Dharavi: India's Model Slum

Mumbai, India's Dharavi is one of the world's biggest slums -- and its most notorious. Look beyond the stereotype, however, and you'll find a successful settlement with a vibrant community and economy. But developers want to raze it all and start again. Urban development consultant Prakash M. Apte says Dharavi is a model that should be replicated, not redeveloped.

 Prakash ApteThe Indian megacity of Mumbai has an estimated population of about 14 million. Of those, only about 35% live in 'regular' permanent housing. The other 65% live in informal settlements, which for more than a third of those people means squatting on sidewalks and under bridges. The rest -- nearly 6 million people -- occupy settlements on private and public open lands, some of which are more than 50 years old. Dharavi is one of the most famous, but unlike all others and despite its common depiction as a "slum", it is actually a successful work-cum-residential settlement. Developers have been trying to redevelop the area for years, but Dharavi is a model settlement that needs to be replicated, not replaced.

Located in the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi has a population of more than 600,000 people residing in 100,000 makeshift homes, and one of the world's highest population densities at more than 12,000 persons per acre. It is just across from the Bandra- Kurla Complex -- a fast developing commercial center that has overtaken Nariman Point, the current downtown of Mumbai – and is also located close to Mumbai's domestic and international airports. Despite its plastic and tin structures and lack of infrastructure, Dharavi is a unique, vibrant, and thriving 'cottage' industry complex, the only one of its kind in the world.

This is in fact the kind of self-sufficient, self-sustaining 'village' community that Mahatma Gandhi -- the Father of the Nation -- dreamt of and wrote about in his books on India's path to development.

Dharavi pulsates with intense economic activity. Its population has achieved a unique informal "self-help" urban development over the years without any external aid. It is a humming economic engine. The residents, though bereft of housing amenities, have been able to lift themselves out of poverty by establishing thousands of successful businesses. A study by Center for Environmental Planning & Technology indicates that Dharavi currently has close to 5,000 industrial units, producing textiles, pottery and leather, and performing services like recycling, printing, and steel fabrication.

 Makeshift shacks in Dharavi
Dharavi is full of makeshift shacks like these, housing more than 600,000 people. Photo by Flickr user Mumbai Magic.

A unique characteristic of Dharavi is its very close work-place relationship. Productive activity takes place in nearly every home. As a result, Dharavi's economic activity is decentralized, human scale, home-based, low-tech and labor-intensive. This has created an organic and incrementally developing urban form that is pedestrianized, community-centric, and network-based, with mixed use, high density low-rise streetscapes. This is a model many planners have been trying to recreate in cities across the world. A simplistic re-zoning and segregating of these activities -- common in the United States -- would certainly hurt this very unique urban form.

The 'unplanned' and spontaneous development of Dharavi has led to the emergence of an economic model characterized by a decentralized production process relying mainly on temporary work and self-employment. The multiplicity of independent producers makes the production process extremely flexible and adaptable. Its viability is proven by the national and international market its products command.

Unfortunately , Dharavi is depicted as a 'slum' that lacks residential infrastructure (roads, housing with individual toilets, public conveniences, etc.). In fact it is not a residential slum, but a unique self-contained township (in the sense of close work-place relationship so eulogized since the days of Patrick Geddes, but which has never been achieved in any of the new towns). Because of all these community-based successes, Dharavi needs to be replicated (albeit with adequate physical infrastructure). Instead, the state government wants to force the relocation of Dharavi's population into tiny cubby hole apartments in high rise towers so that the vacated land can be commercially exploited by developers through the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. At a conservative estimate, a development of this magnitude could fetch $460 million for a developer, a profit of at least 900%.

 Workers in the informal economy that thrives within Dharavi

Workers in Dharavi's thriving informal economy. Photo by Flickr user parasher.

Any plan for Dharavi must explicitly take into consideration the work-place relationship developed over the years so that it does not destroy the existing intricate urban structure that has sustained the local economy. This plan must acknowledge existing economic activities and their spatial organization, and not destroy it in the process of redevelopment. Sectoral divisions of Dharavi proposed in the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan that would segregate land uses are evidence of the insensitiveness of the top-down approach to planning. The involvement of the concerned population in the planning process is a planning imperative if the redevelopment is to be successful from a human and urban perspective. But for the most part, the population of Dharavi has not had much say in the creation of the plan for their community.

Case studies all over the world have documented the inappropriateness of high-rise resettlement projects in poor areas. The social and economic networks which the poor rely on for subsistence can hardly be sustained in high-rise structures. These high rise projects are not appropriate for home-based economic activities, which play a major role in Dharavi.

The least that can be done in this redevelopment plan is to refurbish the work places of the existing industries within the residential areas and remodel this project by providing low-rise high-density row housing for existing families engaged in home based occupations. This way, each house will have a ground floor and an additional story , as well as a terrace and a courtyard which can be used for these home-based business activities.

