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New Year Resolution for 2008: Swim faster, Run longer, maybe return to cycling.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tackling the Dharavi Problem from the Planner's point of view

I've been thinking and reflecting for the past couple of days since returning from Mumbai. The trip to Dharavi has certainly opened my eyes to another dimension in my career as an infrastructure/transpo engineer. It's not as simple as it seems, and surely not a simple masterplanning exercise. The planning for the rehabilitation and redevelopment of Dharavi involves more than just planning expertise.

First of all, let's ask ourselves these questions:
1. Is it just about moving/relocating the slum dwellers to vertical slums?
2. What are the social implications?
3. What do we need to consider in the overall design so that we have the edge over the other bidders?
4. Do we understand the dynamics of slum dweller thinking versus the developer (Mukesh Mehta) who might have vested interest in redeveloping Dharavi?
5. The idea of relocating slum dwellers in Dharavi has been going on for at least 10 years, so why are the slum dwellers reluctant to move?
6. Are our designs socially acceptable in terms of practicality and functionality?
7. What needs to be considered so that private developers are able to maintain good living conditions for at least 15 years?
8. How will our designs complement the rest of Mumbai, in particular Bandra-Kudra Complex (BKC)?

Now allow me to state down what I understand about Dharavi from these past few days of site visits, research and reflection:
1. Dharavi is not 'poor'. The people of Dharavi are not living in 'poverty'. Why? It is only perceived as 'poor' because of the ubiquitous bamboo and tin roofed structures and the way-below-WHO-standards of sanitation and hygiene. Beyond the physical outlook (and accompanying stench), Dharavi is a unique vibrant and thriving cottage industry complex. Production and process of raw material and final product are carried out at the same location, sometimes all under the same roof the people live in! Slum dwellers and families have refined their trade over some generations and it has become a self-sustaining, self-sufficient 'village' community, albeit an economically very low income one. Everyone seems to be doing something, earning that meagre amount of rupees to survive. But we did not encounter any beggar or children pestering us for candy or spare change.
2. In this aspect, we're not just looking at simply 'relocating' the slum dwellers into vertical slums. We are in effect, disturbing their very established and orderly means of livelihood.
3. Do we then just plan and design for new and funky vertical slums?
4. We ought to provide enough liveable space for them to operate their trade as well, besides providing them with a roof over their heads. How to consider? There needs to be more than sufficient community space for them to 'replant' their operations. The dwellers of Dharavi (and most Indians I know) are very organised people. They are also a very social community. Whatever they do, they will do it as a community. This includes how they live, work, and play. This was very evident during our observation trip there. This is precisely the mindset that will prevail and will go against all planning initiatives if our design does not suit them. We therefore need to apply several conditions planned in tandem with our design:
a) Bear in mind that infrastructure must be improved no matter what. Currently, the ratio stands at 1 toilet seat to 800+ inhabitants. That's why there's human defecation and urine all over the sidewalks and public space. We also need to suggest for implementable (practical) methods of waste disposal, water treatment, etc.
b) Building and development guidelines must be in place and enforced. (e.g regular repainting programmes, boundaries to ply trade & industry, etc.)
c) Private developers must assure the authorities that policies and guidelines are implementable for at least the next 15 years. This would require our mindset to keep things simple and implementable. We have the expertise to apply our Singapore example to them.
d) Keeping things simple also means using tried and tested models such as HDB townships: self-contained, self-sufficient, social / community areas, good governance, good infra facilities, etc. Anything 'extra' in terms of aesthetic design is a bonus but we need to convince the authorities by helping our clients achieve implementable results.

Finally, our architects and planners need to realise and understand this social implication aspect of our design and planning. For infrastructure, it is certainly a major overhaul - an extreme makeover - but we must think of practical and functional ways.

I see purpose and real challenges in this project.

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