Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, is supposed to represent the quintessential Asian slum. Crowded streets and busy markets; domestic workshops cheek by jowl with sweatshops producing both real and fake Pepe jeans; brick houses rising as high as their microscopic footprints allow; high-rises mushrooming here and there like gigantic shacks; schools in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, English, Marathi, Urdu and other languages, often with more than 50 pupils per class; temples of every Buddhist and Hindu denomination; flamboyant mosques so crowded that people have to pray on the streets during namaz; old churches with full congregations – remnants of the region’s seven teenth-century Portuguese history – and new evangelical missions converting low-caste Hindus by the dozen; community toilets that double up as marriage halls; piles of garbage waiting to be picked over by scavengers; open drains running along narrow back streets; thousands of water pipes branch ing off in every direction. Dharavi has grown over the years, from a cluster of small settlements into a densely populated urban neighborhood. Its history and identity is marked by the influx of low-income, low-caste migrants from all parts of India over the past six or seven decades. It is a diverse set of habitats. Some parts are well built and consolidated, others are struggling to improve. Dharavi plays a central role in the city’s economy, in particular in the manufacturing sector and absorbs a huge workforce. It is also where hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers that service the city everyday (domestic staff, hosts in hotels and restaurants, deliverers, municipal workers, but also increasingly in white collar jobs such as call centers and office jobs) find affordable accommodation.
The proposal for “re-inventing Dharavi” in collaboration with Rahul Malhotra is not about a hypothetical future, but about an expanded present. We do not want to displace anyone in Dharavi, nor do we want to substitute ourselves to residents and local builders. We believe Dharavi’s resilience is the direct manifestation that users have with their habitat. Authentic neighbourhoods exist both in their form and relationship, sometimes resisting, sometimes imbibing, the simulation of global spatio-cultural strategies, but doing so incrementally almost as additive strategy and not as a carte blanche. We feel that this is where the “participatory project” lies. There is already participation going on in Dharavi. It doesn’t need to be reinvented. It rather needs to be recognized, legitimized and supported. The same is true for the area as a whole: Dharavi doesn’t need to be reinvented. The best of planning cannot possibly do better when it comes to accommodating so many people in that precise location, within the existing constraints. What we propose is to think of innovative technical, planning and design interventions that function within Dharavi’s existing dynamic. Interventions that learn, borrow and improve on current construction and material practices which local actors can implement. The following pages lay out that path.
Our design proposal promotes a constructive system that would allow people to consolidate their existing houses and provide the structural strength to add more stories, roof garden, courtyard on top. Because the population density of Dharavi is already extremely high, we believe it is important to provide opportunities for the extension of living and working spaces. New floors can be used to accommodate growing families and businesses. They can also simply be used as extra space for current residents. Our proposal hence, is about a systemic addition of scalable improvements in infrastructure (water & drainage) and structural stability creating an open system that is susceptible to configuration as a palimpsest: incremental layers of growth. If history is any guide, neighbourhoods can experience both population growth and decrease. The latter typically happens when economic levels rise. This has happened in Japan in the 1970s when many slummy and crowded central neighbourhoods have lost population and stabilized at relatively high, but more comfortable density levels since. Some of these neigh bourhoods have become prime locations. Their demographics changed as some people moved out and others moved in, but it largely transformed internally as the existing population became wealthier and families became smaller. We feel that given the rising income levels that India and Mumbai, the same may happen in Dharavi. The overwhelming majority of residents in Dharavi now have middle-class lifestyles, with income coming from more than one source, children going to school and new facilities and technologies entering the home. It is time to reinvent the way we look at Dharavi. We should let residents do what they have done best for several generations now: materializing their aspiration for better living in the form of a new house, while respecting certain principles such as – avoiding forced displacement and endorsing occupancy rights. Thus, our design strategy allows each individual project to support its neighbours and connect them all into a large infrastructural network where the people, the homes, the activities all become part of the infrastructure. Where the flow of water, sewage, labour, goods and people reinforce each other and grow through this reinforcement.