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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 March 2007, 17:34 GMT
Slum in way of Mumbai's progress
By Navdip Dhariwal
BBC News, Mumbai

Dharavi is Asia's largest slum. (All photos by Adrian Fisk)

Mumbai (Bombay) is India's biggest city and greatest hope, with aspirations of becoming the next Shanghai.

But in the way of its rapid progress stands Asia's largest slum.

Dharavi sits in the heart of the financial capital, but plans to transform it are being met with fierce opposition.

Every inch of the slum is occupied. Rows of corrugated iron shacks are packed with the belongings of the hundreds of families who live here. Young children play with stray dogs among the filth and rubbish.

There is little sign of clean drinking water and the sanitation facilities are appalling - up to 800 people are forced to share one toilet.

Dharavi bears all the hallmarks of India's most crippling problems.

Sixty-year-old Razman has been living in the slum for 10 years. He invites me into his tiny home.

There is a small stove in one corner and a tired old fan - if I stretch my arms out I can touch both walls of the room that is home to the five members of his family, including two small children.

'Black hole'

"We want change and for conditions to improve for the people who live here. There is nowhere for my grandchildren to play but I cannot afford to move from here," he says.

The Maharashtra state government has a vision for Dharavi - to turn the eyesore into a clean green corner of Mumbai.

Dharavi slum

Mukesh Mehta is the architect employed to put together a $2bn bid from major developers from across the world to demolish Dharavi and build homes and amenities its residents desperately need.

"Dharavi is a black hole - something we should be ashamed of," says Mr Mehta.

"My vision would be that it would be transformed into one of the better suburbs of Mumbai - it will be forgotten as any kind of slum - there will be state of the art modern amenities and a lot of happy people living in Dharavi."

But many of the residents have other ideas.

They refuse to be transformed by international companies who have little or no idea of their community and what it needs.

Their neighbourhood may be plagued by a crippling infrastructure but at the heart of Dharavi is a bustling business district that generates up to $39m a year.


The tiny alleys that lead through the maze that is Asia's biggest slum are packed with small workshops.

Here tanners thrash the hide of freshly cut leather and paint the square strips to be sewn into handbags. It's the kind of business that keeps half of the residents like Aslam Khan in employment.

"I would not be able to afford the cost of hiring a room outside Dharavi. If the plans go ahead, we will lose so much business," he says.

Many are suspicious that the motivation to demolish Dharavi is purely about money. The slum is a prime location - at the centre of the financial capital - that makes the land it sits on worth its weight in gold.

Arputham Jockin grew up in Mumbai's slums and now represents the slum dwellers in their fight against the government's plans.

Dharavi slum
Dharavi contributes up to $39m a year to India's economy.

"Selling this land to the global market and giving it over for commercial use - how will that improve our lives? Ninety per cent of the people here want a stake in their future and a say in how it is transformed. It has to work from the bottom up - not top down. They have tried to tackle Dharavi before and never been successful," he says.

Visitors to the slum are struck by the uniqueness of Dharavi - most describe it as being like a city in itself, with a community of people living and working together which many wish to preserve.

Battle ahead

The state government will invite international companies to bid for the contract to transform Dharavi in the next few weeks.

In return for building tenement houses to shelter the former residents, the chosen developer will win the right to build on the rest of the land. The plans could be used as a blueprint to tackle poverty in the rest of India's slums.

But the planners and the government face a fierce battle.

Close to where the slum sits is the main railway track bringing trains from across India to its wealthiest city - and the slum dwellers threaten to bring it to a grinding halt

Arputham Jockin says if the plans are given the go-ahead "all we have to do is simply step out of our homes".

He explains: "We will completely block the railways. A hundred thousand of us will squat there and bring the whole city and the whole of India to a stop."

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