Dharavi is not just an encroachment. Get real, Mr Kunte?

  • Smruti Koppikar
  • Updated: Mar 17, 2015 22:14 IST

Dharaviites are completely within their rights to be offended. Most of them no longer care about what the world outside the slum thinks of them, but when the municipal commissioner of the city says “Dharavi” in a derogatory way, it must rankle.

The thing is, Dharavi stopped being Mumbai’s embarrassment long ago. The city, particularly its minders such as the municipal commissioner, is yet to wake up to this.

The good commissioner, Sitaram Kunte, was holding forth last week on why the verdant Aarey Colony land, so far a no-development zone, must be opened up for commercial development.

If this is not done, “it could turn into another Dharavi with the increasing encroachment,” he said. Planned concretised development was, to paraphrase him, a way to safeguard against encroachment. Yes, urban planning can get as bizarre as this.

Dharavi has been called many names: Mumbai’s shadow city, its largest slum (till recently), Asia’s largest slum, an eyesore in a global city, its underbelly, a sub-continental Harlem and so on. Once a swampy and marshy square mile on the outskirts of the city, it attracted those who did not find any place elsewhere. Over time, it became Mumbai’s commercial hub and clearing house.

It was, at the last official count, a settlement on 85 nagars spread across nearly 550 acres, with a conservatively estimated population of 3.5 lakh, bearing the highest density per square kilometre, nearly seven times the average of Mumbai known for its high density, with an economy that spins thousands of crores every year out of homes and galas, turning the once-wasted land into the most attractive piece of real estate in Mumbai.

Some of the Dharaviites are encroachers. In 2015, it would be hard to pin the encroacher down to the last person in the area. Encroachment is the bane of large and growing urban centres across the world.

Pared down, it simply means to take possession of land that does not rightfully belong to you, gradually and stealthily. By this definition, not only slums but several high-rises in Mumbai could be termed encroachers. There is indeed a class bias when encroachments in the city are discussed.

Flip the card. Then, encroachment shows up as the outcome of faulty land use policies coupled with inefficient or non-existing low-cost housing policies.

Add to these, a lax and/or comprised authority such as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which has consistently allowed encroachments to blossom under its watch. Clearly, some kinds of encroachments are kosher, others not acceptable.

If housing and real estate policies allowed people to rent or buy houses, even small functional ones, at prices that are reasonably commensurate with median incomes, there might be fewer or no slums and encroachments.

If the BMC was alert and did not have officers colluding with the land mafia, it would have been able to prevent encroachments. Not just in Dharavi, but all over the city. After all, it owns nearly 59% of the land in Dharavi.

Aarey Colony must remain an open space. That is non-negotiable. At least, it seemed to be so till recently.

If there are encroachments, remove them. But do not sanction construction to prevent another “Dharavi”, Mr Commissioner. Dharavi does not only signify encroachment.

Dharavi is not an obscenity. It is now a label now. Check out Snapdeal.

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