I’m glad Slumdog Millionaire got the recognition it deserves. I hope Dharavi does also. The Dharavi community, a vast “slum” in the heart of Mumbai, played host to some of the shooting for the movie. For those of you who don’t know it, Dharavi is a squalid, dynamic place of more than 1 million people, a city unto itself, and by no means the only slum in Mumbai, but certainly one of the largest (in the world for that matter).
Consider that one out of every six people in the world lives in similarly impoverished conditions. Entree into the slums is very easy: fewer property problems, patterns of village life are replicated, and business is done with similar informality, with an agreement and a handshake. However, getting out of the slums, unlike in the movies, can be quite difficult. Most never do.
How do you make such places, better places? Without losing heritage, community and sense of place? What can we do?
Did you know that HOK did do something at Dharavi? and for free?
Slumdog Millionaire isn’t the only peek into Dharavi’s slums, only the latest. Last year, it seemed every magazine or newspaper I picked up had a feature on Dharavi: the LA Times, National Geographic, Time, the Economist and of course the BBC and CNN.
The impetus is this: the government wants to redevelop the entire area, due to its aforementioned prime central location in Mumbai, and put it out to bid. Dharavi could very well be the last contiguous large piece of property left in Mumbai, which is a geographically constrained peninsula, like San Francisco (it’s actually mostly reclaimed land from seven former islands). And if you’ve ever done a project in India, you know how difficult getting a contiguous site can be…
Every single big developer, of course, wanted a piece. HOK was approached by many. We decided to go it alone, to NOT team with a developer, but to submit a non-commercial, public interest piece to the Maharashtra Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). Our goal was to say what needed to be said, what those with commercial interests could not say, and to offer solutions toward redevelopment that worked for the city, the developers, and the people.
A little story though: early on, we decided to work on such an enormous, momentous project counterintuitively: that we had to start small, and work our way up to big. To start with the people, their values, their way of life, as the basis for the “new” Dharavi. This translated into issues of scale and patterns of development that can in turn be interpreted into practical and implementable policies for the SRA.
HOK staff, including Steven Townsend, Rahul Kulkarni and Prasoon Kumar of the Planning Group, proudly and humbly presented these ideas to the SRA last summer.