Published: May 2007
Mumbai's Shadow City
Some call the Dharavi slum an embarassing eyesore in the middle of India's financial capital. Its residents call it home.
By Mark Jacobson

All cities in India are loud, but nothing matches the 24/7 decibel level of Mumbai, the former Bombay, where the traffic never stops and the horns always honk. Noise, however, is not a problem in Dharavi, the teeming slum of one million souls, where as many as 18,000 people crowd into a single acre (0.4 hectares). By nightfall, deep inside the maze of lanes too narrow even for the putt-putt of auto rickshaws, the slum is as still as a verdant glade. Once you get accustomed to sharing 300 square feet (28 square meters) of floor with 15 humans and an uncounted number of mice, a strange sense of relaxation sets in—ah, at last a moment to think straight.

Dharavi is routinely called "the largest slum in Asia," a dubious attribution sometimes conflated into "the largest slum in the world." This is not true. Mexico City's Neza-Chalco-Itza barrio has four times as many people. In Asia, Karachi's Orangi Township has surpassed Dharavi. Even in Mumbai, where about half of the city's swelling 12 million population lives in what is euphemistically referred to as "informal" housing, other slum pockets rival Dharavi in size and squalor.

Yet Dharavi remains unique among slums. A neighborhood smack in the heart of Mumbai, it retains the emotional and historical pull of a subcontinental Harlem—a square-mile (three square kilometers) center of all things, geographically, psychologically, spiritually. Its location has also made it hot real estate in Mumbai, a city that epitomizes India's hopes of becoming an economic rival to China. Indeed, on a planet where half of humanity will soon live in cities, the forces at work in Dharavi serve as a window not only on the future of India's burgeoning cities, but on urban space everywhere.

Ask any longtime resident—some families have been here for three or more generations—how Dharavi came to be, and they'll say, "We built it." This is not far off. Until the late 19th century, this area of Mumbai was mangrove swamp inhabited by Koli fishermen. When the swamp filled in (with coconut leaves, rotten fish, and human waste), the Kolis were deprived of their fishing grounds—they would soon shift to bootlegging liquor—but room became available for others. The Kumbhars came from Gujarat to establish a potters' colony. Tamils arrived from the south and opened tanneries. Thousands traveled from Uttar Pradesh to work in the booming textile industry. The result is the most diverse of slums, arguably the most diverse neighborhood in Mumbai, India's most diverse city.

Stay for a while on the three-foot-wide (one meter) lane of Rajendra Prasad Chawl, and you become acquainted with the rhythms of the place. The morning sound of devotional singing is followed by the rush of water. Until recently few people in Dharavi had water hookups. Residents such as Meera Singh, a wry woman who has lived on the lane for 35 years, used to walk a mile (two kilometers) to get water for the day's cleaning and cooking. At the distant spigot she would have to pay the local "goons" to fill her buckets. This is how it works in the bureaucratic twilight zone of informal housing. Deprived of public services because of their illegal status, slum dwellers often find themselves at the mercy of the "land mafia." There are water goons, electricity goons. In this regard, the residents of Rajendra Prasad Chawl are fortunate. These days, by DIY hook or crook, nearly every household on the street has its own water tap. And today, like every day, residents open their hoses to wash down the lane as they stand in the doorways of their homes to brush their teeth.

This is how Dharavi wakes up. On 90 Feet Road, named for its alleged width (even if 60 Feet Road, the slum's other main drag, is considerably wider), the cab drivers coax their battered Fiats to life. In the potters' neighborhood, black smoke is already pouring from six-foot-square (one square meter) kilns. By the mucky industrial canal, the recyclers are in full swing. In Dharavi nothing is considered garbage. Ruined plastic toys are tossed into massive grinders, chopped into tiny pieces, melted down into multicolored pellets, ready to be refashioned into knockoff Barbie dolls. Here every cardboard box or 55-gallon (208 liters) oil drum has another life, and another one after that.

Mornings at Rajendra Prasad Chawl are equally hectic. With the eight furniture makers to whom she rents part of her apartment gone for the day, Meera Singh combs the hair of her grandchildren: Atul, 7, Kanchan, 10, and Jyoti, 12. Soon the apartment, home to 15, is empty, save for Meera and her twentysomething son, Amit, he of the dashing mustache and semi-hipster haircut. A couple of years ago, the Singh family, like everyone else in Dharavi, sat in front of the television to see local singer Abhijit Sawant win the first Indian Idol contest. But now Meera is watching her favorite TV personality, the orange-robed yoga master, Baba Ramdev, who demonstrates an antiaging technique: rubbing your fingernails against each other at a rapid pace.

