Dharavi: A developer’s nightmare

Even with all the good intentions, Dharavi is going to be difficult for any developer to reconstruct for its sheer size

Dharavi: A developer’s nightmare

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

Dharavi, Asia’s largest horizontal slum, now has the distinction of also being the world’s largest vertical one as residents build upwards over gutters to gain maximum returns on their floor space even as the authorities wrangle about how to redevelop and who would redevelop. This is a project that has been languishing longer than the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment—18 years to be precise with many design changes and policy flip-flops.

This ambitious 600 acre project, like the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment, was also envisioned by the Congress-led Vilasrao Deshmukh government in 2004 based on a design for a plush township by architect Mukesh Mehta. Apart from being the largest slum, it is also a bustling manufacturing hub with thriving leather and pottery industries besides other small enterprises, adjacent to the Bandra Kurla complex which is India’s premier business district.

While planning the redevelopment, the state divided the slum into five sectors, set up the Dharavi Redevelopment Authority and invited global tenders in 2007. The response was outstanding as 101 companies took part in the process. However, the tenders were cancelled on technical grounds.

The project languished until 2011 when the entire process was changed and the state roped in the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA)—a government-run body—to construct affordable houses in one sector (Sector 5), while the revamp of the other sectors was put on the backburner.

Once again it fell to the Devendra Fadnavis government in February 2019 to revive the project but then politics, crony capitalism and bad administrative thinking seem to have got in the way of Dharavi’s redevelopment.

When the Fadnavis government invited tenders, Seclink Technology Corporation (STC), a UAE-based firm, won the financial bid, far outbidding Adani Infrastructure and Developers Private Limited. STC offered Rs 7,200 crore against Adani Infrastructure’s Rs 4,539 crore bid. Instead of awarding the project to STC, the Fadnavis government just put the project on hold.

But at the same time, the state government acquired some Railway land in Dharavi for Rs₹800 crore. As this was not mentioned in the tenders, Attorney General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni said fresh tenders needed to be called for, as the costs of the railway land and rehabilitation was added later and not incorporated in the original tender document.

Enter the Maha Vikas Aghadi government which accepted the AG’s views and cancelled the STC bid in October 2020 despite Seclink offering to pay Rs 800 crore additionally to cover the cost of the acquisition of railway land. The Eknath Shinde government has once again issued fresh global tenders on October 1 this year, the last day for submission was October 31 but the bids are yet to be opened.

Meanwhile, it is learnt from informed sources that though Adani Infrastructure currently may find it difficult to raise the estimated cost of Rs 35,000 crore for this redevelopment, it may still bag the project, helped on by friendly governments. If that happens, Adani will emerge as a major real estate player and it will boost their stock market value.

On the other hand, the I-Equity Group, which replaced STC as the special vehicle, and is backed by the UAE Royal family and had Hiten Shah as its partner, has pulled out of the bidding process.

Shah had played a major role during the last tender and is now focusing on states which have a “hassle-free investor-friendly environment”. Meanwhile, amid huge clamour from residents to soon start the redevelopment, flimsy buildings over gutters are going dangerously high as the slum dwellers seek to add more value to their properties.

In the 18 years of design changes and policy flip-flops, one third of Dharavi has become a veritable vertical slum with tin, plastic sheeting, bamboo and wood used to bolster the mezzanines as well as add to the rickety top floors of less than 200 square feet that can barely hold a bed and a chair and could collapse under the weight of any additional furniture.

The word of redevelopment has also changed the demographics of Dharavi. Earlier there were only poor migrants largely from Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu living in these slums. They were mostly either construction workers or belonged to the service sector—drivers, plumbers, domestics et al, many of them Muslims—with nearly a dozen persons crammed in a 150 sq. ft room over the gutter.

For this very reason, Dharavi was the epicentre of the Covid pandemic in 2020 but the slum also developed herd immunity by the second wave, again for that very reason.

According to Baburao Mane of the Dharavi Bachao Andolan, now the slum is no longer a zone of residents from South India or Uttar Pradesh. In the past 18 years, it has turned into a microcosm of India.

“Now Dharavi has residents from Jammu-Kashmir, Telangana, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. While people started exploring opportunities for odd jobs or commercial activities, this land on the gutter has developed as a vertical slum as more and more people arrived and room was scarce,” he says.

Of about 12.5 lakh people living here, Dharavi’s informal leather and pottery industry employs over a lakh people. A redevelopment entails resettling 60,000-65,000 families, including those with commercial establishments. “They did a survey thrice with lots of wrong info that we have been asking to rectify. Now just before the corporation election in Mumbai, they are again holding out a lollypop to the residents,” Mane adds.

The redevelopment plan includes seven-storeyed buildings to be constructed by MHADA in Sector 5. Residents with barely 180 to 250 sq. ft of space who have gone vertical are now demanding upto 784 sq ft of space, thus putting this huge project in jeopardy. Mane says the legal rights of the claimants will also have to be minutely examined, causing more headaches to everyone involved in the project.

Maya Jadhav, a resident of Dharavi, who has been raising her voice against the delay in the redevelopment, says, “The rates of the commercial and residential areas are always on the rise, there is no pegging to market rates. Homes were also built here from time to time by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and under the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana. Now, these people too are demanding more than the market price as they are in pucca buildings.”

She says while the ruling parties dangle the ‘redevelopment’ carrot ahead of elections to woo the voters from Dharavi, this creates a vertical slum as people want to be beneficiaries of this huge project. “So a new structure comes up here every other day.”

According to Anil Kasare, a social worker from Dharavi, “The Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana (which envisaged a slum-free India) was launched in the year 2011. Dharavi received a fund of Rs 100 crore under this scheme. However, only 20 crores were spent in the development of the hutments.

Later, the scheme was called off as it was decided that entire Dharavi would be redeveloped. In the eight years of the Modi regime, no PM Awas Yojana has been brought in specifically for Dharavi.”

Adds Mane, “Each 8x8 ft hut in Dharavi has two, three or even four floors. They are like a pack of cards.”

Even with all the good intentions, Dharavi is going to be difficult for any developer to reconstruct for its sheer size. With the kind of convoluted crony capitalism in play and the growing claims of residents, it could turn out to be a nightmare.

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