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Dharavi: the £700 million slum

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Flying into Mumbai airport, your plane’s undercarriage will almost skim the corrugated-iron rooftops of the vast shantytown spread across the middle of one of India’s largest slums. Sprawling over 550 acres, Dharavi’s maze of dilapidated shacks and narrow, stinking alleyways is home to more than a million people. An average of 15,000 of them share a single toilet. Infectious diseases such as dysentery, malaria and hepatitis are rife; and there aren’t any hospitals.

Despite the poverty, Dharavi has been described by the UK’s Observer newspaper as “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia”: hidden amid the warren of ramshackle huts and squalid open sewers are an estimated fifteen thousand single-room factories, employing around a quarter of a million people and turning over a staggering £700 million (US$1 billion) annually. The majority of small businesses in Dharavi are based on waste recycling of one kind or another. Slum residents young and old scavenge materials from across the city and haul them back in huge bundles to be reprocessed. Aluminium cans are smelted down, soap scraps salvaged from schools and hotels are reduced in huge vats, leather reworked, disused oil drums restored and discarded plastic reshaped and remoulded. An estimated ten thousand workers are employed in the plastics sector alone. Ranging from Rs3000–15,000 per month, wages are well above the national average, and though Dharavi may not have any health centres, it does hold a couple of banks, and even ATMs.

As India’s largest and most iconic slum, Dharavi has also found an unlikely niche in the history of Indian and international cinema. The district provided many of the settings for Mira Nair’s seminal portrait of the city, Salaam Bombay!, and has also featured in numerous other Bollywood and Tamil flicks from the 1970s onwards. Dharavi’s defining moment of celluloid fame, however, came in 2009 with Danny Boyle’s multiple Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. The slum provided many of the film’s locations, as well as several of its leading child actors – although controversy subsequently dogged their involvement in the project, with one British tabloid making (unsubstantiated) claims that nine-year-old Slumdog actress Rubina Ali had been offered for sale by her father to an undercover reporter for £200,000 following the film’s global success.

Despite its burgeoning international fame, however, Dharavi’s future remains uncertain. The entire district is living in the shadow of a proposed $40billion redevelopment project which aims to bulldoze the entire slum. In return for agreeing to eviction, Dharavi’s residents will be entitled to 225 square feet of apartment space per family in new multi-storey tower blocks. Schools, roads, hospitals and other amenities have also been promised. Opposition to the scheme among Dharavites has been all but unanimous, however, with slum dwellers insisting any future development should focus not on erecting a swanky new suburb but on improving existing conditions. Despite these protests, and extended bureaucratic delays, a new masterplan for the project was approved in early 2010 amidst rumours that private investors had already begun buying up thousands of shanty properties in the expectation of imminent redevelopment. Exactly when and how this will happen, however, remains unclear.

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