The Slums of Mumbai. Urban Issues or Functional Networks?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

   Here we present the synopsis from chapter 1 of the book “Elegance and Dignity – Stories from India”


   The inequalities generated by our global economic system seem nowhere as visible as in the megacities of South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where decades of foreign and domestic investment in real estate have produced globalized cityscapes in parts of the city, while others remain entrenched in supposedly pre-modern living conditions. This produces, almost by default, the vague category of the “slum”, which becomes self-referential to nearly everything that falls outside the ambit of the high-rise, modern city.

   Mumbai is the place where the greatest democracy of the world shapes its new myths of modernity and suffers with it the silent multitude of the miserable. It’s a modern and dynamic city, the largest and richest among the Indian cities, the city where half of the population does not have a house. In its typical image, the capital city is made of modern buildings that stand like islands of modernity in a dark sea of slums. There is a prevailing perception that apart from its southernmost colonial quarters, Mumbai is essentially a schizophrenic urbanscape where emergent islands of modernity are surrounded by an endless sea of informal shacks. This image of a city sharply divided between opulence and poverty is used across the political spectrum to justify redevelopment projects in the name of equality.

   The true Gateway of India is its impressive net of slums spread along the railway lines, or in the neighbourhood of Dharavi, the largest slum of all Asia, which is less than a mile from Bandra West, the most chic district of Bombay, where the stars of Bollywood live. The so-called slums come from a long history related to migration flows. The first economically and culturally marginalized caste groups migrated in the 1930s - from the southern regions of the country - to this unused, marshy, mosquito-infested territory adjoining a centuries-old fishing village.


   Shacks, huts, shelters, built with everything except the materials that are used for construction. Shelters that do not repair, which do not keep you warm or cool, which are useless apart from the illusion of a firm foothold on this sea of garbage. But they do respond to a precise history, that shaped the network. The habitats of Mumbai have traditionally been as diverse and heterogeneous as the city’s migratory flows. Coastal fishing villages, vernacular urban structures, grand colonial monuments, contemporary bungalows, working-class barrack-like enclaves, and modern apartment blocks have jostled for space on this tiny island through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. However, in spite of this diversity, Mumbai is usually reduced to three broad urban archetypes: the historical city, the slum, and the high-rise.

   In Mumbai, the high-rise building, that ubiquitous symbol of modernization and the ultimate architectural affirmation of middle-class status, is typically presented as the answer to the organically developing, unplanned, low-rise, hyperdense, and slum settlements that are said to house 60 percent of the city’s residents. The Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) and the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) projects, conducted by the government of Maharashtra, have for long pioneered the provision of housing to the poor by private developers. Only 35% of the slum dwellers seem to be eligible for the project and the government has not considered 35,000 families living on lofts and first floors. The scheme allows private developers to redevelop slum pockets with the consent of 70 percent of the “eligible slum dwellers” living in that pocket, in exchange for construction rights in more valuable parts of the city. Many faces of Bombay coexist without overlapping, from Dharavi slum up to the largest monument to modernity, a bridge of six kilometres (see above) that connects the richest parts of the city otherwise separated by the sea or the slums.   

   Above all a dusty, yellowish polluted wet air.



© 2013 text and photos by Marco Palladino all rights reserved
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