An Urbanist’s Guide to Dharavi

Visit: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/01/urbanist-guide-to-dharavi-mumbai
A chai stall in Dharavi, Mumbai
A chai stall in Dharavi, Mumbai Photograph: Benita Fernando

Dharavi in brief

Everything you’ve heard about Dharavi is true … and false. Dharavi spans more than 500 acres, is in the heart of Mumbai and has a population density more than 10 times the rest of the city. There are anywhere between 300,000 and a million people, with 750,000 being the most common estimate. There are businesses of every kind: it is something of an informal economic powerhouse. People in Dharavi live and labour, but they need better living conditions, infrastructure and sanitation. You tend to feel that Dharavi remains one of the biggest informal urban settlements in the world because it has been neglected for so long.

Best place

The western edge of Dharavi is where its original inhabitants, the Kolis, reside. A fishing community spread throughout Mumbai, the particular group here used to practise freshwater fishing in the Mithi river. However, over the last 30 years they have stopped fishing and switched to more profitable professions.

The western edge of Dharavi
Houses on the western edge of Dharavi. Photograph: Benita Fernando

What used to be an area with thatched houses and gutter streets has now become one of the cleanest, best-maintained spots in Dharavi. The residents have signed themselves off from the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, which plans new housing and businesses in the area and offers Dharavi residents houses that are less than 400 sq ft. The Kolis have homes twice this size: hence the resistance. The neighbourhood is also well known for its community feeling, and festivals are celebrated collectively.

Worst building

Public bathrooms and toilets are some of the most poorly maintained structures, so Dharaviites take pride in having a good bathroom in their locality. You will find three types of public toilets: free, paid and those maintained by housing societies. The free toilets are the ones that do not have water facilities (how strange is that?). Locals will tell you that you have to get your own water and dabba (a makeshift tin box that works as a bucket or mug).

Public toilets are not safe for women to visit at night
Public toilets are not safe for women to visit at night. Photograph: Benita Fernando

Most houses in Dharavi do not have attached toilets, so some housing colonies get a common one built with water facilities for which residents pay about 30 rupees a month. No matter which kind of bathroom you use, there are long queues every morning. Even if you have the runs, you have to wait your turn in the tedious line. What’s worse, women find it unsafe to use these public bathrooms in the middle of the night.

How clean is Dharavi?

Perhaps the first thing you have heard about Dharavi (maybe in films) is that it is one of the least clean places in Mumbai. This is a stereotype, as some parts of Dharavi are thought to have cleaner water supply than older areas of the city. However, waste management is a problem and although there are dustbins everywhere, you will often find a circle of garbage around them. While most houses are not ventilated, there is a good flow of fresh air on the streets as there are no highrise buildings blocking its path.

What’s the best way to get around?

Dharavi roads are clogged with traffic on most days and at most hours! You may cycle at your own risk (though you will see men nimbly navigating the unpredictable flow of traffic on cycles with bulging loads on their carriers). The best way to experience Dharavi is to walk, and bypass the vehicles and crowds at a relaxed pace. There is so much to gain from the sights and sounds of Dharavi that you shouldn’t shield yourself inside a vehicle.

What does Dharavi sound like?

You could almost make a sound map of Dharavi! It is an orchestra out there on the streets. As you walk the lanes, it is delightful to hear languages change. Hindi blends into Marathi. Marathi turns into Tamil which gives way to Telugu. And there are so many businesses here! The crackling of fried food, the shredding of plastic at the recycling units, the honking of cars, the whirring of sewing machines, the tinkering of pots – what can you not hear here!

Dharavi street
Recycling in Dharavi. Photograph: Benita Fernando

Best place for a conversation

Dharavi is fuelled by chai. The best place to have a conversation would be over a cup of tea (the brand called Nagori, perhaps). There are no posh hangouts here, so if you want to take a break from your hectic routine you need to find a chai stall. Groups of men sit around, chitchat, have a smoke, discuss politics or business and then get going. This sounds bucolic, but the chai stalls are generally a male preserve. You won’t find Dharavi women hanging out in the same way.

What one thing is indispensable for life in Dharavi?

If you live in Dharavi, you can’t live without a big blue plastic drum! Your house may be 250 sq ft, but you will make space for this stout, almost-family member. One drum is big enough for a couple of children to play hide-and-seek in. Water supply is irregular here, so many houses store enough water to serve a family of five for up to three days.

Typical big blue drums in Dharavi
The ubiquitous big blue drums. Photograph: Benita Fernando

A 4ft drum can hold about 200 litres of water. Some Dharaviites believe this is better than a regular water supply as it controls the amount of water you consume. I’m not so sure: these are conclusions people can maybe make better when resources are equally distributed.

Are you optimistic about Dharavi’s future?

I think it depends on what we mean by optimism. For most redevelopment projects, it is crucial to understand what communities require. Rather than having a generic redevelopment proposal, you need to have a closer look at what is essential for individual communities and housing colonies. Do your children have space to play in Dharavi? Do you need tall buildings? What would you love to have? These are the sort of questions a Dharavi resident should be asked.

Children at play in Dharavi
Children at play in Dharavi. Photograph: Benita Fernando
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