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The Slum Outside: Elusive Dharavi
by Matias Echanove, Rahul Srivastava, URBZ

Dharavi has achieved mythical status. Commonly, and mistakenly, cited as Asia’s largest slum, it is a symbol of Mumbai’s inability to meet the needs of its population, and the ability of Mumbaikars to meet those needs on their own.

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Commentaries usually fall back on the slum narrative, which sees Dharavi as resilient but backward, and in need of radical intervention. Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of Urbz argue that it is time for this narrative to be rewritten. Dharavi residents do not recognise their home as a slum – the slum is always somewhere else, a few blocks away perhaps. Echanove and Srivastava challenge the bipolar way in which Mumbai sees itself, divided between “backward” slums and “modern” high-rises. What they call the “user-generated neighbourhood” is far more sophisticated and productive than any developer’s masterplan.

About the author

Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava joined forces through their blog airoots/eirut in 2006. They have since written extensively on urban themes and are working on projects involving architecture, planning, pedagogy and technology. They run the Institute of Urbanology in Mumbai and Goa and are co-founders of, an experimental platform for collaborative practice in urban development.

The Slum Outside: Elusive Dharavi

Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, is supposed to represent the quintessential Asian slum. Crowded streets and busy markets; domestic workshops cheek by jowl with sweatshops producing both real and fake Pepe jeans; brick houses rising as high as their microscopic footprints allow; high-rises mushrooming here and there like gigantic shacks; schools in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, English, Marathi, Urdu and other languages, usually with more than 50 pupils per class; temples of every Buddhist and Hindu denomination; flamboyant mosques so crowded that people have to pray on the streets during namaz; old churches with full congregations – remnants of the region’s seventeenth-century Portuguese history – and new evangelical missions converting low-caste Hindus by the dozen; community toilets that double up as marriage halls; piles of garbage waiting to be picked over by scavengers; open drains running along narrow back streets; thousands of water pipes branching off in every direction.

Dharavi invariably confuses those eager to capture its reality in shorthand. Visitors looking for an essence of the place often land on its edges and corners, in spots that most Dharavi residents themselves have seen only on TV. They may be rewarded for their intrepidness by the sight of barefoot children walking on water pipes against the obligatory backdrop of garbage – a cliché that resonates so powerfully with familiar discourses on poverty and inequality that it obliterates the depth and complexity of the place. Dharavi is diverse and rapidly transforming, and it deceives as much as it overwhelms. It is an enigma that cannot be resolved by simply labelling it one thing or the other.

From the rooftop of Mohan Kanle’s two-storey house, the neighbourhood seems part of the immutable story of urbanism, recalling medieval Italian towns, Istanbul’s bazaars, the by-lanes of Benares, old Delhi, Guangzhou’s urban villages and even Tokyo’s dense residential suburbs. From this vantage point, it seems embedded in the shadow history of human settlements anywhere in the world where planning and control give way to incremental and small-scale development. In some parts, one sees hundreds of low-rise structures so tightly packed that they appear to share one single cement-sheet roof. No wonder urban designers and architecture students love to imagine bridges connecting all of these houses, with new roofs acting as public spaces and gardens.