India’s economic powerhouse, Mumbai, a municipality in the state of Maharashtra, has evolved into one of the most sought-after cities in the Global South. Consequently, the last century has seen a growth of informal settlements throughout the city to house new residents as waves of new immigrants arrive. State and local policy interventions have evolved over the years and contribute to a complicated history involving settlement residents, governments, and outside actors implementing various schemes to little success. Current interventions, including top-down redevelopment of informal communities into tower complexes, have been disrespectful of the built context, and are avenues for value extraction by private actors. A new approach is needed, one that starts from the bottom up and empowers residents to shape the future. Focusing on Dharavi, this article will argue that a bottom-up, self-redevelopment strategy will address the failings of current redevelopment schemes in Mumbai and reflect the needs of the informal community in formal spaces.
Originally a quiet fishing village on the periphery of Bombay (now Mumbai) known as Kolis, Dharavi was home to fishermen occupying swampland. As successive immigrant populations looked for work in Bombay to the south, Dharavi gradually transformed into an informal settlement. As Bombay moved, Dharavi moved from the periphery to the center city. Today the settlement is located between the central business district of Nariman Point and the Bandra-Kular Complex financial center. With train stations functioning as an informal border and the neighborhood’s proximity to finance, Dharavi is often referred to as the “Golden Triangle.”1 Currently, it is an unplanned “town” comprised, mostly, of various types of impermanent shelters, largely lacking proper sanitation and infrastructure. The settlement’s density exceeds Mumbai’s, housing 314,887 people per square kilometer. Between 600,000 and a million residents occupy thousands of self-constructed houses on 216 hectares of valuable centralized land. One toilet service 1,440 residents, one tap services 15 families, and frequent monsoons mix polluted sewage and drinking water.2 To the Western eye, Dharavi’s gritty exterior implies Dharavikars are suffering, but the settlement’s unique qualities sustain residents and make them key players in redevelopment.
For decades, Dharavi has hosted a thriving informal economy that provides for residents. Residents work in industries as disparate as garment manufacturing, food production, and waste management. Locals run a sophisticated network of manufacturing companies that compartmentalize the production of finished products by distributing production across a number of businesses, so that one business’s output is another’s input.3 Additionally, the settlement functions as a market that caters to multiple clienteles. Tourists and locals can find everything from street food to the settlement’s most famous commodity, leather goods. One of Dharavi’s oldest industries, tanneries, emerged after being a detestable form of work among the upper classes and today comprise 15% of the economy.4 The industry even produces its own “Dharavi brand” to scores of eager buyers annually. An unofficial estimate of the slum’s GDP is roughly 660 million – 1 billion dollars annually.5 Dharavi’s economic success is supported by burgeoning community institutions that make for a habitable society. Schools and “pre-university-colleges” have opened their doors to residents while locally run clinics provide medical attention. Dharavi is poor but residents have the resources needed to create a society that provides stability, structure, and independence outside of Mumbai’s formal sector.
The asset that enables the community’s economy and way of life is also the most valuable: land. In addition to being a high-value asset itself, the land Dharavi occupies, its uses, and the economy are intricately linked. Dharavi’s early municipal land-use designation as a “tannery town” by the government promoted the settlement’s socio-economic evolution into an informal settlement.6 Today, the community’s unique informal land use pattern, which eschews the clear separation of uses seen in formal settings, enables its economy. Land use is flexible; during the day a dwelling may function as a shop, tannery, or manufacturing area, and as a residence at night. Streets share a similar flexibility, and can be seen as extensions of a dwelling.7 Rights to occupy this flexible land, however, are not universal. Most informal residents of Mumbai occupy the land illegally. Many citizens, however, have “de jure” rights, as per the state of Maharastra’s slum notification policy. Slum notification is the process through which the state government protects long-term residents who own buildings and can trace their tenure in a slum. Those who have lived in Dharavi before 2000 are protected from evictions or guaranteed new accommodation.8 The policy, unfortunately, excludes those who rent their accommodations, but it protects the community as a whole from being cleared.9
More important than Dharavi’s land and economy is the diverse, internationally recognized, and politically active community. Historically, early residents were Tamilian Muslims and lower-caste Hindus from the district of Tirunelveli s, attracted to the tanning trade in the 1890s.10 Contemporary Dharavi retains the same diversity and is now globally recognized. It occupied center stage as the setting of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and “slum tours” cater to visitors looking to see “Asia’s largest slum”.11 Most relevant to development conversations, the various constituencies within the settlement form a powerful political base comprised of community groups and local NGOs. These groups have been particularly vocal in the various redevelopment proposals floated to the community over the decades and are key players in determining Dharavi’s evolution into a formal space.