"Why listen to this fool?" dismisses Amit.

"You know nothing," Meera shoots back. "His hair is black, and he is more than 80 years old."

"Eighty? He's no more than 40. Don't fall for these cheating tricks."

Meera shakes her head. She gave up trying to talk sense to Amit long ago. "His head is in the clouds," she says. She wishes he'd get a job as did his brother Manoj, who sews jeans in one of Dharavi's kaarkhanas, or sweatshops. But this is not for him, Amit says. A thinker, he sees his life in terms of "a big picture." Central to this conceit is the saga of how the Singhs came to Dharavi in the first place. Members of the Kshatriyas, regarded as second only to Brahmans in the caste system, Amit's great uncles were zamindars, or landlords, in the service of the British. Stripped of privilege after independence, the family moved from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai, where Amit's father worked in the textile mills. The collapse of the mills in the 1970s landed the family in Dharavi.

It is this story of chance and fate ("A hundred years ago we would have been bosses," he says) that spurs Amit's outsize sense of self. He's always got a dozen things going. There's his soap powder pyramid scheme, his real estate and employment agency gambits. New is his exterminator firm, for which he has distributed hundreds of handbills ("No bedbug! No rat!"), claiming to be Dharavi's "most trusted" vermin remover, despite having yet to exterminate one cockroach.

Also on Amit's agenda is the Janhit Times, a tabloid he envisions as a hard-hitting advocate of grassroots democracy. The first edition featured a story about an allegedly corrupt Dharavi policeman. Amit's headline: "A Giant Bastard, a Dirty Corrupted Devil, and Uniformed Goon." Cooler heads, pointing out the policeman wielded a lethal lathi (bamboo nightstick), suggested a milder approach. Reluctantly Amit went with "A Fight for Justice."

Even though the paper has yet to print its first edition, Amit carries a handsome press pass, which he keeps with his stack of business cards. This leads his mother to remark, "That's you, many cards, but no businesses." Looking at her son, she says, "You are such a dreamer."

It is an assessment that Amit, who just decided to open a rental car agency in hopes of diversifying his portfolio in the mode of "a Richard Branson of Dharavi," does not dispute.

"Talk about doing something about Mumbai slums, and no one pays attention. Talk about Dharavi, and it is Mission Impossible, an international incident," says Mukesh Mehta as he enters the blond-paneled conference room of the Maharashtra State Administration Building. For nine years, Mehta, a 56-year-old architect and urban designer, has honed his plan for "a sustainable, mainstreamed, slum-free Dharavi." At today's meeting, after many PowerPoint presentations, the plan is slated for approval by the state chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh.

Dharavi is to be divided into five sectors, each developed with the involvement of investors, mostly nonresident Indians. Initially, 57,000 Dharavi families will be resettled into high-rise housing close to their current residences. Each family is entitled to 225 square feet (21 square meters) of housing, with its own indoor plumbing. In return for erecting the "free" buildings, private firms will be given handsome incentives to build for-profit housing to be sold at (high) market rates.

"All that remains is the consent," Mehta tells Deshmukh, a sour-looking gentleman in a snow-white suit sitting with his advisers at the 40-foot (12 meters) conference table. Normally, it is required that 60 percent of Dharavi residents approve of the plan.

But Deshmukh announces that formal consent is not needed because Mehta's plan is a government-sponsored project. All he must do is give the residents a month to register complaints. "A 30-day window, not a day more," Deshmukh says with impatient finality.

Later, as his driver pilots his Honda Accord through traffic, Mehta is smiling. "This is a good day," he says. "A dream come true."

At first glance, Mehta, resident of an elegant apartment building on swank Napean Sea Road, a longtime member of the British Raj–era Bombay Gymkhana and Royal Bombay Yacht Club, does not appear to be a Dharavi dreamer.

"You could say I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth," he remarks at his West Bandra office overlooking the Arabian Sea. "My father came to Bombay from Gujarat without a penny and built a tremendous steel business. An astrologer told him his youngest son—me—would be the most successful one, so I was afforded everything." These perks included a top education, plus a sojourn in the U.S., where Mehta studied architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

"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."

Mobin is a supporter of development in Dharavi. Change is necessary. Polluting industries like recycling have no business being in the center of a modern metropolis. Mobin was already making plans to move his factory several miles to the north. But this didn't mean he is happy with what is happening in the place of his birth.

