Elusive Dharavi

Understanding does not mean fetishising

Dharavi is often referred to as Asia’s quintessential slum. What reminded me to put up this post was an article in the Architectural Review entitled “Enough Slum Porn: The Global North’s Fetishisation of Poverty Architecture Must End”.

We walked the streets together with a Dharavi inhabitant who is involved in a cleanliness project in the area. The visit was arranged by Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove, two fabulous people I met when working on a project on post-war Tokyo. Their organisation, the Institute for Urbanology, is an urban planning and research studio. They are also plugged into the urbz.net collective, which is all about “user-generated cities”.

Their e-book The Slum Outside: Elusive Dharavi was a valuable introduction to the walk. At about 70 pages, it is digestible and can be read in an hour. Among the points which Rahul and Matias are making is that Dharavi is often misunderstood — it is by far not a collection of temporary shacks inhabited by migrants from India’s poor states. It is a complex and diverse place with a very long history dating back to the late nineteenth century.

Two of the concepts Rahul and Matias advance, “tool-house” as well as “user-generated neighbourhood” are helpful in understanding Dharavi. The former is the product of loose (or nonexistent) zoning regulations, allowing spaces that are used both for income generation and living under one roof. Tool-houses do not exist in master-planned neighbourhoods as building functions here are usually segregated. The latter refers to the initiative residents take to build and adapt their own habitat.

So how does the critical AR article fit into this? Dan Hancox is criticising Western urban planners and theorists, often living in the comforts of urban centres such as Zurich or New York, for glorifying the “spontaneous order” that comes to life in many slums, while not empathising enough with the abject poverty that slums often mean for their inhabitants.

The film that got Dan Hancox so aggravated is a Urban Think Tank (U-TT) production about Dharavi. U-TT also famously introduced Torre David (a “vertical favela” that sprung up in an abandoned office tower in Caracas/Venezuela) to a world audience. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch it, but from following U-TT’s work a little bit through what is available online, their presentation methods and their audience during biennales and design shows may put some people off.

However, Hancox’s article to me does not show much empathy for slum dwellers. In that it reads like a rather predictable protest piece, allegedly taking up the cause of marginalised communities without giving them any real airtime either.

To come back to the work undertaken by Urbanology and urbz.net, Rahul and Matias have been working in and on Dharavi for a good part of the last decade, always in conjunction with local stakeholders. There is probably few if any people more qualified to speak on this part of Mumbai and engage a global audience. This is not about fetishising slums, this is about understanding them.

At the same time, I have my concerns. I am not sure whether the economic argument of integrating the little tool-home workshops into a supply chain and making it globally competitive generally works. Matias seems to base this partly on his research he undertook in Tokyo. But India’s economy today is of course wholly different from Japan’s in the 1950s and 60s. Above all, the importance of the manufacturing sector is much lower in today’s India. Which scalable industry can the urban workshops supply their products to?

The other concern I have broadly refers to density. In the Dharavi book, Indian architect Charles Correa is quoted as saying that he felt ten square meters per person should be reserved for amenities. Dharavi should therefore be de-densified, down to about 10 or 20 percent of the current population depending on what estimate you believe in. Others present during the workshop described rejected Correa’s idea, saying that density is precisely Mumbai’s essence.

Anyone who visits Indian cities would agree with that statement, but whether or not this is a desirable condition I find questionable. Especially poorer parts of Dharavi are indisputably overcrowded, their improvement may not work without making more space available per person. While many inhabitants use the street as an extension of their home, there seem to be significant parts of Dharavi where the street is a euphemistic description for a tiny passage in which stretching out your arms isn’t even possible.

Again, in a nod to Tokyo’s post-war experience, the book features one argument, i.e. that the compromise between density and progress may be to build modern, comfortable buildings and improve infrastructure without destroying the character of the neighbourhood: “One way was to preserve the street pattern and scale while developing infrastructure and rebuilding houses on their existing footprint.”

For some parts of Dharavi, this strikes me as a sensible idea (see photo below). For others, perhaps de-densification may be needed. And finally, whether or not the debate surrounding Dharavi holds some of the keys to (India’s) urban problems in general remains to be seen. This is especially the case as long as the main problems remain in the social and political sphere and relate to the way that social, ethnic and religious minorities are handled, and how politics is played out at the local level.

There is no one answer to all these questions, but The Slum Outside: Elusive Dharavi is an exceptional piece of work that has a lot of insights pointing in the right direction. Again, it is not about fetishising Asia’s most famous slum, but about understanding it. That can only be a good starting point.


Originally published at benbansal.me on September 30, 2014.