Redevelopment plans for Dharavi are focused on high rises. COVID-19 crisis underlines critics' concerns about blinkered approach

In the post-COVID world, how much would design and structural modifications in places like Dharavi, contribute to bringing about substantial change in the living conditions of people living in overcrowded slums? Journalist and researcher Dipti Nagpaul explores.

Dipti Nagpaul July 25, 2020 12:06:55 IST
Redevelopment plans for Dharavi are focused on high rises. COVID-19 crisis underlines critics' concerns about blinkered approach

In his essay The Phantasm of the Apocalypse, Anton Kaes says that the fascination with urban dystopia and destruction can be traced back to the Bible. “Only complete devastation and erasure of the old assures, as in the Book of Revelation, a new utopia,” he writes.

The UK-based German scholar points out that the pre-existing ideas of modernity make us view ‘slums’ in a similar manner, where only complete erasure of the previous can lead to what we perceive as development, not realising that the doom is in the everyday, that it exists and grows around us continually.


On 1 April, 2020, Dharavi recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus. Within days, Asia’s largest slum, located at the heart of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, turned into a COVID-19 hotspot. The city’s municipal corporation announced a complete lockdown, ordering the residents indoors. But social distancing was impossible.

Spread over 2.4 square kilometres, Dharavi is one of the most densely-populated areas of India. With single-story and low-rise informal tenements lined along its labyrinthine bylanes, it houses over 850,000 people. The shacks, no bigger than 8x8 square feet, often have up to 10 people crammed in. Most of them are daily wagers and migrants, employed in the informal sector, working in the factories and workshops housed in the multi-story tenements within Dharavi. In the absence of water pipelines, the residents pay Rs 25 (US$ 0.3) per gallon for water, provided by tankers for everyday use. Close to 80 percent of the population shares 450 community toilets.

So once it arrived in Dharavi, the virus instantly spun out of control. By the end of April, 491 cases had been recorded and May saw the number cross 1,400 with over 56 deaths. Experts feared that the density and proximity, coupled with hygiene issues and lack of healthcare systems, would turn Dharavi into a graveyard. “Unless we rehabilitate slums and develop an entire health infrastructure in these places, we are not doing justice to the common man in this city,” said the state minister for housing, Jitendra Awhad.

Kaes’ theory especially holds true for Dharavi. Its redevelopment has remained on every state government’s agenda for almost six decades, but each subsequent government has overlooked how the living conditions at the slum deteriorated year after year. Instead, every redevelopment plan — and there have been several — aims to raze Dharavi and build skyscrapers that will accommodate the current residents and create space for high-end residential complexes and commercial establishments like offices, malls, etc.

But noted urban planners, architects, sociologists and academicians, who have been studying Mumbai, insist the government reconsider its slum rehabilitation policies that hold a narrow view of modernity and development. They evoke the absence of spatial justice in governmental schemes for addressing the city’s housing issues.

Neera Adarkar points out that the current schemes, created under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), do little to improve the overall living conditions of the poor. “By cramming the residents of a slum in skyscrapers, we are merely creating vertical slums,” she adds. A Mumbai-based architect and urban planner, Adarkar has been studying the city’s public sector housing for several decades.

Adarkar’s fear is rooted in the existing examples of slum development housing that dot the city’s landscape. “The market-driven policy favours a handful of builders,” she stresses. Under the current SRA policy, introduced in 1991, private developers receive incentives to build 300-square-feet tenements that are given free of cost to slum dwellers that originally occupied the land. After the construction of these towers, the developers are left with a majority of the land to build high-end residential towers on. They do not pay for the land but their profit margin includes a return on the market value of the land upon the sale of the apartments.

“Ownership of houses is attractive to the slum dweller but this policy benefits only the developers,” Adarkar says. The SRA towers are a mere six metres apart, usually a gutter flowing between the structures. “Ninety percent of occupants do not get adequate sunlight or ventilation. The narrow corridors and elevator lobby are the only common areas,” she argues. “In comparison, the street corners, shops, common water resources or small patches of vacant land within a slum organically emerge as relief areas for the residents, where they meet or celebrate festivals, thereby building a strong sense of community.”

The mandated open spaces on the patch of redeveloped land are reserved for the high-end residential complexes. The residents are provided with facilities like gardens, jogging tracks, clubhouse or a swimming pool, where the developer charges them extra for these ‘luxuries.’ Often considered a security threat by their privileged neighbours, the slum dwellers are kept out of these gated communities. Thus the original occupants face systematic exclusion, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. The redevelopment also breaks up the community that, for many, had so far worked as a support system in the absence of families.

