What is the social, cultural, economic and political impact of Dharavi on the urban dynamics of Mumbai?

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An aerial view of Dharavi. Source- tripsavvy.com

One of the most prominent and recognisable slums is Mumbai’s own Dharavi, which also happens to be one of the largest in the world. Originally, its habitants consisted mainly of Kolis or the fisherman community of Mumbai, and the entire land was a mangrove, a total contrast to what it is today. Poor rural migrants seeking labour in this city of dreams slowly identified this land which was then tax-free, and thus the seed for the growth of Asia’s largest slum was sowed here.

One of the main factors contributing to the development of this “city inside a city” is its prime location. It is conveniently located between Mumbai’s main suburban railway lines- the Western line and the Central line. This significantly benefits its tenants as it allows them to easily access all parts of the city as Mumbai‘s railway lines spread throughout the cluster of islands. This coupled with nominal monthly rents as low as ₹200 are auxiliaries that provide an affordable means of living to those who migrate to Mumbai to earn a living.

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A map of Dharavi. Source- dharavibiennale.com

Dharavi covers an area of only 2.1 square kilometres, which is home to about 1 million people that come from a wide range of religions, races, and castes- many of whom are second generation dwellers. While this may sound like a nightmare for countries that boast a much lower population density, the people of Dharavi live in perfect harmony, making the slum an epitome of secularism. Children running through anthropometrically incorrect narrow alleys, open drains, and garbage dumps in a sloppy settlement is a visual often seen in many Bollywood and Hollywood films- a still usually captured in this mangrove-turned-squatter jungle to portray Mumbai or even the entire country of India.

Notably, Dharavi has an exceptional literacy rate of 69%, making it the most literate slum in the entire world. The commercial sector of Dharavi is home to various thriving small businesses belonging to people of different backgrounds. About 20,000 single room factories, terracotta potters, plastic recyclers, metalsmiths, embroidery workers, leather tanners, and even the papad-drying business, all account for Dharavi’s massive annual turnover that is said to cross USD 0 million!

Products made in Dharavi are not just distributed all over the country, but even exported to markets abroad such as the United States and the UAE. In fact, the “small-business” culture that exists around the globe today prevailed in Dharavi much before it became popular. Today, a number of these businesses operate out of Dharavi through online ventures.

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A plastic recycling unit in Dharavi. Source- bloombergquint.com
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A pottery unit in Dharavi. Source- globalcitizen.org

Recent years have also seen the establishment of several guided tours of the area, another clever entrepreneurial opportunity taken up by the dwellers. This has increased the influx of tourists from all over the planet to Mumbai.

A number of popular break dancers, beat-boxers, and rappers come from Dharavi, and a strong hip-hop culture has hence been established in the slum, making it quite a prominent contributor to the entertainment industry as well. Clearly, the people of Dharavi have left no stone unturned!

The residents of Dharavi are no different from other city dwellers -their way of living is almost as progressive as the average Mumbaikar’s. Every household has a continuous supply of electricity, a gas stove, an average cable connection, and slowly most of the residences are being accommodated with air conditioners, which is essentially a luxury commodity.

Sanitation is one of the biggest concerns of this settlement as the mangrove streams that once ran through the fishing village have been replaced by sewer lines and contaminated streams. Ridiculously, according to a study done in 2006, there is only one toilet available per 1440 people in this settlement. This scarcity in sanitation facilities has led to the contamination of the Mahim creek that runs through Dharavi, which has been heavily polluted by sewage and garbage, which also adversely impacts other parts of the city that the creek flows through, ultimately leading to the contamination of the Mahim Bay.

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Mahim Creek in Dharavi- dirty and contaminated. Source- flickr.com

The unique and inherent character of Dharavi has made it extremely difficult to propose redevelopment plans of its urban fabric. In fact, most buildings in Dharavi have been designed verbally, without any architectural drawings.

The client verbally expresses his needs and the contractor verbally explains the design- a practice indigenous to this slum. On several occasions throughout its history, a number of national as well as international establishments have proposed plans to redevelop and upgrade the slum. However, none of these plans have been welcomed by the residents of Dharavi, as they seem to be quite comfortable and content with their lifestyle. Most redevelopment concepts include the construction of social housing in the form of apartment buildings to replace the individual slum dwellings on each plot of land, which is essentially a profit-driven motive for the builder. This would mean the abolishment of industries such as plastic-recycling and pottery, which happens to be the main reason for the Dharavi-ites’ opposition regarding such plans.

Over the years, Dharavi has played an important role in weaving the urban fabric of Mumbai, and evidently, any refurbishments to this area could have a positive or negative impact to the rest of the city. While in certain aspects such as sanitation and healthcare Dharavi are antagonists, its economic and commercial aspects are protagonists. Carrying out a redevelopment scheme seems to be quite challenging due to the residents’ strong opposition. However, a thorough clean up and provision of basic sanitation infrastructure would completely upgrade the slum and change the lifestyle of the people, while retaining their inherent practices.


Tirthika Shah is a budding architect and designer who is passionate about sustainability and  finding innovative solutions to the environmental crisis. She is a firm believer in inclusion, diversity and human equality & fairness to all.She is social media savvy and uses it creatively emphasizing on visual imagery to communicate impactfully with her audience. She is a food lover and you will often find desserts on her instagram.