Much of his critique is familiar. The government's failure to create housing for middle-income people was responsible for the existence of the slums, Mobin contends. Many people in Dharavi make enough money to live elsewhere, "a house like you see on TV." But since no such housing exists, they are doomed to the slum. Mobin doubts Mukesh Mehta's private developers will help. All over Dharavi are reminders of developmental disasters. Near Dharavi Cross Road, members of the L.P.T. Housing Society, their houses torn down in preparation for their promised apartments, have spent the past eight years living in a half-finished building without steady electricity or water, at the mercy of the goons and the malarial Mumbai heat.

But when it comes down to it, Mobin says, Dharavi's dilemma is at once much simpler and infinitely more complex: "This is our home." This is what people such as Chief Minister Deshmukh and Mukesh Mehta will never understand, Mobin says. "Mukesh Mehta says I am his hero, but what does he know of my life? He is engaged in shaikhchilli, which is dreaming, dreaming in the day. Does it occur to him that we do not wish to be part of his dream?"

Such sentiments cause Mukesh Mehta distress. "If someone calls me a dreamer, I plead guilty," he says, finishing his crème caramel at the Bombay Yacht Club. To be sure, Mehta has made some fanciful statements regarding Dharavi's future. His idea to install a golf driving range has met with widespread guffaws. "Golf? What is this golf?" asked Shilpiri's crippled father. The other day Mehta was fantasizing about constructing a 120,000-seat cricket stadium in the slum. Asked where fans would park, Mehta looked stricken.

"Parking! Oh, my God," he exclaimed. "I'm going to be up all night trying to figure that out."

But being a dreamer doesn't mean he is "unrealistic," Mehta says. He has been around the block of India's bruising bureaucracy. He has learned hard lessons along the way. One is that "sometimes the last thing people in power want is to get rid of slums." Much of what Mehta calls "slum perpetuation" has to do with the infamous "vote bank"—a political party, through a deep-rooted system of graft, lays claim to the vote of a particular neighborhood. As long as the slum keeps voting the right way, it's to the party's advantage to keep the community intact. A settlement can remain in the same place for years, shelters passing from makeshift plastic tarps to corrugated metal to concrete. But one day, as in the case of Dharavi, the slum might find itself suddenly in the "wrong" place. Once that happens, the bulldozer is always a potential final solution. A few years ago, the Maharashtra government, under the direction of Chief Minister Deshmukh, in a spasm of upgrading supposedly aimed at closing the "world-class" gap, demolished 60,000 hutments, some in place for decades. As many as 300,000 people were displaced.

This, Mehta says, is what his plan is devised to avoid. "No one wants to be that unhappy guy driving the bulldozer." Preferring "the talking cure," Mehta says if anyone, anywhere, doesn't think his plan is the best possible outcome for Dharavi, he will sit with them for as long as it takes, to convince them. A few days later, at Kumbharwada, he got his chance.

To many, the Kumbhar potters are the heart and soul of Dharavi. Their special status derives not only from their decades-long residence but also from the integrity of their work. While Dharavi is famous for making use of things everyone throws away, the Kumbhars create the new.

Savdas family members have been Dharavi potters for generations, but Tank Ranchhod Savdas once imagined another kind of life. "I had big dreams," he says. "I thought I would be a lawyer." But Tank's father died in 1986, and "as the oldest son I took up this business." Not that he has any regrets. "During busy times, I make hundreds of pots a day, and I get pleasure from each one," he says.

Recently, however, the fortyish "Mr. Tank" has begun to fear for the future of Kumbhars in Dharavi. Increasing numbers of the community's young men have become merchant seamen, or computer specialists at the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Kumbharwada is full of teenage boys who have never used a potter's wheel, unthinkable only a few years ago.

And now there is this plan. Just talking about "a slum-free Dharavi" is enough to make Tank shake with anger. How dare anyone claim that Kumbharwada is "a slum" in need of rehabilitation! Kumbharwada is home to working people, men and women who have always made their own way. If Mukesh Mehta was so enamored of the U.S., couldn't he see Kumbharwada was a sterling example of the supposed American dream?

"Look at my house," Tank demands, showing off the 3,000-square-foot (280 square meters) home and workshop he built and now shares with his two brothers and their families. "Why should we move from here, to there?"

