Watch: Redevelopment will be hard blow for Dharavi where enterprise has flourished despite state's neglect

If you knew that the chakna you enjoy with your evening sip or the papad you roast, or the apparently wholesome dosa or idli dough taken out from shining steel containers for street food may have come from Dharavi, Mumbai’s huge slum, chances are you would squirm. However, these and other products manufactured there is what enterprise against all odds is all about.

It is precisely what Rahul Gandhi, probably in a rare flash of insight or a good briefing he stuck to, referred to when he said in Mumbai the other day that “Make in India will not succeed until Make in Dharavi is protected.” There is a strong fear even among the Dharavi residents and entrepreneurs that it is actually under threat because of redevelopment, now sought to be sped up.

Watch: Redevelopment will be hard blow for Dharavi where enterprise has flourished despite states neglect

A potter arranges earthen lamps at a workshop in Dharavi. AFP

Instead, slum dwellers will be given free housing in poorly-built towering buildings that will replace the shanties. Close by, grand apartments for the well-heeled will come up and this will mess up the lives of Dharavi residents who wanted to redevelop their slum themselves. But politicians' hunger for illicit money and builders’ greed for land came in the way. What is ultimately built in Dharavi may not be what the locals want.

As has often been said, by me and other commentators here and elsewhere, the slum redevelopment plan is designed to meet the requirements of the builders and developers rather than that of slum dwellers who, by law, are entitled to replacement housing. The builders are to subsidise the replacement costs by selling the extra spaces in the open market.

Dharavi is not the only large slum in the city or even in the continent. It is often mistakenly referred to as the largest in Asia, though Orangi Town in Northern Karachi, spread over some 40 sq km, is reputedly the largest. Even within Mumbai, other slums have grown and joined together to form settlements larger than Dharavi. Dharavi typifies what Mumbai has amid it but is often sidestepped: it has a lot going against it except for the hardiness and entrepreneurship of its residents.

To start with, it was an illegal shantytown, a sprawl that houses a million. Everyone living there is crushed for space. It has an ecosystem of its own in which outsiders would feel distinctly uncomfortable. It is the first place where the concept of rent-a-shanty and two-storied slum dwellings began.

Congestion in Dharavi is worse than Mumbai’s population density. Most of the dwellings are not taller than two stories. It is so large that it had to find something to subsist on since employment within strolling distance – a reason why poor form such settlements – was not possible. It had, to start with, grown around the nucleus of tannery industry, and as it grew, had to find other ways. It called for enterprise.

Within its packed confines, enterprise has bloomed and at one time, the estimate was that its economy was worth US 1.6 bn. It is not who estimated it and related to which year, but Nandan Nilekani mentions the figure in his Imagining India. People made shirts for a Mumbai-based budget brand, as well as recycled plastic from garbage, and as a manager of a bank's Dharavi branch had once cautioned me, the bottled ‘mineral water’ could well be a knock-off.

Dharavi grew into what it is because it was neglected, not nurtured. No law is applied there, and there is only one police station that deals with crime. The government has hardly been present and the only ban followed is the one on tanning.

It is a freewheeling economy without any licensing or controls, and anybody with a can-do attitude can thrive. No labour laws, no sanitation laws, no Factories Act apply to Dharavi which has one other thing going for it: location. Close to the Eastern and Western Express Highways, within easy reach of Bandra and Khar stations on the Western line, and Sion and Kurla on the Central Railway, its people can swiftly fan out in any direction.

The Asian Age says Dharavi business leaders estimate the size of the business at Rs 2,000 cr per annum, citing no study but quoting a local. It could well be that or even more. There are no accounts of any threat which Gandhi conjured up. If there was a threat, it is from the redevelopment which would rob the entrepreneurs the spaces they use for their businesses. None of them is going to get an equal area in return post-redevelopment.

This divestment of spaces and their reallocation in cement concrete towers is going to be a hard blow on enterprise. Ask the potters who would be on the fifth floor of a rehabilitation housing and wonder where to dry them, or locate the kiln. However, Gandhi has to know that the Shiv Sena-BJP’s idea of slum rehabilitation in the late 1990s, and later the Congress’ since 1999 are much the same.

Gandhi could have been more elaborate instead of limiting his main point to a slogan-like statement, which actually, funnily, sounds like Narendra Modi’s on a variety of subjects. Was Gandhi talking about the threat to enterprise from redevelopment? Dharavi's redevelopment has never been opposed by the Congress and there are no indications that his party plans to oppose it in the future either.

It is not as if the BJP-led government has now stepped in with a policy and action plan to scupper all enterprise there. If anything, Devendra Fadnavis has only initiated a process to speed up the process of redevelopment with the attendant consequences. Rahul Gandhi’s “protection” suggestion thus turns out to be a jumla – a clever rhetoric, easily fitting into a slogan.

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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2016 16:20:05 IST

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