Wednesday, December 13The Voice of London

The Truth Behind Mumbai’s Slum Redevelopment

The wealth gap is widening, a fact no better illustrated than by the redevelopment of India’s slums where hotels and expensive new apartments have left entire communities displaced.

Words: Isabella Ellis Sub Editor: Corey Armishaw

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Some of Mumbai’s most expensive buildings have been built on slum land, including the city’s tallest: Imperial Heights and Tardeo. Image credit: Isabella Ellis

Together, the government and developers divide up the land, displace residents from their homes and then swiftly replace once vibrant, bustling communities with complexes of dank new homes for the residents and sparkling high-grade luxury apartments to be sold on.

Under the Slum Redevelopment Act (SRA), regulations outlined that 70% of slum-dwellers must agree to the plans then those eligible (who can prove residence in the community for over 10 years) rehoused in better conditions at the cost of the developer. In exchange, the contractor pays a reduced cost for the land and is permitted to demolish the slum and build super-profit skyscrapers and hotels in replacement.

However, as is unsurprising in a story where developers have been asked (not that firmly) to put the needs of a community of vulnerable individuals on the same agenda as of those profiteering, there have been repeated reports of breaches of these conditions.

Arjun Sohdi, grew up next to the Kishangar slum in New Delhi, plans for it’s redevelopment were axed due to high-level corruption allegations.

”Slum redevelopment has always been a favourite topic for the corrupt politicians in India, It allows them to add to their budget for their constituency without carrying out any actual redevelopment work,” he says.

”Politicians in India provide slum dwellers with material possessions like televisions, refrigerators etc in exchange for votes, too. This combination of grassroots level corruption and temporary satisfaction of the poor with material possessions makes both parties forget about the real issue at hand. Its an evil loop that has wormed its way into society.”

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Together, Oberi Realty, Sahana Group and Marriott plan to open this luxury hotel and apartment complex (artist’s impression) in the place of Mumbai slum dwellings. Image credit: Oberi Realty via. Bloomberg

Known as the ‘vertical slum’ the Lallubhai Compound is perhaps the best example of this and the deeply flawed policy of the Maharashtra government. Over 29,000 residents live in the complex, which shares just one dustbin and is made up of a myriad of homes the size of the average British living room (allocated to families as large as six).

Devoid of sanitation and sun, its residents were swept from their homes across Mumbai and moved to the ominous looking tower blocks in 2005.

During a survey conducted by the Partners for Urban Knowledge and Research (PUCK), residents said ‘’our slums were better…It is a daily struggle (here) for food, water and education.’’ The findings, published in The Mumbai Mirror, revealed that schools are a dangerous journey away and that the water supply lasts no longer than 10-15 minutes.

Overall, the conditions at Lallubhai were deemed to be ‘’absolutely poor.’’

Ironically, the government name the 65-building complex their most successful development so far.

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A young girl pulls water to the seventh floor of a building in the Lallubhai complex. Image credit: Akshay Mahajan, trivialmatters.blogspot.com

In densely populated Mumbai, 56% of people live in slums and the rising cost of homes across the peninsula city are creating a deepening housing crisis. It’s therefore important not to view slum dwellers as homeless or squatters, rather as those simply seeking an affordable alternative.

Properties are now cheaper in Manhattan than in Mumbai’s desirable Malabar Hill area.

Yet, just a 14 minute drive away lies Dharavi, the metropolis’ most famous slum; where a population the size of San Francisco occupy an area just 1/3 bigger than London’s Hyde Park.

However, inside what on the exterior could appear a shambolic and ineffective city-within-a-city, life for hundreds of thousands is surprisingly normal. The bustling community boasts an extremely low-crime rate and pumps out approximately $650m in turnover from its numerous micro-industries per year.

‘’You do not feel unsafe in a Mumbai slum… it is a real neighbourhood’’, said Vinit Mukhija, associate professor of the Urban Planning Department at UCLA, during a conference at the university in March.

But the desirable 535-acre Dharavi has now been split into five pieces and the government plans to sell four of these to the highest bidder.

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Dharavi is home to 15,000 mini factories and estimated to deal with 80% of the city’s entire plastic recycling. Image credit: Wikimedia

In another somewhat draconian twist, those uprooted from their homes and moved to housing, condemned by many activists as substandard, are then forced to work for the tycoons who inhabit the buildings which replaced their homes.

Utter disregard is shown for the fact that many slum-dwellers relied on innovative multi-purpose homes to operate businesses and industries. Many now find themselves relocated to houses lacking the facilities required to make a living, and far-removed from previous areas of employment.

Amongst the endless contracts and renegotiations of slum redevelopment, the simple notion that residents may want to remain in their homes and culture has been thrown under the doormat (ready to be pulled out from under their feet at any time.)

During a visit to Daharavi, Channel 4 presenter Kevin McCloud, suggested that Britain could learn from the slums of Mumbai and how to create a happy living environment.

‘’Because women don’t have huge kitchens, they rinse their pots in the street. That has to be the most civilised, sociable way of doing the washing-up – outside in the sun, chatting to your neighbours”.

It is the disregard of these elements of slum redevelopment that could seem most distressing.

After all, it’s sadly predictable that developers and governments preoccupied by profit and targets are making decisions that benefit society’s privileged, at the expense of breaking promises to the vulnerable.

But the demolition of slums, complete with families, businesses and traditions against the will of their occupiers in favour of characterless tower blocks providing abysmal living conditions is both inhumane and depressing.

Those familiar with the board game Monopoly will remember that players who own houses have the choice whether or not to knock them down and replace them with hotels, the profits then go to the owner of the homes that were demolished. But in the game of Slum Redevelopment, any side of the proverbial dice looks pretty merciless.

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