By "there," Tank means the Slum Rehabilitation Authority high-rise under construction behind Kumbharwada. Freshly painted, the building has a sprightly look, but soon lack of maintenance will turn it into a replica of every other SRA building: a decaying Stalinist-styled pile, covered with Rorschach-like mildew stains. Inside is a long, dank hallway with 18 apartments on either side, which Amit Singh calls "36 rooms of gloom."

"That is a slum," says Tank, "a vertical slum." Told that Mehta says he's willing to talk with anyone unhappy with the plan, Tank says, "Then bring him here. Tomorrow."

On his cell phone from Hyderabad, Mehta, "not risk averse," says "ten o'clock." But he is skeptical the meeting will accomplish much. He's spoken with the potters many times. Proposals allowing them to keep the majority of their space have been rejected, as was his idea to maximize the potters' profits by adding ornamental ceramics to their traditional vessels and religious objects. "I've offered them the moon and been repaid with crushing indifference," Mehta bemoans. Plus, he never knows which alleged leadership group represents whom.

It's a frustrating situation that one afternoon causes the Americanized Mehta to shout, "Your trouble is you have too many chiefs and not enough Indians!"

Yet when ten o'clock rolls around, there he is, impeccably attired in a tan suit, cuff links gleaming in the sunlight, in the courtyard in front of Tank's house. Perhaps a hundred people have assembled, sitting on plastic chairs. Most are potters, but there are others, too, such as Amit Singh and several colleagues from the Janhit Times. After politely listening to Mehta's short form of the plan (he has brought his PowerPoint presentation, but sunlight prevents its deployment), the objections begin. It is outrageous that this was even being discussed, people say. "We have been making pots for 130 years," one man shouts. "This land is ours."

Mehta is sympathetic to the Kumbhar position. But there are a few "realities" they must understand. First, the assumption that the community owns the Kumbharwada grounds by virtue of the British Raj–era Vacant Land Tenancy act is incorrect. Mehta says the Kumbhars' long-term lease ran out when the act was repealed in 1974. Also, there is the pollution issue. Every day the potters' brick kilns send huge black clouds into the air. It's gotten so bad that nearby Sion Hospital is complaining that the smoke is aggravating patients' pulmonary ailments.

The Kumbhars are vulnerable on these issues, Mehta says. Chief Minister Deshmukh would be within his rights to send the dreaded bulldozers rolling down 90 Feet Road. The Kumbhars should trust him, Mehta says. His very presence proves his sincerity. "People said if I came here, I should wear a hard hat. But you see me, bareheaded." At the very least, the Kumbhars should allow him to conduct a census of the area. This information would help him fight for them, get them the best deal.

With the return of the late monsoon rains, the session breaks up. Mehta gets back into his chauffeured car feeling upbeat. "A good meeting," he says. The fact that the Kumbhars seemed to agree to the census was a good sign, Mehta says, driving off through puddles.

Back at Kumbharwada, Tank is asked what he has learned from the meeting. Surrounded by perhaps 20 potters, Tank says, "We have learned that Mukesh Mehta's plan is of no use to us." Would they participate in the census? "We'll think about it," says Tank.

In any event, there is no time to talk about it now. The meeting has taken almost two hours. With orders piling up, there is work to be done.

Mukesh Mehta's plan is scheduled to be implemented sometime this year, not that Dharavi is excessively fixated on it during holiday season, a time to, as a sign in the window of Jayanthian fireworks store on 90 Feet Road says, "enjoy the festivals with an atom bomb." Today is Ganesh Chaturthi, and much of Dharavi (the Hindus, anyway) are in the streets beating giant drums and blaring Bollywood-inflected songs on car-battery-powered speakers in celebration of Lord Ganesh. Ganesh, the roly-poly elephant god, has special significance in Dharavi, being considered the deity of "removing obstacles."

One such obstacle is in evidence at the outset of the parade marking the end of the ten-day festival for which people make giant murtis, or likenesses, of the god. These effigies are borne through the streets to Mahim Beach and then tossed into the water. One group has constructed a ten-foot-high (three meters) Ganesh from silvery papier-mâché. They have not, however, bothered to measure the narrow lane through which the Ganesh will need to pass to reach Dharavi Main Road. After much discussion and a tortuous 50-foot (15 meters) journey during which many Dharavian "obstacles," including a ganglia of illegally connected electric wires, needed to be removed, the murti makes it through with a quarter inch to spare. Not a bit of the god's silvery skin is nicked.

As the Ganesh is lifted onto a flatbed truck for its journey to Mahim Beach, one resident turns and says, "You see. The Ganesh is undamaged. This is our talent. We deal with what is."