Redevelopment of the informal settlements became prominent among policymakers in the 1980s, after land tenure and upgrading policies produced lackluster results in the 1970s. Policymakers saw markets as preferable to government-sponsored initiatives and saw themselves as enablers of housing production, rather than providers.12 The Prime Minister’s Grant Project (PMGP) of 1985 reflects the shift towards market liberalization. As part of the Prime Minister’s attempt to redevelop Dharavi, a limited number of residents had their homes improved through two emblematic strategies. First, residents received tenure over their land and loans to upgrade existing structures, similar to older strategies. The more contemporary second option was to have the slum cleared; newer developments were built at a 20% higher Floor-Area-Ratio (FAR), the ratio of the area of a building to the land it sits on, and a cross-subsidy was used to help pay for the development.13 With the passage of the Slum Redevelopment Scheme (SRD) of 1991 and the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) of 1995, lawmakers cemented their commitment to liberalization in housing provision by providing deliberate incentives for private developers. The SRD allowed development beyond maximum FAR to generate market-rate units as a subsidy for informal resident units, who were granted 30-year leases at $300 monthly rent. Rules guiding the program were an obstacle, particularly due to the requirement that 75% of residents consent to a project led by a private developer. When the Shiv Sena party took state power in 1995, they created the slum rehabilitation scheme (SRS) and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) to manage redevelopment projects. Under the SRS, rights to property were extended to all residents in the 1995 electoral rolls and the subsidized rents were scrapped in favor of free homes. The SRS also allowed builders to earn a greater profit than the 25% granted under the SRD, and were allowed transferable development rights (TDR). TDRs permit transfer of surplus development rights from one site to another, and is a major monetary incentive to the private sector.14
The SRS/SRA remain the main vehicles through which the city’s informal settlements’ redevelopment occurs, and has proven to be impotent in addressing the slum problem. As of 2020, more than 533 projects throughout Mumbai have been held up or stalled, and a fraction of the slums have been redeveloped.15 The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) is the state’s housing department; while it has a larger scope than the SRA, the department has been the state’s arm in informal settlement rehabilitation projects since the 1970s.16
Redevelopment of Dharavi was first considered in the 1947 master plan for Bombay but actual efforts started with market liberalization and the PMGP.17 While the program extended to other informal settlements, the PMGP emerged with the intention of addressing conditions in Dharavi. Following the creation of the PMGP, program administrators conducted a survey and identified 55,000 families living in the settlement and subsequently released a master plan for redevelopment. The proposal intended to rehouse 35,000 families in five-story apartment blocks while clearing the settlement. Apartments were to be 165 to 430 sq ft depending on the families’ current accommodations. The reception was less than positive. Despite the hopeful aspirations of the state’s chief minister, who proudly exclaimed they would turn the shantytown into Singapore-style high-rises, residents feared being among the 20,000 families who would be relocated.18 Fearing political backlash over evictions and limited funding, only 27 high-rises were made, with the majority of residents receiving housing upgrades.19
NGOs played a greater role as developers for the informal residents in the early days. One such organization was the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), who joined with Dharavi to address concerns over the PMGP. A known NGO among Mumbaikars, SPARC started in 1984 with the intention of solving issues related to urban poverty locally and scale them nationally.20 Following the PMGP plan backlash, SPARC conducted their own surveys and determined the government severely undercounted area residents in their projections. Consequently, SPARC released “The Peoples Plan”. Working with the community and eliminating all relocation, the Peoples Plan opted for low-rise one- or two-story constructions with outdoor toilets. In contrast to the PMGP, SPARC opted for a bottom-up approach with residents taking charge of all the choices over development.21
SPARC’s involvement provided housing cooperatives more choices in redeveloping impermanent structures, albeit with little help from the PMGP. The Markandeya Cooperative Housing Society (MCHS) chose early on to work with SPARC, inspired by the Peoples Plan design. The MCHS and SPARC together crafted a targeted community-led design that included a concept of three-story buildings, with a ground-level 180 sq ft room and 14-foot ceilings, a second-floor loft, and a third-floor terrace, surrounding a courtyard. The plan also opted to move toilets outside to prevent interest from upper classes and avoid gentrification.22 Working outside the PMGP design, however, wasn’t easy, and the MCHS community plan quickly stalled due to funding complications. The MCHS was the first co-op to undertake this independent redevelopment, and both lenders and government agencies had no experience working with communities directly. Consequently, construction took nearly a decade to complete, and was finally finished as an SRS project in 1998 under a developer who provided funding in exchange for design changes that allowed them to profit from extra saleable units and TDR. Despite everything, the MCHS was revolutionary in redevelopment for the direct role they played.23
