi and set up shop within the metropolitan city limits. Sudhakar Mule, 56, who runs a plastic recycling unit in Ashok Nagar, which is one of the 15,000 single-room factories in the slum that process 80% of Mumbai’s plastic waste, is unsure about the future. “I am a commerce graduate. I understand how these things [redevelopment] work. But I have no idea what is going to happen to my 23-year-old shop,” he says.

Mr. Mule adds that there have been no talks on rehabilitating their workplaces. “Even if that is sorted out, how will the stamp duty and property tax be calculated? How many of us will be able to afford it? It is not easy to just pick us up from one place and put us in another spot,” he says.

“This is a special project; there should not be a cut-off date for residents and businesses. A fresh survey should be conducted when the project begins and residents are shifted to transit camps”Rajendra KordeChairman of the Dharavi Redevelopment Committee

Dharavi also houses leather tanneries that manufacture footwear, garments, bags and belts. Suleman, 71, who runs a shop that sells leather goods, says, “I have serious doubts about whether a full-scale redevelopment can really take off. There are small-scale businesses inside almost every hutment. I am sure the government does not have the exact count of people who live here and the businesses that operate here.”

Rajendra Korde, chairman of the Dharavi Redevelopment Committee, says going by experience, he doesn’t trust the government’s promises. “We have been listening to tall claims of ensuring the resettlement of people and rehabilitation of commercial establishments since 2004. This is a special project; there should not be a cut-off date for residents and businesses. A fresh survey should be conducted when the project begins and residents are shifted to transit camps.”

Finished products at a pottery unit in Dharavi.

Finished products at a pottery unit in Dharavi. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Major challenges

Accommodating ineligible people is a big challenge as you cannot expand horizontally in Dharavi, says S.V.R. Srinivas, CEO of the Dharavi redevelopment project and Commissioner of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority. “The number of people not eligible for rehabilitation is going to be very large, about 30%-40%. In a Slum Rehabilitation Authority scheme, where there are usually 300 hutments, 30%-40% translates to about 70-80 hutments. Here, the number of houses is in the thousands. The aim is to also take care of all these people despite the terms and conditions. You cannot just wish them away. They have been living here for decades and our policy deals with them.”

“The aim is to take care of the ineligible people as well despite the terms and conditions. You cannot wish them away”S.V.R. SrinivasCEO of the Dharavi redevelopment project

Mr. Srinivas says a fresh survey will be conducted and it will involve collecting biometrics of eligible residents. Another challenge that the project faces is that of a high population density. “How do we accommodate people by adhering to town planning norms? The complexity is added by the thousands of commercial units. Homes and shops must be rehabilitated in a proper way.”

He says efforts are on to rehabilitate the commercial units in the same area and provide them with a five-year State GST refund. The slum dwellers won’t be moved to transit camps but will be shifted to houses that will be built on 47 hectares of railway land in Dadar, 3 km from Dharavi, acquired for the project. The land will initially house 20,000 residential units, Mr. Srinivas says.

The Adani Group is now waiting for the State government to release a letter of intent (LoI), which will officially confirm that the company has clinched the global bid to redevelop Dharavi. The LoI is expected to be released on December 17 and it will list the requirements that the company met to secure the multi-crore project.

S.V.R. Srinivas, CEO of the Dharavi redevelopment project and Commissioner of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority.

S.V.R. Srinivas, CEO of the Dharavi redevelopment project and Commissioner of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

‘A dream that can come true’

Amita Bhide, professor at the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, flags a set of concerns. “The project involves surveys that are almost two decades old. So, to decide who is eligible while managing the logistics of resettlement and keeping the project financially viable is a big challenge. Any redevelopment flattens the complexity of people and communities living there. It ranges from very vulnerable to very stable. How many of them will be able to hold on to a project of this scale? It is an issue of displacement. Dharavi is a huge site of the informal economy. What will happen to those units? Do they have a place in a project of this size?”

However, Dipti Matre, a social worker in Dharavi, says it is not an impossible project to implement. “Yes, the place has a unique demographic, but if all the players learn their lessons from all the failed attempts, this dream can come true.”

The Adani Group is now waiting for the State government to release a letter of intent (LoI), which will officially confirm that the company has clinched the global bid to redevelop Dharavi.

The Adani Group is now waiting for the State government to release a letter of intent (LoI), which will officially confirm that the company has clinched the global bid to redevelop Dharavi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Road to Progress
October 1: The Eknath Shinde-led Maharashtra government invites global bids for the Dharavi redevelopment project at a base price of ₹1,600 crore.
October 18: The Ministry of Railways’ Rail Land Development Authority hands over 47 hectares of land in Dadar to the Dharavi Redevelopment Authority.
November 29: Adani Realty bags the project with a bid of ₹5,069 crore.
The company will now have to form a special purpose vehicle (SPV), which will prepare a master plan for the project.
The State government will have 20% stake in the SPV and 80% will belong to the company.
The State authorities aim to complete the rehabilitation of slum dwellers within seven years. However, experts say it could take double the time.
The cost of the project has gone up by more than five times since 2004. Now, it is estimated to be ₹20,000 crore.

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