Technically, tailors Sheetal and Shankar Malkar live in a slum. But to look at their home, you would never think it.
The couple rebuilt their cramped 150-sq-ft room in Bhandup’s Sai Vihar settlement last year, turning it into a two-storey structure with their workspace and store on the ground floor and a bedroom-cum-kitchen above.
In true Konkan style, the tiny balcony lends a splash of bright colour.
As a notified slum, Sai Vihar’s residents are eligible for housing in Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) buildings, but they say the home they now have is better in design and construction quality.
“A flat would never allow us a separate workspace,” says Sheetal, 36.
The Malkars’ home was built by Amar Mirjankar, a popular informal contractor in the area.
He has no formal training in engineering or architecture; in fact, he grew up in the Sai Vihar slum and has studied only till Class 10. But for 13 years, he has designed and built numerous concrete homes in the area.
“I make homes based entirely on the residents’ personal and professional needs. The focus is on maximising space and keeping costs low,” says Mirjankar, 38, who worked with a network of informal masons, electricians, plumbers and painters to build the Malkars’ house for R4.5 lakh.
There are more than 100 such contractors in the slums of Bhandup, and hundreds more across the city.
Working closely with residents, these contractors eschew the vertical model of development in order to create sustainable homes that meet the spatial needs of low-income families — many of whom earn a living from small cottage industries based in the same space.
The debate over vertical development versus more sustainable growth is one that plagues proposed redevelopment plans across space-starved Mumbai — whether in Dharavi, or in the many gaothans or urban villages where families living in heritage homes struggle to get approval to expand their dwellings in order to accommodate their growing families.
Now, a group of urbanologists is trying to reconcile the two as part of what they call the Homegrown Cities project.
The project was launched in July by Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove of Urbz, an urban research collective based in Mumbai and Goa, and Aaron Pereira, a social entrepreneur based in Mumbai and Paris.
“Homegrown refers to the internal capacity of a neighbourhood to develop over time, through local actors,” says Echanove, who co-founded Urbz in 2008 to study and support the idea of ‘user-generated’ cities built on the energies of local residents. “Gaothans like Khotachiwadi and Pali village as well as Charles Correa’s Artist Village in Belapur are examples of homegrown areas.”
By redefining informal neighbourhoods as ‘homegrown’ urban spaces, the project seeks to bring recognition to the work of grassroots-level contractors and, eventually, change traditional perceptions about slum settlements. “Many parts of Mumbai are casually referred to as slums, not worthy of any attention, when in fact they are often rich environments that could become very functional neighbourhoods,” says Srivastava.
Urbz has begun Homegrown Cities as a pilot project in Bhandup, where it is in the process of identifying a set of homes that need upgrading. The Urbz team will then work closely with contractors like Mirjankar on plans to build homes for local residents. Eventually, by creating a chain of such ‘homegrown’ housing, they hope to create a neighbourhood-level ‘housing society’.
In an overpopulated city where space is a premium, such development could offer a viable, sustainable alternative to existing slum redevelopment schemes, which cost the taxpayer money, but are usually built by the lowest bidder and therefore less durable and more expensive to maintain.
“The homegrown approach to slum upgrading generates better quality housing and mixed neighbourhoods. It promotes local economic development over the interests of real-estate developers,” says Echanove.
The government has also been ineffective in ensuring that SRA projects are built on time. In May, for instance, SRA officials announced that in the past 17 years, only 1.54 lakh of the several lakh planned tenements have been built to rehouse slum residents.
“The spontaneous emergence of mixed-use housing clearly suggests that mainstream forms of urban planning are not able to address the needs and problems of large numbers of people,” says architect Anirudh Paul, director of the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture.
Irfan Divate, a local contractor in Govandi’s Bainganwadi slum, would agree. He describes the matchbox-type SRA homes as “prisons for slums”.
“They kill the numerous small industries that thrive within the homes and provide a livelihood to these families,” says Divate, 28.
Urbz is hoping that Homegrown Cities, by aiding local contractors in a planned manner, might eventually bring civic authorities to legitimise alternative housing models.
“If the government also engages with local residents and builders, they could address the issues of housing and infrastructure in a much more pragmatic and functional way,” says Srivastava.