Unfortunately, the formulation of Dharavi Redevelopment Plan as a profit-maximizing real-estate tool leaves no room for exploring such sustainable and economically viable low-rise, high-density approaches. It exposes the DRP as a weak cover-up for a land grab of the worst kind.

Prakash M. Apte is a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects and the Institute of Town Planners, a former Senior Adviser to the Royal Government of Bhuta, a former project chief for the Housing & Urban Development Corporation of India (HUDCO), and a former Governor of the Delhi School of Planning & Architecture. He also serves on the Panel of Consultants for the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and U.N. Centre for Human Settlements, Nairobi.



"Favelas and Social Housing: The Urbanism of Self-Organization"

Thanks to Prakash M. Apte for alerting us New Urbanists to the impending disastrous action in erasing spontaneous urban fabric in Dharavi, Mumbai.

I'm afraid that the Indian Government adopted Le Corbusier's worst urbanicidal ideas after Pandit Nehru invited him to build Chandigarh. Despite all the documented urban disasters of bulldozing owner-built housing and forcing their residents into inhuman high-rise towers, people still haven't learnt the lessons of time. Apparently, they are about to repeat the same mistake. There are, as Mr. Apte underlines, enormous economic interests at stake here, so this is not really a question of better or worse urbanism, but decisions will probably be made independently of what is good for the lives of all those residents involved.

Even so, some of us are trying to discredit all the mistaken theories and accepted dogma about slums and social housing. Let me point interested readers to an extensive theoretical study that I did with David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy & Ernesto Philibert-Petit, which is available online in several languages:


There is enough evidence presented in this paper to avoid the disastrous "clean slate" approach to urbanism, if logic and clarity were all that mattered. Unfortunately, other powerful interests are always at stake, which override any understanding of urban form and structure. These are not confined to the profit motive of a developer, but sadly, include the self-esteem of government bodies that view slum clearance as a "progressive" action which will guarantee them a (positive) mention in the history books.

We could begin, however, by having ordinary people, independent urbanists, and academics discuss the difference between self-organized and top-down urbanism in generating an appropriate human environment. Even if Dharavi is destroyed, and its citizens moved into sterile industrial housing, there is hope that this may be one of the last implementations of this sort of urbanicide.


Dear Mr Apte,

Thank you for posting this article on Dharavi, which echoes some of the texts and letters we have posted on our blog and the website www.dharavi.org which lets anyone tell their stories and voice their opinion on the redevelopment of Dharavi.

I am also thrilled to see Nikos Saligaros's comment, since he is one of my idols. Looking forward to reading the article he attached!

I just would like to share with you a few collages I made last year showing how strikingly similar are the typologies of Dharavi and many neighborhoods of Tokyo, in this case Shimokitazawa.

Shimokitazawa was preserved from destruction and redevelopment throughout the war, up to the present. As a result, the town developed incrementally along its narrow streets, retaining a village-like feel that contributes to its popularity. Characterized by low rise buildings, pedestrian space, bustling ground-level market activity, and tight community networks, Shimokitazawa represents an alternative model of urban development: the informal, unplanned city that consolidated through time.

These two neighborhoods shave many similarities despite evolving radically different contexts. Their common characteristics are indicative of some important global urban dynamics usually ignored by planning authorities.

Both neighborhoods are seen as “messy”, non-functional, irrationally laid out, hard to navigate, even harder to map out, nearly impossible to access by car, not zoned, mixed-use, full of narrow pedestrian streets with crowded storefronts, mobile vendors and groups of people hanging out. Moreover, they are havens for marginal groups and informal (or illegal) activities, and breeding grounds for all types of anti-conformist attitudes, subversive activities and movements of resistance.

In fact, there is nothing rational about denouncing them as messy. It says more about the ideology or phobia of whom is pointing the finger than anything. Indeed, this “mess” hides a different order. In the case of Shimokitazawa and Dharavi, we witness the emergence of new cultural, social, and economic patterns, which might well be some type of a global edge; an early adaptation to deep transformations in our ways of working, socializing, interacting and thinking.

Both neighborhoods are populated by creative, highly mobile, and entrepreneurial people who generate economic opportunities for themselves. They have developed sophisticated social networks, relying on the most intensive used of available technologies. Mobile phone stands can be found at every corner of Dharavi. Shimokitazawa’s youth working on wirelessly networked laptops convert small living spaces into creative offices. The distinction between living space and working space is also blurred in Dharavi with residents using their apartments, for instance, as daytime workshops, storage place and by the hour rental rooms. In both neighborhoods, commercial activity at the street level is dominated by a web of flea-market type specialty shops, representing a de facto alternative to the mainstream department store-office-factory model of commercial development.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that real-estate developers ignore the richness of what they are willing to destroy in the pursuit of profit. What is chocking however is to see governments buying (or should I say selling?) into that tabula raza urban development approach. Especially since they claim, loud and clear, to be committed to the involvement of communities into the planning of their habitats.

Both Shimokitazawa and Dharavi are threatened by redevelopment plans from the government, acting on behalf of powerful real estate interests.


Matias Echanove


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