Compound 13 and the 700,000 Person Dharavi Problem

ACORN International India Labor Recycling

Mumbai           Laxmi, the longtime ACORN leader in Dharavi was pointing out various areas on the redevelopment map of the area, including where she lived and had finally been able to prove title to make the relocation threshold.  I knew Laxmi.  I had been sitting in the back of a large meeting she held in Dharavi many years ago when she was handing out ID cards to the mostly women group of wastepickers at a meeting that evening.  Even past the language barriers, she smiled when I reminded the group we were meeting in the ACORN offices in the middle of Dharavi of that historic celebratory event.  She smiled less as she pointed out areas on the map, because the fight we’re engaged in now in Dharavi is literally existential.

Compound 13 is the designation for the recycling area, where we have our offices and many of our members and operations, including our classrooms and workshop areas, library, and the two 3-D printers, gifted as part of our partnership with University of West Scotland and Bath Spa University in England.   The development threats triggered the abandonment by some recycling brokers and, married to the huge growth of Mumbai, greatly impacted the recycling industry.  Vidya Pancholi, the post-doc who works with our Compound 13 Lab partnership, explained to us that twenty years ago 80% of Mumbai’s recycling was processed in Compound 13, but that number, although still significant, was now only 18%.  The separation of living space and livelihood has been key to the vibrancy and sustainability of Dharavi, but the sheets are being ripped by the redevelopment plans.

Somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people, few are sure, but exact numbers are now critical are people packed in the 2 ½ kilometers of Dharavi.  Redevelopment has been discussed for decades and now a contract, though controversial and imperiled, has now been let for twenty years of construction and relocation.  The original plan would only have allowed any meager relocation assistance to residents that could prove title before 2001.  Pressure has moved that number up to 2011.  That’s the eye of the needle that Laxmi was threading to prove with some physical records the ownership of their house first by her grandmother, then her mother, so she could get her mother’s, her daughter’s, and her own name documented only months before the 2011 cutoff to qualify.

The rest of this is also wildly complicated.  Relocation is only available for people who lived on the ground and first floors, with everything above being seen as illegal and nonconforming. These residences and businesses have a chance at being relocated in situ.  Others qualifying as leaseholds, tenants, etc., have to be relocated within 10 km of Dharavi.  This huge aggregate number of 250,000 or so are destined to move to the only available land, the 47-acre Salt pan area, where nothing is now.  Assistance is provided with some loans, but there are also capital requirements required to build new homes and pay land rents to the government.  Roughly 700,000 are excluded from even this amount of limited relocation assistance.

As we sat through the briefing before meeting with our members downstairs, it was clear this was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of complexity with myriad exceptions and qualifiers, most of which would block people from any assistance.  Before any work can be done, the bid winner and the authority have to do another comprehensive survey of viable structures and population density, which is central to all of this.

After all of these meetings, the only thing that seemed clear to me even in this planning fog was that nothing is settled.  700,000 may be relatively silent and confused right now, while they wait and see what happens next, but do not believe that they don’t represent a political and popular powder keg that could swing elections and mount huge protests demanding for more, regardless of the numbers that the developer says he needs, would seem a huge error.