The decentralization of Dharavi’s redevelopment would change in 2003 as the SRA took over redevelopment efforts. The Dharavi-specific plan began in 2003 with the creation of the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) using a master plan conceived by developer Mukesh Mehta (MM) in 1995. The original DRP was a residential-focused redevelopment plan intended to rehouse eligible property owners in 300 sq ft of space in seven-story tower blocks complete with standard infrastructure like roads, water, and electricity, similar to the model used in SRS projects. The SRA would select five developers to reconstruct five distinguished sectors of Dharavi. Developers would receive land use incentives like additional FAR (4 over the current 2.5) and/or TDRs to build additional units they could sell to offset the cost of rehousing residents. The project bills itself as a township plan with the intention of building a complete neighborhood, and includes space for separated commercial areas (250 sq ft each) along with various communal amenities such as hospitals and schools.24
The project was approved by the SRA in 2007 but has faced considerable roadblocks. Dharavi residents immediately took issue with the lack of community consultation. Despite their claims to the contrary, MM did not receive the community’s blessing.25 Concerned Citizens for Dharavi, an influential coalition of local groups and NGOs, penned a 2007 letter pointing out the many flaws in the plan, like the lack of a legally required survey of residents, structures, and transit. The group also proposed alternative development options, like building fewer story buildings with a reduced FAR bonus for developers.26 In June of 2007, 15,000 informal residents protested the project in a walk to the office of the MHADA. The community’s early efforts led to a commitment by government officials to conduct a formal survey of the area’s informal structures and economy that developers would respect as well as they could.27 These surveys were rather bleak and in 2009 a survey by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), which owns land parts of Dharavi are situated on, 63% of residents would not be rehoused, excluding around 35,000 households living in lofts or as tenants.28
The DRP has been defined by its stalls and false starts. Redevelopment has been an agenda item for every newly-elected state and city government since 2004, but the project has repeatedly failed at enticing developers.29 Ironically, the most developed sector of the DRP, sector 5, was given over to the MHADA in 2011 to begin development. Government take-over of this sector followed a lack of private interest due to delays and the housing market at the time. Like the BMC, MHADA also owns much of the land where Dharavi sits.30 In 2016 Dharavi was again segmented into 12 smaller sectors, rather than five, but still failed to attract private interest.31 Consequently, the sector 5 project was taken from the state, and in 2018 a special planning vehicle (SPV) was created, with private bids solicited to develop the whole settlement.32 This marked a “revamping” of the DRP. The SPV will have an 80/20 split of financial/voting share, with the larger portion going to the developer and the smaller going to the SRA. While the “revamp” is intended to emphasize Dharavi as a commercial rather than residential center, the plan maintains the SRS housing model of vertical towers at a higher FAR.33
Dharavi’s redevelopment has mostly centered on imposing a design that does not fit with the communities’ preferences and financially benefits outside real estate interest. Since the PMGP, planners have consistently tried to impose a strict separation of uses that runs counter to the flexible spaces residents have built their economy around. Tanning, for example, an industry that makes up 15% of Dharavi’s economy, has operational needs that rely on this mixed-use of space, and plans like the DRP stand to destroy workers’ livelihoods and disrupt the local economy.34 Similarly, the community has expressed a preference for lower-density buildings, as can be seen in Markandeya’s plan and the pushback against the DRP by local groups. The housing strategy employed since the SRS implementation currently being pursued in the DRP monetarily incentivizes private developers to pursue this disruptive urban design by granting them land use bonuses. The SRS/DRP represent a supply-side strategy without considering community demands.35 These factors show the flaws in top-down redevelopment and provide greater justification for a bottom-up approach in Dharavi. Design processes that place residents at the center of development would reflect the community’s interest, and financial benefits from selling additional units or TDRs would remain local.
