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Mumbai Slum
MAY 2007
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Mumbai Slum: Dharavi
By Mark Jacobson
Photographs by Jonas Bendiksen

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"For me, America has always been the inspiration," says Mehta, who made a fortune managing his father's steel business before deciding to develop real estate on Long Island's exclusive North Shore. "Great Gatsby country," he says, detailing how he built high-end houses and lived in Centre Island, a white community with "the richest of the rich"—such as Billy Joel, who recently listed his mansion for 37.5 million dollars.

"The slums were the furthest thing from my mind," Mehta says. This changed when he returned to Mumbai. He saw what everyone else did—that the city was filled with a few rich people, a vast number of poor people, and hardly anyone in the middle. This was most evident in the appalling housing situation. The city was split between the Manhattan-priced high-rises that dotted the south Mumbai skyline and those brownish areas on the map marked with the letters ZP for zopadpatti, aka slums.

Downtown business people railed that the slums were choking the life out of the city, robbing it of its rightful place in the 21st century. After all, India was no longer a post-colonial backwater famous only for the most wretched people of the Earth and the gurus who appealed to gullible Beatles. Now, when a computer broke in Des Moines, the help desk was in Bangalore. Economists were predicting exactly when the Indian GNP was likely to surpass that of the United States. If Mumbai was going to achieve its stated destiny of becoming a world-class metropolis, a rival to China's soaring Shanghai, how could that happen when every bit of open space was covered with these eyesores, these human dumps where no one paid taxes? For Mukesh Mehta, if India were to become the ideal consumer society, it would have to develop a true middle class—and housing would be the engine. The slums would have to be reclaimed.

But which slums? There were so many of them. Then it jumped out, as clear as real estate's incontrovertible first axiom, location, location, location: Dharavi, right in the middle of the map. It was a quirk of geography and history, as any urban planner will tell you (the American inner city aside): Large masses of poor people are not supposed to be in the center of the city. They are supposed to be on the periphery, stacked up on the outskirts. Dharavi had once been on the northern fringe, but ever growing Mumbai had sprawled toward the famous slum, eventually surrounding it.

It didn't take a wizard to see the advantages of Dharavi's position. Served by two railway lines, it was ideally situated for middle-class commuters. Added to this was the advent of the Bandra-Kurla Complex, a global corporate enclave located directly across the remaining mangrove swamps, as close to Dharavi as Wall Street is to Brooklyn Heights. Sterile and kempt, the BKC was the future, right on the doorstep of the zopadpatti.

"I approached it as a developer. In other words, as a mercenary," says Mehta, satellite images of Dharavi spread across his desk. "But something happened. I opened an office in Dharavi, started talking to people, seeing who they were, how hard they worked, and how you could be there for months and never once be asked for a handout."

It was then, Mehta says, "I had an epiphany. I asked myself if these people were any different from my father when he first came from Gujarat. They have the same dreams. That was when I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to fixing the slums. Because I realized: The people of Dharavi—they are my genuine heroes."

BACK ON RAJENDRA PRASAD CHAWL, news of the plan's approval was met with a decidedly mixed response. Meera Singh barely looked up from Baba Ramdev's lecture. She had heard often the stories about Dharavi's supposed transformation. Nothing much ever happened. Why should Mukesh Mehta's scheme be any different? Moreover, what reason would possess her to move into a 225-square-foot (21 square meters) apartment, even if it were free? She has nearly 400 square feet (40 square meters). "Informal housing" has been good to her. She receives 1,100 rupees a month from the furniture workers and another thousand from renting her basement. Why should she give this up for a seven-story apartment building where she'll be saddled with fees, including "lift" charges? She doesn't like to ride in elevators. They give her the creeps.

Amit Singh was more outspoken. Mehta's plan was nothing more than "a scam, a chunk of fool's gold." Amit was already drafting an editorial in the Janhit Times demanding a citizen's arrest of "the gangster Mehta."

In a place with one toilet for every few hundred people (the so-called politics of defecation is a perennial hot button in India), the prospect of having one's own bathroom would seem to be a powerful selling point for the plan. But even if a stir broke out last summer when gurus declared that the waters of Mahim Creek, the slum's reeking unofficial public toilet, had miraculously turned "sweet" (leading to much gastrointestinal trauma), many Dharavi locals were unmoved by the idea of a personal loo.

"What need do I have of my own toilet?" asks Nagamma Shilpiri, who came to Dharavi from Andhra Pradesh 20 years ago and now lives with her crippled father and 13 other relatives in two 150-square-foot (14 square meters) rooms. Certainly, Shilpiri is embarrassed by the lack of privacy when she squats in the early morning haze beside Mahim Creek. But the idea of a personal flush toilet offends her. To use all that water for so few people seems a stupid, even sinful, waste.

Everyone in Dharavi had their own opinion about how and why the plan was concocted to hurt them in particular. The most nuanced assessment came from Shaikh Mobin, a plastics recycler in his mid-30s. Mobin has lived his whole life in Dharavi, but he'd never call himself a slum dweller. His recycling business, started by his grandfather, passed to his father, and now to him ("the post-consumer economy, turning waste into wealth," he says), had made Mobin a relatively rich man. He and his family live in a marble-floored flat at the 13-floor Diamond Apartments, "Dharavi's number one prestige address."

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