Slum, Willing and Able

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The slums of Mumbai have become one of this Indian city’s landmarks. But while filmmakers are telling stories about people trying to get out of them, some researchers claim they are economically vibrant, and do not require heavy-handed reform.

Valeriya Khamraeva

Anthropologist Rahul Srivastava and urban developer Matias Echanove have always been interested in working directly with architects to propose the most expedient urban design projects and to work together to invent new tools to improve them. In an exclusive interview for this magazine, they explained: “We are interested in studying objects moving in the ethnography of local construction, and we try to use architecture as a language that describes the city and its development stages in the evolution process rather than traditional and static.”

Dharavi is a Mumbai district widely known for the low-rise buildings covering its entire territory, which many identify as a slum. But Srivastava and Echanove, members of the urban research collective URBZ, reject the label, saying the term ‘slum’ has a negative impact on the development of the city as a whole. Local residents, they point out, often construct buildings in such territories on their own, meaning the development of the neighborhood dovetails with local needs.

‘There is no slum here!’

Until the middle of the last century Mumbai was in the throes of socialist building projects; then, until the 1990s, it was the only free market in the country. Despite this, the face of the city was shaped by the general trends common to all metropolises, regardless of their economic orientation. In the 1950s and 60s, local residents preferred high-rises. Now, however, the majority (approximately 60%) live instead in the so-called slums, which Srivastava and Echanove refer to as “buildings on the ground.” If you walk through the city districts today you can easily turn a corner and find yourself in a residential low-rise neighborhood. The old and the new alternate and co-exist here, and the urban developers believe this helps the city to transform itself.

These ‘buildings on the ground’ take up less than 15% of all land earmarked for construction in the city, but they are occupied by more than half the city’s population. It is hardly surprising therefore that, in these neighborhoods, two- or three-story buildings are chockablock: the population density is incredibly high.

Districts like Dharavi are often described as dirty, backward or even atavistic. But local residents do not consider themselves to be ‘bottom-dwellers.’

“We were searching for slums and everywhere faced the same. In every neighborhood, residents said, ‘There is no slum here!’ They don’t think their house is situated in a slum,”the URBZ researchers say.

The residents of one district insisted that they were the descendants of Portuguese fishermen who had settled there long before the English came. In a different neighborhood, locals claimed they lived in houses built by the state that had been slightly improved, and hence did not qualify as ‘squatter’ developments. In a third neighborhood, the residents confirmed they had indeed lived in slums in the past, but were later relocated to their current district. Only in the fourth neighborhood did inhabitants openly admit that they lived in a slum. “But when we close the door,” they said, “the slums remain on the outside and what is inside is our home.”

Dharavi is a symbolic area for Mumbai. It illustrates not only the city’s ability to respond to the needs of its residents, but also the readiness of locals to solve problems on their own. Looking at the way of life in Dharavi, Srivastava and Echanove came to understand why it is that its citizens believe that they live in a normal environment.

“We found ourselves in an old independent municipality,” they told me. “There were barracks for the workers there, which were built by the government and were given up on lease. We met with representatives of the municipality, examined the original typology of buildings, around which people began to build their own, and could not define where was the municipal part and where a suspended one. We talked with the residents of the municipal house, and they told us about the ‘self-development communities agreement’ they reached with the government.”

People had demonstrated their willingness to take matters into their own hands – and this was a powerful redevelopment trend in Mumbai.

“Slums are often perceived as a raw material, a big amount of it, which is ready for conversion. The construction of high-rise buildings begins – which is typical for an abstract modern city. But residents are struggling with it, and develop an area in a different way, with their own tools, using their own vision and ideas about the way they want to live,” says Echanove.

Living conditions are improved by building new structures on top of existing ones, or redeveloping buildings, without permits from regulatory bodies or the administration. These districts no longer qualify as slums because there is a certain logic to their development which makes them convenient locations for people to live in.

A home for work

The people of Dharavi have made the so-called ‘tool-house’ a norm. This type of building combines a living space with a workspace. The first (ground) floor may house a small store and bedrooms; the second floor may be occupied by a workshop and living quarters. If you add a third floor to this structure, the total area may reach 70 square meters. Around ten people can live and work in each of these homes. Srivastava and Echanove say that there are no free spaces in Dharavi; every square meter is used for something. In contrast, in the rest of Mumbai there are nearly 500,000 unoccupied apartments.

In reality, neighborhoods that are commonly thought of as poor or struggling are very productive economically. In every tool-house there is a retail store, a workshop, a dormitory or a restaurant. Families tailor clothes, make shoes, bags, or jewelry: these are the most common forms of employment in the slums. In 2010, $500–650 million worth of goods made in Dharavi were shipped for export. According to the researchers, the local residents’ main problem is that they do not have any free time.

The building of tool-houses is an economically efficient activity. Construction processes are well organized; you can clearly trace the interactions between residents, contractors and clients. Each house is custom built according to the owner’s specifications by a team of contracted construction workers. No written contracts exist between workers and owner; nobody prepares any drawings or plans. Yet every house is built to a specific design, with all details agreed verbally, while the construction is undertaken by experienced specialists. According to URBZ, the Dharavi construction industry’s annual turnover is estimated at $20–30 million. They also estimate that about 10% of this is paid to various officials to turn a blind eye to the changes in the neighborhood.

The myth that slums are simply a place where the poor sleep on the floor is just that – a myth. The residents of Dharavi must pretend they are poor, because any construction in the slums is against the law. To avoid unnecessary suspicions the locals disguise their houses, covering robust brick-and-mortar walls with cardboard, and making new houses look older to fool officials. The researchers claim that on the inside they are on a par with middle-class houses.

The Indian authorities, following the example of many other countries, are trying to solve the housing problem in the slums by building high-rises, thinking that residents will find them better. But Srivastava and Echanove beg to differ, claiming that the unique identity of such districts needs to be preserved: “Slums reproduce a discourse that represents existing space as something alive, developing and transforming by residents using minimal interference from outside.”

The URBZ team has even found similarities in the development of Dharavi with that of Japan’s capital.

“Until 1990 houses in Tokyo were built locally, using local teams and developers,” says Echanove. “It is an interesting example of what can happen if you choose local construction. After the war, Tokyo was absolutely destroyed, but the city recovered very quickly. High-rise buildings were built and are now spontaneously occurring areas that are slowly getting better. Stimulation of economic development led to the creation of new districts.”

Even if skyscrapers were to be built to replace the low-rises, the Mumbai population would still not comfortably fit into them. URBZ insists this means more emphasis should be placed on the way of life local citizens consciously choose and find comfortable: renewal, rather than designing housing from scratch.

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