Mumbai Slum Redevelopment

10 06 2008

My reposting of my India emails the other day prompted me to check into recent goings-on in Mumbai. I came across this video posted on youtube by SPARC, a housing and infrastructure NGO that works primarily in Dharavi, which is claimed to be Asia’s second biggest slum, with possibly millions of people living in highly compressed conditions. I won’t even hazard a guess as to what sort of density you can find there. The boundaries of the slum are not clear-cut, and accurate estimations of the population do not seem to exist, though it is at least 600,000. Images and a story on National Geographic give you an idea of the type of human intensity that is to be found there.

I wasn’t supposed to like SPARC when I was working in Mumbai. They were a rival NGO with which my NGO had “philosophical differences”. I’m really not even sure what those differences were, now. But it seems to me that SPARC does some pretty effective advocacy work. Currently they are protesting the details of a slum redevelopment scheme put forward by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority in 2007.

Making improvements in Mumbai slums is a long and arduous process, and my feeling is that redevelopment or rehabilitation schemes in the past have often been slanted towards real estate and investment interests rather than the interests of slum dwellers. Slums, as in North American cities in the 1950s and ’60s, have been determined to be in need of eradication. Approaches in the past have sometimes been as simple as bringing in some bulldozers.

Kids playing next to a garbage-clogged drainage channel in a slum pocket in Bandra East

Kids play next to a garbage-clogged drainage channel in a Bandra East slum area

I won’t argue that Mumbai slums do not offer wholly inadequate living conditions for their residents. They are a mass of humanity to which proper services are extremely difficult to provide. But, in the wholesale dismantling of slums, what is forgotten is that  they are home to many people, the centre of domestic, social and economic life. Dharavi is a huge employment centre, where many of the megalopolis’ least palatable jobs get done. Bulldozing a place like that and starting from scratch is like yanking out an essential organ from a body and attempting to replicate a fresh one in a lab. Not easily done; the body will suffer.

I sincerely hope redevelopment is done considerately and humanely, and that Mumbaikars realize how essential the slum is to Mumbai, however unattractive the place may appear. Indications from the start of the project suggest that may not be the case, unfortunately…

For those interested in knowing more about the ins and outs of the slum redevelopment process as practiced in Mumbai until recently, a very interesting academic article can be found here.

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