Redevelopment plans for Dharavi are focused on high rises COVID19 crisis underlines critics concerns about blinkered approach

File photo: People rest by their shanties at Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, during lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Mumbai. Dharavi was among Mumbai’s most affected pockets (The Associated Press/Rajanish Kakade)

The market-driven approach towards housing lies in stark contrast to the policies that supported public housing in Mumbai earlier. The tradition dates back to colonial rule when the British set up textile mills in the city. In an attempt to turn the city (then called Bombay) into a vibrant business centre and port, the government invited bankers, merchants, artisans and labourers, providing incentives, including the promise of religious freedom. This perhaps explains the cosmopolitan nature of present-day Mumbai. As the cotton trade boomed, the number of mills increased: by the 1870s, Mumbai was home to 70 mills, employing nearly 60,000 workers. In her study, academician Amita Bhide points out that the areas where the labouring classes lived were overcrowded and unsanitary. These low-lying central districts remained permanently waterlogged and were “liable to be permeated by disease microbes, creating a favourable ecology for the spread of malaria and plague.”

The outbreak of the Bombay Plague in 1896 launched the colonial approach to housing in the city. The pandemic began in one of the densely-populated neighbourhoods and soon spread. Bhide states in her study that the plague drove out 500,000 of the inhabitants, including 20 to 30 percent of its mill workers, thereby crippling the city’s commercial and industrial activities. The death rates in working-class neighbourhoods climbed as high as 12.5 percent. “Finding solutions to the problems of overcrowding and unsanitary housing became matters of critical importance if Bombay was to continue fulfilling the required functions of the imperial agenda,” she writes.

Charged with the task of cleaning up the city, Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) was set up in 1898. It built avenues across the city to open up its landlocked central and eastern neighbourhoods to sea breeze and expanded its limits to introduce the suburbs of Dadar and Matunga. With the constant expansion of its borders, these neighbourhoods today lie at the centre of the city.

The Trust also got on to the job of building affordable housing through the construction of chawls. These were up to five-storied residential tenements with single- or double-room units lining a long corridor that served also as a balcony. Located at either end of the corridor, the common toilets were shared by the residents. The key typology of public housing in Bombay, chawls had existed before the pandemic, too, under both public and private ownership.

While the public housing solution by BIT was by no means sufficient or ideal, it was far more progressive in terms of spatial justice in comparison to the current SRA housing. The Trust drafted a set of rules for development that determined the proportion of the buildings’ footprint to its size and the maximum number of floors it could have, among other design rules. Veteran architect Kamu Iyer, in his book Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, says the Trust laid down a rule that each chawl unit be provided with an eight-and-a-half-feet window, upwards from the floor, in order to allow light and ventilation to the boarders, most of who slept on the floor.

Another important mandate, introduced in 1912, was the ‘63.5 degree light angle rule’. “Planners in England found that the open space in a plot, derived from an angle of 63.5 degrees, ensured adequate light and ventilation on the lowest floor,” Iyer writes. The BIT also insisted that the space outside the tenements match, if not exceed, the space inside it. Most of these chawls were C-shaped, with an open ground at its heart. The area between the chawls, the ground and the shared balconies connecting the units thus became the common spaces.

In 1926, the BIT was merged with Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), which continues to be the key agency managing the city of Mumbai. In the 1960s, the BMC introduced the Development Control Rules, which brought in the concept of Floor Space Index (FSI). In Iyer’s words, it is “an abstract idea that changed the form of the city from a predictable one to a negotiable one… Architects who felt freed from prescribed footprints and volumes ultimately negotiated the bye-laws to build with little or no regard for the neighbourhood or the city.”

Imposition of FSI, which dominates the building rules of Mumbai, means that the open spaces in a complex should be relative to the height of the building. It thereby promotes the idea of skyscrapers as the key typography.


Slums entered the cityscape only after the 1960s. Bhide points out: “the colonial city of Bombay registered a very small proportion of slums, that is, less than five percent. The primary strategy of the colonial government was to push undesirable developments to the periphery, as was done in the case of tanneries in the beginning of the 20th century like in the case of Dharavi.”

As market-focused policies took form, housing became unaffordable to many, especially the migrants who started to flow into the city after Independence. “While the legal meaning of slum focused on inadequate, overcrowded housing and lack of infrastructure, in reality, the meaning of slum that evolved in Mumbai was encroachment and settlement on lands that were considered undesirable and often dangerous for residence, such as pavements, areas adjoining railway tracks, etc. Most of these were public lands,” Bhide adds. Dharavi, with its land sprawl, emerged to be Asia’s largest slum.

