History of the Slums of Dharavi: In pre-colonial India, the Koli fishing community had settled at the northernmost tip of the island of Parel. Their community was right next to the Mahim Creek that provided them livelihood for centuries. Bear in mind that this is the pre-colonial Bombay- a group of seven islands on the coast of the Arabian sea.
In the 16th Century, the Portuguese colonists built a small fort and church at Bandra, the shore opposite to Dharavi, but did not interfere with the Koli fishermen community. In 1737, the British built the Riwa Fort at Dharavi, also known as the Kala Qila on the orders of their second British Governor of Bombay, Gerald Aungier. The fort served the British forces as a watchtower, guarding them against any attacks from the Portuguese or the Marathas.
The turning point in the history of Dharavi came in the 18th century when the swamps of Bombay started to be reclaimed. All the seven islands were joined into a single landmass, with Parel at its outskirts.
The Mahim Creek dried up soon afterward, owing to the reclamation project. The Koli community had lost their source of livelihood and began to disperse towards more promising locations.
The landscape of Dharavi, around the 1850s, was a heterogeneous mixture of industrial and handicrafts. Fishing village huts and industrial sheds tore through the swampy lands, punctuated by people dragging carts filled with goods along the dirt roads. The skyline was smokestacks of the textile mills right beside the potters’ kilns (which would later develop into Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony).
The opportunities offered by the colonized, industrial Bombay initially attracted migrants from Maharashtra, Konkan, and Gujarat. These settlers moved towards the south of Bombay but were soon pushed away by the authorities to the outskirts in the North. By the end of the 19th century, Dharavi became the home to a diversity of artists and aspirants- potters from Saurashtra, Muslim leather tanners from Tamil Nadu, embroidery workers, and artisans from Uttar Pradesh, and confectioners from Tamil Nadu.
The eviction drive in Bombay which spanned from the 1940s to the 60s (post-independence) ‘dumped’ the ‘illegal’ squatters and ‘waste’ to Dharavi- slum dwellers, pavement dwellers from the areas on the other side of Dadar now found themselves in Dharavi, which was still on the outskirts of the city. The authorities ignored it for a while until the city exploded in population and grew northwards to bring Dharavi into the heart of the new city. Now it could no longer be simply overlooked.
In 1971, the state government of Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Slum Areas Improvement, Clearance and Redevelopment Act and Dharavi was declared as a slum. The residents were provided with taps, toilets, electricity, and sewer and water lines laid down along the Sion-Mahim-Link roads. Transit camps were constructed to house the people whose houses came in the way of the infrastructural projects.
The following years were quite happening for Dharavi. The Bombay development plan of 1981 acknowledged the presence of Dharavi and the need for its development. In 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi dedicated a sum of Rs. 100 crores to the improvement of housing and other infrastructure of Bombay, he reserved around 30% of it for Dharavi. By 1987 the Prime Minister’s Grant Project was initiated and a Special Planning Authority was formed by the MHADA.
In 1995 the Shiv Sena-BJP government launched the Slum Rehabilitation scheme which promised free houses to all slum dwellers. Up to 2004, around 85 new buildings were constructed in Dharavi (and the city named ‘Mumbai’ in 1996) using Transferred Development Rights which were sold for use outside Dharavi.
In 2003 McKinsey and Company, an American Management and consulting firm, along with Bombay First published a report called ‘Vision Mumbai: Transforming Mumbai into a World-Class City: A Summary of Recommendations.’ According to the report, the solution to the problems of Mumbai was a step-by-step demolition and rebuilding of the city, this time with around 3 times the FSI. The whole paradigm of the report was based on a public-private alliance to attract a huge amount of global capital into the housing and infrastructure sectors. It suggested the case of Shanghai as a model for Mumbai’s transformation.
Following the findings of the report, the Government of Maharashtra launched the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan in 2004. It included dividing Dharavi into five sectors and then inviting firms worldwide to provide free housing to the ‘eligible’ slum dwellers of Dharavi in exchange for some extra built-up area. This was not well-received by the people of Dharavi. The whole development plan had been formed without any involvement of the residents of Dharavi, and that the policies did not conform to the people’s needs.
More than 80% of Dharavi is a hybrid of residence-cum-workshop, which would not have been sustainable in buildings of 30 or 50 stories. With the source of livelihood destroyed, the people would no longer live in Dharavi and would disperse to populate other areas, mostly slums. Added to the problem was the fact that due to the absence of a baseline survey in the formulation of the plans, the number of ‘eligible’ slum dwellers was far from accurate.
Both the report and the Development Plan came under heavy scrutiny from several constituencies for their lack of understanding of the essence of Mumbai. Charles Correa, commenting on the report, said, “There is very little vision. They’re more like hallucinations.”
Dharavi had already suffered once before, due to the mistakes of others. It would not allow that to happen again. The resistance by the slum dwellers and a global financial crisis brought the development plan to a standstill. The following years saw the emergence of numerous social organizations from the Dharavi Bachao Andolan (Save Dharavi Campaign). The Dharavi Community Land Trust was also proposed as a congregation of community members, landowners, and neighborhood associations.
In 2019, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Maharashtra government, the Dharavi Redevelopment Project Authority (DRPA), and the Dubai-based SecLink group. The estimated cost of the project is over Rs.
26,000 crores and it plans to transform the region into a hub of commerce and business activities.
Now it is the pandemic that has brought the project to a standstill. The story of one of Asia’s largest slums is one filled with challenges, but more than that it is filled with the inspiration to overcome those challenges. It is not possible to predict what the future holds for the heart of Mumbai, but surely the people of Dharavi have proved that they will no longer suffer in silence, come what may.