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COLUMN ONE

Where every inch counts

To some Indians, the Dharavi shantytown is an eyesore taking up prime real estate. For residents, it is the sum of their hopes.

September 08, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

MUMBAI, INDIA — Reincarnation is Kallu Khan's stock in trade.

His workshop floor is a swamp of cardboard strips hacked from salvaged boxes. Laborers scoop them up, work them over and give them new life as smaller boxes, which Khan then sells to stationery and packing companies.

In another warehouse a few doors down, dozens of rubber soles cut from discarded shoes also await a second chance. Next to these, a mountain of plastic castoffs -- toys, computer keyboards, car parts -- is separated by squatting workers, to be melted down into tiny pellets before being reborn in some new form.

One man's junk is another's fortune in Dharavi, the largest slum in India. With the economy and consumption soaring, recycling is good business here, a source of jobs for thousands, from scavengers to sorters to manufacturers.

Their collective toil is just part of the daily bustle in this teeming shantytown in India's financial and entertainment capital. About half a million people live and work in Dharavi -- recyclers, tailors, leather tanners, laundrymen, potters, cloth dyers and shopkeepers, all jammed into a single square mile of narrow alleys and rickety buildings made from corrugated metal sheets.

They are some of Mumbai's poorest residents. They also happen to be sitting on some of the world's most valuable real estate.

In a boomtown starved for room to grow, Dharavi occupies a prime location at the junction of two commuter rail lines close to the heart of the city. One of Mumbai's swankiest new business parks, the Bandra-Kurla Complex, a diorama of concrete and glass that shimmers in the tropical heat like a mirage of order and progress, looms just beyond a fetid bog of mangroves used by many of the slum dwellers as a toilet.

Because of their location, Dharavi's residents have been locked for years in a tug of war with government officials who look hungrily at such choice land and dream their own dreams of reincarnation.

If the officials get their way, the slum will be demolished and reborn as a gleaming collection of high-rise apartments, office towers and manicured parks. Residents who arrived before 2000 would be re-housed elsewhere in Dharavi in small flats of 225 square feet -- smaller than a suburban American garage -- while an influx of richer folk and big companies would turn the area into one of Mumbai's fashionable addresses.

But many who live here take fierce pride in a community that they and their families built, for some over several generations, with little help from the state. They refuse to be uprooted without a fight.

"This is like my country now," said Ramakant Rai, a grizzled electrician who has lived in Dharavi for 35 years, most of them in a shack built right up against a massive water pipe laid down during the British Raj. "I say to the government, let us stay here and we'll build our own houses."

It is a war of wills, the outcome of which could have far-reaching consequences. What happens to Dharavi could presage the fate of the rest of Mumbai's many slums, home to half of the metropolis' population of 16 million.

The slums are the first thing many visitors to this city see. Arriving air travelers gaze down on the winking metal roofs of another large shantytown that has pushed right to the edge of the tarmac.

In many ways, the battle over Dharavi is a battle over how India sees itself and the image it wants to project as a rising power.

With a competitive eye on China to the east and an envious eye on developed countries to the west, India's leaders and elites are yearning to prove that their country belongs in the same league. They want Mumbai mentioned in the same breath as Shanghai, New York and London, a world-class city that embodies the new India of stock markets, cocktail bars and Bollywood glamour.

Having what is possibly Asia's biggest slum does not fit into that ideal, especially when the slum occupies premium property in a city where commercial rents can approach $2,000 per square foot. In addition to the nearby train lines, Dharavi lies just a few miles from the airport, making it especially attractive to Indian and foreign businesspeople.

"You're talking of a location that's fantastic. This is the only location in Mumbai where I can bulldoze 500 acres of land and redesign," said architect Mukesh Mehta, whose $3-billion redevelopment plan was adopted by the Maharashtra state government in 2004 but has been subject to repeated debate and delay.

His goal is to "create a brand-new beautiful suburb," complete with green space, schools, hospitals and reliable public services such as sanitation, things Dharavi currently lacks.

All costs are to be borne by the developers, who still will profit handsomely from the high rents charged to companies and people Mehta calls "mainstream," by which he means the middle and upper classes. The slum dwellers will receive nicer housing than they have now, he insists.

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