The plans for Dharavi’s redevelopment have been drawn and redrawn over the decades, in keeping with the SRA model. The first one came in 1985, when the then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allotted Rs 100 crore for its redevelopment. Disbursed in parts over the next decade to Maharashtra Housing & Area Development Authority (MHADA), it was used to develop a part of the land, now known as Rajiv Gandhi Nagar. However, the project failed at several levels. Riddled with poor execution and scams, it did little to change the overall nature of Dharavi.

The latest plan, finalised and sanctioned by the previous state government in 2018, roped in Dubai-based Seclink Group, after they won a global bid for the revamp, estimated to cost Rs 26,000 crore. The residents will be provided 300-square-feet tenements in towers and a large part of the 50 million square feet saleable built-up space will be used for commercial and economic activity, thereby making the plan “viable.”

Experts believe that Dharavi’s redevelopment needs a user-driven approach. Urbanologist Rahul Srivastava adds that such typography is hostile to its residents. “Imagine such a structure during an earthquake or a natural calamity,” he stresses. “During the ongoing pandemic situation, slum residents at least had the option to step out into the concessional spaces. An overcrowded high rise unit is inhumane.” He has been heading URBZ, an experimental action and research collective with a special focus on public spaces and housing.


Srivastava believes that proximity, more than density, poses a bigger risk during COVID-19. “A popular bar, with hundreds of patrons inside, is more likely to expedite the virus spread. Or an elevator in a high rise, crammed with residents.” Adarkar adds that in the older public housing typographies, like chawls, balconies served as sleeping spaces. “But in today’s apartment units, home quarantine will be impossible if the livable space is shared by so many.”

The answer, many say, lies in allowing user-generated solutions. Akhtar Chauhan, for instance, stresses on low- and mid-rise mixed-use spaces. The academician, who was part of the organising committee of Reinventing Dharavi, an international ideas competition, in 2018, roots for such spaces. “The informal economy in Dharavi relies on the workshops within the area. The workers, many of whom are migrants, either sleep in open spaces or shared shacks. Structures with residences in the lower floors and partially covered workshops on the terrace can double as spaces for the workers to sleep,” he says, adding that the state needs to take up a bigger responsibility of providing adequate public housing.

Adarkar says that rebuilding Dharavi may not be required. Some areas simply need upgrading — water supply, sanitation and health infrastructure. She also suggests “reorganisation of certain plots” where a small group of users get together and bring on board a builder, with specifications based on their use. “It will require a network of community leaders, local politicians and activists to create awareness and understanding among the residents to achieve this. But it will be a far better model in case of calamities or pandemics.”

Adarkar may have a point. While the virus rages on unabated in Mumbai’s overcrowded suburbs and high-rises, Dharavi has witnessed a steady decline in the number of cases. It took constant efforts by the BMC, in tandem with the local community, NGOs and health workers, to educate the residents about the disease, need for testing, sanitisation and distancing in order to bring the situation under control. The consistent coverage by Indian and international media helped as the government redirected its resources to bring the situation in Dharavi under control.

Srivastava points out that one should not need a crisis to realise the grim healthcare and hygiene situation in Mumbai, the everyday doom of its residents. He hopes that this important lesson regarding Mumbai’s housing situation will not be forgotten.

“We are conceited as urban practitioners to think design alone can bring change. What we need is a move towards building a healthy habitat, one that has more community toilets everywhere, equitable housing, open spaces,” he said. “We all know this but the question to ask is whether the varying interests of lobbies and those in power will allow it to happen?”


Dipti Nagpaul is an independent journalist and researcher. The Mumbai-based journalist, associated with several mainstream media houses, writes on the politics of culture.

— This article was first published in Oxford Urbanists, a forum dedicated to a holistic exploration of urban development issues. It is republished here with the permission of Oxford Urbanists.

Updated Date:

also read

Antibodies that may lead to next-gen vaccines for all COVID-19 strains found

Antibodies that may lead to next-gen vaccines for all COVID-19 strains found

The results show that certain animals are more able to make these types of 'pan-SARS virus' antibodies than humans, giving scientists clues as to how to make better vaccines

COVID-19 spike in Delhi: National capital records over 19,760 cases from 1-10 August, sees 50% rise in containment zones

COVID-19 spike in Delhi: National capital records over 19,760 cases from 1-10 August, sees 50% rise in containment zones

National capital Delhi has recorded 40 deaths due to COVID-19 from 1-10 August, nearly thrice the cumulative figures registered in the last 10 days of July when 14 people had succumbed to the viral disease

As COVID-19 cases rise in India, experts say majority of cases have mild symptoms

As COVID-19 cases rise in India, experts say majority of cases have mild symptoms

India on Thursday witnessed an uptick in the number of new COVID-19 infections as it recorded 19,893 cases in the last 24 hours, according to the data shared by the health ministry