Community-led redevelopment is not a new idea in Mumbai or Dharavi. Despite its obstacles and the co-op’s design concessions, the Markandeya project proved the capacity of communities to direct their own redevelopment. Elsewhere in Mumbai, other communities have employed self-redevelopment to avoid the self-interest of private developers. The Chitra Cooperative Housing Society (CCHS), an eight-building coop in a 39-building complex, decided to self-redevelop after a developer proposed using 60% of their land’s FAR to create saleable houses and 40% for rehousing informal residents, with a fence separating each section. CCHS opposed this segregation and, with help from the Mumbai District Central Cooperative Bank (MDCCB), self-directed the redevelopment of 48 tenements.36 The need for fresh ideas in Dharavi has also attracted international support through the Urban Design Research Institute of Mumbai, which held the “Reinventing Dharavi” competition. While the competition did not explicitly focus on community-led redevelopment, the first prize winner proposed a participatory model centered on creating a community land trust.37
Slowly, institutional actors are providing support for communities looking to redevelop themselves. The MDCCB has been an advocate of self-redevelopment since 2011 when it created the first self-redevelopment policy, and has petitioned the MHADA to make the process easier for housing cooperatives.38 Their efforts paid off in 2019, when the MHADA created a new framework for self-redevelopment which modernizes the process and funding for cooperatives. Under the new rubric, the MHADA centralizes all components of self-redevelopment through its office, a single-window approach which handles administrative permissions in a timely manner and provides options for development staff and general operational guidance. The scheme is available to housing cooperatives that own a building(s) for more than 30 years, and interest subsidized funding is available through housing agencies and banks.39 MHADA’s latest framework for self-redevelopment is a positive step forward, and addresses a key flaw in redevelopment policy of the past, which has focused on the supply side of the market rather than the demand. Given Dharavi’s unique land use and economy, there is considerable need for housing policy to address the demand of the settlement, a major factor in determining the projected tax revenue or a resident’s ability to pay a mortgage.39 Future actions should provide more direct funding to cooperatives, recognize renters who are typically excluded from discussions, and enable redevelopment of buildings based on condition and not age.
Although the structures of Dharavi are impermanent, the community is not. As the settlement becomes a formal space, the shape of Dharavi will be determined by those who lead the redevelopment discussion. Self-redevelopment would allow the community to centralize the discussion around their needs and direct the evolution of impermanent space to their own benefit.
1. Vandana Baweka, “Dharavi Redevelopment Plan: Contested Architecture and Urbanism,” in The Expanding Periphery and the Migrating Center Papers from the 2015 Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual Meeting (Washington, DC: ACSA Press, 2015), pp. 381-382.
2. Nidhi Jamwal, “Slumming India,” in Mumbai Reader (Mumbai, India: Urban Design Research Institute, 2015), p. 81.
3. Madhura Yadav and Gaurang Desai, “Housing Tenure for the Urban Poor: A Case Study of Mumbai City,” Academia.edu (University of Western Sydney, 2017), https://www.academia.edu/5065739/HOUSING_TENURE_FOR_THE_URBAN_POOR_A_CASE_STUDY_OF_MUMBAI_CITY.
4. Kalpana Sharma, “No Place for the Poor,” The Book Review Literary Trust, n.d., https://www.thebookreviewindia.org/no-place-for-the-poor.
5. Rishab Kochar, “Hidden Entrepreneurs in Urban Poor Dwellings,” Dhaka Tribune, April 4, 2019, https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2019/04/04/hidden-entrepreneurs-in-urban-poor-dwellings.
6. Liza Weinstein, The Durable Slum: Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put In Globalizing Mumbai (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 33.
7. Desai et al., “Housing Tenure for the Poor” 2017.
8. Ramnath Subbaraman and Sharmila L Murthy, “The Right to Water in the Slums of Mumbai, India,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 93, no. 11 (June 2015): pp. 815-816, https://doi.org/10.2471/blt.15.155473.
