Mumbai's Dharavi slum, where the population density exceeds 200,000 people per square kilometer. Photo: Flickr
Mumbai's Dharavi slum, where the population density exceeds 200,000 people per square kilometer. Photo: Flickr

An impoverished Mumbai community’s 16-year wait for rejuvenation just got longer.

Located in the heart of India’s commercial capital Mumbai, one of the world’s most densely populated places, Dharavi, which is just 2.5 square kilometers in area, is a frenzy of activity. The dilapidated area’s cottage industries, bakeries, kitchens and other enterprises operate round the clock to help the surrounding city maintain its feverish pace of work.

Dhavri desperately needs a facelift but its hopes for local infrastructure development have been dampened by some bad news. A $3.75-billion development project, conceived in 2004, has been postponed yet again.  

The government on Thursday ordered fresh bids for its development after auditors found irregularities in the earlier process. Bureaucracy has once again put paid to Dharavi’s hopes.

Serious efforts were initiated to clear the area of its shanties to address unhygienic living conditions, with part of the land being allocated for productive commercial purposes. There is also a plan for residents to move into well-constructed buildings to protect them from the elements, particularly during the four-month monsoon season that floods parts of the city, spreading diseases.

Dharavi is a squalid home to a million migrants who have settled in Mumbai to try their luck in one of the city’s hundreds of industries – everything from manufacturing to finance to Bollywood. Residents include second- and third-generation inhabitants from almost all corners of India.

Located next to it is the swanky business district of Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), home to India’s main stock exchange, banks, diamond bourse, and the headquarters of top companies including Reliance Industries. BKC’s office rent was the fifth-highest in the Asia-Pacific in 2018, according to Knight Frank LLP.

Mumbai is often described as India’s melting pot because it attracts people from across the country and from all walks of life. Land in the Manhattan-shaped city, which juts into the Arabian Sea, is a scarce commodity.

Close to a hundred developers expressed interest in participating in Dharavi’s development during the initial bids in 2004. Most developed economies were performing well during the beginning of the millennium. Revisions and delays pushed the plans back, and after the 2008-09 global financial crises, fewer than 10 developers were interested in the project.

There have been disputes over the years concerning the number and location of buildings, the size of the apartments and how to select their occupants, the size of the developer’s share of the land, and the eligibility cut-off date for residents of ramshackle homes seeking new abodes.

Vibrant cottage industries

Reflecting the true spirit of Mumbai, Dharavi is home to thousands of vibrant cottage industries employing a vast army of workers that produce leather goods, clothes, toys, and a range of plastic and metal items.  

Its strategic location between the two main suburban railway networks gives it a huge advantage. Development of the area will give the city better east-west road access, cleaner surroundings and a healthier, more productive workforce.

Dharavi’s story is similar to that of most infrastructure development projects across the city and most parts of the country. For India, infrastructure development remains the key to meeting its goal of boosting the growth rate to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But projects are often delayed due to red tape such as difficulty obtaining environmental clearance, confusing land records and archaic rules.

A change of government put a wrench in the works for parts of the modern elevated and underground metro rail network in Mumbai. The decision on the location of a facility for night parking and the maintenance workshop were reviewed and was later changed by the new state government. The new location would help preserve forest areas but would also push up the cost of the project and delay it by a year.

Likewise, a plan to construct a $2-billion coastal road was reviewed and is now awaiting a court hearing. The project has faced resistance from environmental and citizens groups who want better mass public transport for the city’s 18 million people, most of whom commute from far-flung areas to the city’s southern parts for work and would derive no benefit from a new coastal road.

The city’s first project, a bridge over the sea connecting Bandra with Worli, was delayed by six years, eventually opening in 2009. The 5.6-kilometer sea link faced a host of lawsuits and cost overruns of 350%. Today the sea link is used by 60,000 cars per day and reduces the driving time by 20-30 minutes while also cutting pollution.

Work on a 22-km trans-harbor bridge connecting Mumbai with Uran on the mainland started began two years ago after being delayed since 2004. The cost of the bridge over 16 years rose by several hundred percent.

Among the most prominent projects to be delayed in India was a steel project in Odisha state on the east coast. South Korea’s steel giant Posco quit after a decade of difficulties in acquiring land and mines, which increased the cost so much it had to be halted.