18 years on, Dharavi’s redevelopment project still to take off

Feb 05, 2022 12:24 AM IST

Amina Khan, 65, still recalls the day when it was announced that Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, was going to be “revamped”

Mumbai: Amina Khan, 65, still recalls the day when it was announced that Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, was going to be “revamped”. “We were so happy that we would shift into pucca (permanent) houses far from this basti (slum),” she said. That was 18 years ago. Khan who lost her husband, Ahmed, in 2020 said, “My husband always talked of having his own house in a building. He died very disappointed,” she added.

On February 4, 2004 the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced the Dharavi revamp project, which he said, would transform the lives of residents by shifting them from the slum to plush apartments (Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
On February 4, 2004 the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced the Dharavi revamp project, which he said, would transform the lives of residents by shifting them from the slum to plush apartments (Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)

On February 4, 2004 the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced the Dharavi revamp project, which he said, would transform the lives of residents by shifting them from the slum to plush apartments. The state planned to convert large parts of the area — smack in the heart of the city and home to over one million people — into a world class business centre with high-rise residential colonies.

Eighteen years on, Deshmukh’s announcements remain a pipe dream. The former CM served two terms, from 1999 to 2008 — he died in 2012 — but the dreams of transforming 600 acres of the slum area has faced multiple setbacks. Till date, only 350 residents have moved to new houses in sector 5 area constructed by Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA).

The Dharavi revamp project was the brainchild of architect Mukesh Mehta, chairman, MM Project Consultants Private Limited, who envisaged the plan in the late 1990s. “A section of bureaucrats and so-called social activists created hurdles and derailed the whole project. They mislead the Maharashtra government and did everything to scrap this project. They even ensured my removal from the project in 2012,” he said.

“I had showed the government that it was possible to redevelop this slum and generate huge amount money for the state exchequer. However all this fell apart and the biggest losers are the residents of Dharavi,” Mehta added. He is fighting a case in the Bombay high court to recover 87.72 crore which he claims as dues for the work he has done on the project.

Residents meanwhile said have lost all hope in this project. “The State government irrespective of which party is ruling it has all failed us. This project is over for us,” said Raju Korde, president, Dharavi Redevelopment Committee (RDC). “Before 2004, there were small slum redevelopment projects going on in pockets of Dharavi but after 2004, the government stopped all these small projects. The result is we will continue to languish in these dirty slums,” he said.

Such a long journey

The plan, to start with, was ambitious: 600 acres of Dharavi would be redeveloped. The slum was divided into five sectors and tenders would be issued simultaneously for all. The state formed the Dharavi Redevelopment Authority (DRA) and floated global tenders in 2007. The response was outstanding too —101 companies took part in the process. However, over the years, the project languished and finally in 2011, the process was cancelled. This was partly due to the global slowdown, but as the tendering process dragged on, several of the selected bidders opted out citing lack of clarity and delays in implementation. In 2009, a state-appointed experts’ committee debunked the project and passed adverse remarks against Mehta. It called the scheme a form of “sophisticated land grab”.

Determination of eligibility was another issue that dogged the project: There are more than 200,000 hutments currently in Dharavi, but officially, only 69,160 are legal entities and eligible for new houses. In 2009, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) conducted a preliminary survey in Sector 4 and found that only 37% residents were eligible for new homes; the remaining 63 % weren’t. This survey sparked fear that a majority of the people will be deprived of homes in this scheme.

In 2011, the state permitted MHADA, which had submitted a proposal the previous year, to redevelop Sector 5 of Dharavi. By 2016, 266 families moved into new homes. The same year, a new tender was floated for the other sectors, but the project failed to attract any bidders. However, fresh tenders were issued in 2018 and in February 2019, Seclink, a United Arab Emirates-based firm was selected. The project was cancelled on technical ground in October 2020.

Leave no one behind

Former state housing department secretary Gautam Chatterjee who was in charge of the project between 2008-10 said the approach taken — to treat the redevelopment as a slum rehabilitation project — was faulty and needed “out of the box” solutions to protect people’s livelihoods.

“Dharavi is an informal industrial township and a regular slum redevelopment plan cannot work here. We need to think out of the box solutions to ensure that people’s livelihoods are protected in this revamp apart from giving them new houses. The workers working in small-scale units too need to be taken into consideration which is not the case at present. There is bound to be resistance among residents as they perceive this project as more of a displacement rather than rehabilitation.”

Over the years, Dharavi has developed into a dynamic small scale manufacturing industry. Currently, it leads in garment manufacturing as well as food items. In addition, various items such as pottery, leather articles as well as recycling of plastics are carried out on a large scale. Most of the households undertake small scale work which act as support to this industry.

“What does this project hold for small entrepreneurs like us,” said Shaikh Anjoom who has a tailoring unit spread across 2,000 square feet on the first storey of his slum hutment. “I am not eligible for alternate place. In such circumstances, me and my 10 workers will be on roads.”

However Chatterjee is still hopeful about the revamp despite the hurdles. “The government needs to divide Dharavi into small sub-clusters and invite people to join them. The revamp should start in such specific sub-clusters where residents are ready,” he added.

Real estate research firm Liases Foras which conducted an informal survey in 2010 found that more than 80 % of the residents work in Dharavi itself; many industrial units have huge spaces inside slums where workers are housed; and, entire families are often employed in small-scale manufacturing units in or around their homes, including in preparing food items.

“Dharavi has a thriving informal economy and this all will be destroyed if skyscrapers come up across Dharavi without taking cognisance of these issues. Once you formalise it, the price advantage will go away and all things will become costlier. We need a welfare state concept where the government steps in without disrupting the existing economy of this place,” said Pankaj Kapoor, managing director of Liases Foras.

Seclink Technology Corporation (STC), which won the bid in 2019, quoted 7,200 crore, outbidding competitor Adani Infrastructure and Developers Private Limited, who bid at 4,539 crore. But the then Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government acquired land in Dharavi belonging to the Indian Railways and paid the Centre 800 crore — this was not mentioned in the tenders. Attorney General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni said that fresh tenders were required, as the cost of the railway land and rehabilitation was not incorporated in the original tender document. In 2019, the government changed. Following the rule of law, the new Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government cancelled the tender in October 2020.

“We were unable to please our political masters and hence we lost the project,” said STC spokesperson. “We brought 28,572 crore in India in our escrow account and even showed the proof to the authorities. We were even ready to pay three times the value or 2,400 crore for the railway land, but instead we were penalised as the contract was cancelled on frivolous grounds,” they said.

As things stand, state housing minister Jitendra Awhad said that his department is ready with a new tender.

“We are waiting for a green signal from the chief minister to go ahead and issue the tender,” he said, adding that the MVA government is serious about Dharavi redevelopment. “The way we handled the Bombay Development Directorate (BDD) redevelopment project and gave it a push [in 2021], the same will be emulated for Dharavi. We will soon see Dharavi redevelopment project take place,” said Awhad.

The BDD redevelopment project was first inaugurated by Fadnavis in April 2016, and proposed to redevelop 92.66 acres spread across four locations, including Worli and Lower Parel.

The question remains: is this what the residents seek anymore? Currently Dharavi is a bustling commercial centre, there is danger that the trade will get wiped off with the arrival of skyscrapers. What’s more, residents of buildings and chawls are unhappy over being clubbed with the slum dwellers and have demanded their exclusion. On their part, builders have pointed out that it wouldn’t be easy to clear the slum if the project does take off.


    Naresh is a Special Correspondent with Hindustan Times, Mumbai, since 2005. He covers the real estate sector, in addition to doing political reportage.

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