Mumbai Slums! An intriguing tale of despair and hope

Mumbai slums are a cliché of sorts; they are not just a Dickensian world of squalid despair, but also a place of optimism and enterprise. As the story goes, in the 19th century as Mumbai became the hub of textile and emerged as the commercial capital of India, workers from various parts of the country flocked to Mumbai and had to stay in informal housing – the slums. As the city continued to attract more and more people in search of a livelihood, density of slums in Mumbai continued to increase.

The 1947 Rent Control Act led to the freezing of rents, which discouraged private capital from creating housing stock for rental purposes. The 1976 Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act further restricted the supply of large tracts of land for the purpose of housing construction. These restrictions and the government’s inability to increase the supply of affordable housing gradually led to mushrooming of more slums.

Currently, an estimated 6.5 million people, that is, 55 per cent of Mumbai’s total population lives in slums. The unaffordable housing market in the land-scarce city of Mumbai, coupled with the failure of the state to provide adequate housing for economically weaker sections of society, has resulted in the spread of slums across the city. In fact, many slum dwellers in Mumbai are well-educated, middle-class people who are deprived of adequate housing.

Mumbai’s slums occupy 12 per cent of its total geographic area and yet the government has not been able to come up with a viable solution to the problem. In the 1950s and 1960s, government decided to clear slums and rehouse slum dwellers in subsidised rental housing. This approach did not succeed for lack of resources.

In the 1970s and 1980s, through various acts and programmes, government started providing basic services such as water, toilets, electricity, pathways, street lights, conservancy, and primary health care and education to slum dwellers. However, the scale of the programmes remained limited and did not create much impact.

It was in 1995 that the government started the scheme of slum redevelopment wherein, the private developers can purchase slum land from the government at a relatively low price and rehouse the eligible slum dwellers free of cost in lieu of the extra floor space index.
The problem with the current slum rehabilitation model is that it does not provide specific quality standards for rehabilitation buildings and much is left to the developer’s discretion. Secondly there is no provision for taking care of slum residents’ informal businesses that are their livelihoods.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the vision of Housing for All, and for the first time brought up housing for poor as a major issue on the government’s agenda. The Maharashtra government has formulated a comprehensive and ambitious New Housing Policy and Action Plan that aims to provide 1.9 million houses, of which 0.8 million will be in Mumbai, for low-and middle-income groups in the state. It has also proposed to let developers make taller buildings in Mumbai by paying a premium as it looks to fund two key projects – a new sea link to the suburbs and much needed capital for the Rs 25,000 crore Dharavi redevelopment project.

The city of enigma
Dharavi, with an estimated population of one million people, is not only one of the biggest slum areas in Mumbai, but in the whole of Asia. While its physical condition is dismal, surprisingly it has a thriving informal economy with an annual turnover of one billion dollars, by some estimates. This slum cluster is truly a symbol of stark inequality as well as human dream and determination.

Spanish artist Jorge Mañes Rubio visited Dharavi in 2011 and came up with the idea of Design Museum Dharavi. “Despite the tough conditions the people of Dharavi live in, they are capable of creating, designing, manufacturing and commercialising all kinds of goods,” write the museum’s founders on their website. “We believe that the objects made in Dharavi could be as valuable as those collected by design museums.”

Undeniably, Dharavi is teeming with ingenious businesses and innovative uses of materials and space and labour. Most importantly, the optimistic attitude of the slum dwellers and their unrelenting spirit to succeed against all odds is what is worth showcasing to the world.

Ravi Sansi, a resident of slums at Golibar Road in Khar (East) offers Mumbai’s first ‘slum homestay’ where his family hosts tourists who want to “step out of their comfort zone”. Asim Shaikh, resident of Antop Hill slums in Mumbai, has been taking foreign tourists into Mumbai’s Dharavi slums for the past 11 years and feels that the trips are a way to dispel the negative image of life in the slums as dirty and crime-infested, and of seeing normal people going about their lives. Slum tours are emerging as an important stream of Mumbai tourism with a number of formal and informal tour operators entering the segment.

As a matter of fact, Mumbai slums are also an example of unity in diversity with Indians of every faith and from every corner of the country living together. Labourers come here from all over the country, escaping poverty in their home states. Mumbai slums provide opportunities to all, from skilled and cheap labour force to growing city service industry to setting up small manufacturing units from garments, leather, plastics, embroiderers and food items to cater to larger formal businesses.

The success stories are around every alley’s corner. Mustaqueem arrived as a 13-year-old from Rae Bareli and worked as a tea-server at a tailor shop. Today, he has over 500 employees working in 12 large garment factories spread across Dharavi. Ladsaheb, another resident, was a former sign-painter. He built a dance and acting workshop giving acting and dancing classes, often free, for youths in the neighbourhood. He now works as an informal casting agent for entertainment shows.

Mumbai slums are also a land of hope as seen in the case of Ruhi Anirudh Jadhav, a resident of the Kherwadi slums in Bandra. She was sent to famous stylist Nalini Naegamwala of Nalini & Yasmin Salons by the NGO Yuva Parivartan, where she trained in hairstyling and beauty treatments at the Nalini Hair Academy. She then opened a tiny salon in her neighbourhood and caught the eye of the ICIC Growing Up CEO Summit and was felicitated with the Growing Up CEO award and presented as a case study at Harvard.

From South and central Mumbai, the shanty-towns are emerging in Mumbai suburbs and satellite towns as the businesses shift there. The vast patch of Andheri East is now competing to be the city’s largest slum. New slums are developing in Malad and Kurla in West, Mulund in the east and in the stretch between Govandi and Mankhurd towards the city harbour line.

According to a survey released by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority in Mumbai, these slum clusters contain two or three slum pockets, each spread across an area of one hectare and holding over 500 hutments. Andheri has 281 slum clusters housing a population close to 800,000 in comparison to Dharavi’s 79 clusters.

Anand Giridhardas of The New York Times calls Mumbai a city of paradox – tall skyscrapers juxtaposed with the blue tarpaulin covered roofs of shanties. While, Mumbai’s million-dollar luxury towers have not been able to make it another Manhattan, the ‘Chal Rang De’ initiative is slowly transforming the city slums into ‘Positano’, the Italian town famous for its vibrant facades.

The organisation co-founded by Dedeepya Reddy, aims to change how people perceive slums in India’s financial capital. “When you say ‘slums’ all you think about are the negative things, the dirtiness. That becomes a reflection of the people who stay here but it’s not the case. They are very happy individuals and we wanted their locality to reflect who they are,” she says.

Volunteers have transformed some 12,000 homes across four different areas in the city with financial undertakings taken care of by Snowcem Paints, Mumbai Metro and Co.Lab.Oratory Asia, as per the organisation. No doubt, these neighbourhoods covered with colour, murals and graffiti are becoming a symbol of progressive urbanism that infuses a sense of pride and confidence among the residents.

In another initiative, Mumbai First and Apnalaya have joined hands to initiate Mission 24 – a collaborative effort to improve the quality of lives of people in the M-East Ward of Mumbai over a period of 24 months.

As is said, if people living in slums refuse to work for a day, life in Mumbai would come to a standstill as a large number of feet on the ground come from there. Need is for Mumbai to acknowledge that, appreciate that. There have to be more individuals and organisations lending a helping hand. The Mumbai spirit has to come to the fore!

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