9. “Analysis of Slum Area in Delhi and Alternative Strategies of Rehabilititation” Center For Global Development Research & Government of India Planning Commission, 2011, p.132
10. Weinstein, The Durable Slum, 2014.
11. Agence France-Presse, “World’s First Slum Museum Set up in Dharavi, Home of Slumdog Millionaire,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 5, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/05/worlds-first-slum-museum-set-up-in-dharavi-home-of-slumdog-millionaire.
Rachel Nuwer, “Who Does Slum Tourism Benefit?,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, April 15, 2015), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/slum-tourism/.
12. Vinit Mukhija. “Squatters as Developers?: Mumbai’s Slum Dwellers as Equity Partners in Redevelopment.” Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
13. Rohit H. Jagdale, “An Overview of Slum Rehabilitation Schemes in Mumbai, India” (dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2014), pp. 22-27.
14. Chaitanya Marpakwar, “Projects Failed: Over 500 SRA Projects Failed to Take off in 15 Years,” The Times of India (TOI, December 24, 2020), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/over-500-sra-projects-failed-to-take-off-in-15-years-report/articleshow/79935677.cms.
15. Surbhi Gupta. “All you need to know about MHADA” Housing.com https://housing.com/news/maharashtra-housing-and-area-development-authority-mhada/2020.
16. Weinstein, The Durable Slum, 39.
17. Mukhija, “Squatters as Developers?,” pp 63-66
18. “Past Programs of the Government to Develop Dharav,” Slum Rehabilitation Authority of Mumbai, https://sra.gov.in/page/innerpage/past-programs.php.
19. “About SPARC” Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers https://www.sparcindia.org/aboutsparc.php,
20. Mukhija, “Squatters as Developers?,” pp. 66-68.
21. Mukhija, ““Squatters as Developers?,” pp. 69-71.
22. “Markandeya Cooperative Housing Society” Case Studys of Collective housing in Asia Series Asian Coalition For
23. “Analysis of Slum Area in Delhi,” pp.127-130.
24. Sheela Patel et al., “Getting the Information Base For Dharavi’s Redevelopment,” Environment and Urbanization 21, no. 1 (2009): pp. 241-251, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247809103023.
25. Subbaraman, “The Right to Water,” 2015.
26. Patel et al., “Getting the Information Base for Dharavi’s Redevelopment” 252.
27. “Analysis of Slum Area in Delhi,” 132.
28. Manasi Phadke, “Dharavi Redevelopment Project: Tender Terms Turn off Developers, No Bids,” The Indian Express, April 21, 2016, https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/dharavi-redevelopment-project-tender-terms-turn-off-developers-no-bids/.
29. Mangal Hanwate, “MHADA to Hand Over Dharavi Sector-5 Project to DRP,” Mumbai Live (Mumbai Live, November 9, 2018), https://www.mumbailive.com/en/infrastructure/dharavi-sector-5-redevelopment-project-to-handover-drp-and-sra-29985.
30. Sandeep A Ashar, “Simply Put: The New Plan for Dharavi,” The Indian Express, January 24, 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/simply-put-the-new-plan-for-dharavi-mumbai-slum-revamp-5550989/.
31. Phadke, “Dharavi Redevelopment Project,” 2016.
32. Hanwate, “MHADA to Hand Over Dharavi Sector-5 Project to DRP,” 2021.
33. Aditi Nair, “Self-Redevelopment as a Model for Mumbai’s Housing Crisis,” in Mumbai Reader, ed. Rohit Lahoti (Mumbai, India: Urban Design Research Institute, 2019).
34. Sharma, “No Place for the Poor.”
35. Desai et al., “Housing Tenure for the Urban Poor,” 2007.
36. “Reinventing Dharavi,” plural, n.d., https://www.plural.org.in/reinventing-dharavi.
37. “Processes & Procedures,” Mumbai District Central Co-operative Bank Ltd., n.d., https://www.mdccbank.com/processes/.
38. Balwant Jain, “Self-Redevelopment Scheme in Mumbai: Procedure, Subsidy, Eligibility,” Housing News, March 15, 2021, https://housing.com/news/mumbais-self-redevelopment-scheme-2018-works/.
39. Desai et al., “Housing Tenure for the Urban Poor,” 2007.
Kenneth Rivas is a recent graduate of the Masters in Urban Planning program at Hunter College with an interest in land use and physical planning. He has previously worked in the New York State Assembly, NYC City Council and currently works for the Westchester County Planning Department.