Make Way for High Rises: Who Benefits from Slum Demolitions in Mumbai?

Cardboard recycling in Dharavi, Mumbai (Meena Kadri, 2009, Flickr creative commons)

Lacking the controlled façades of other great cities, Mumbai’s quotidian street life does not hide the poverty upon which “development” in the Global South depends. Throughout the city, one can see members of a vast, seldom-remunerated labor pool that does not share in globalization’s promises of plenty and exists on the legal margins. Sixty-two percent of Mumbaikars live on land to which they have no legal claim. Their “informal” lives play out in slums, in tucked-away settlements, and on the hot pavement of Mumbai’s many market districts.

In a country whose overriding challenge is rural poverty, India’s urban crisis has been a relative afterthought for the national government until only recently. India is 32 percent urbanized—a population of 377 million—and that figure is climbing steadily, although not at the pace of other emerging markets. If current demographic predictions are accurate, six of its cities could have populations greater than 10 million within twenty years, while Mumbai and New Delhi will compete to become the largest cities in the world. But these cities are notoriously lagging in infrastructure to support this growth. Instead, the predominant thinking among Indian policy makers until recently had been to stem the flow of urbanization by way of rural development. Officials drew a distinction between urban and rural social spending, continually under-privileging cities.

At least in this regard, India’s rural bias is at odds with the elite consensus in development institutions. The most important neoliberal manifesto on urbanization, the World Bank’s Reshaping Economic Geography—a bellwether annual World Development Report released in 2009—envisions a world of burgeoning cities fueled by a transient, atomized labor force. Urbanization, the report posits, is an irreversible condition of modernization and the fading of agrarian economies. It is the job of enlightened policy makers to facilitate this mass migration. The report dismisses a discussion of the ethical implications of its economic design.


Mumbai’s poorest neighborhoods are not the result of enlightened planning, but where many of the world’s slums are synonymous with unemployment, Mumbai’s are incredibly industrious, marshalling the labor that anchors the broader urban economy. Mumbai’s leaders could not pursue their aim of “global city” status without the services that these communities provide. Business travelers in the city’s posh hotels unknowingly have their clothes sent to the hot tin shacks of Mahalaxmi’s open-air laundry, intricately designed to wash and deliver citywide. Thousands of office workers receive lunch from a slum-managed distribution system, which reputedly errs on just one in sixteen million deliveries.

The slums also contain an elaborate, informal manufacturing engine with a global reach. By one count, more than 1,000 manufacturing sites are situated in and alongside the largely self-constructed homes of Dharavi, Asia’s most famous slum. ReDharavi, a report by a consortium of activist groups, details the myriad goods produced in slums, including leather, textile, pharmaceutical, and food products made for export. Thousands of laborers also toil daily in Dharavi’s vast recycling industry, manually breaking apart garbage from across the city and shipping raw plastic abroad. As reported in ReDharavi, “official cities draw heavily on the labor and vigor of slums or shanty residents but rarely do cities support these workers.” Sheela Patel, director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) and a co-author of the report, was equally forceful in an interview: “The value-added that [slum dwellers] produce goes to somebody else.”

Mumbai’s poorest communities are also distinctive for their central locations, near the wealthier communities they serve. Although the resources informal settlers invest in neighborhood construction receive minimal protection or recognition from the state, these are nevertheless long-standing communities built by the poor over generations with little government support. Popular images of migrants fueling the growth of slums portray these areas as way stations, but the data suggest that most of India’s urban population is homegrown. Only 30 percent of the total population growth in Indian cities derives from migration.

Well-established, decades-old informal communities often appear as nonentities on official maps, where they are depicted as green fields ripe for clearance and renewal. State authorities often view the slums the same way, ordering housing demolitions that benefit developers without remunerating residents for the lost labor and displacement.


In John Steinbeck’s 1947 novella The Pearl, a peasant diver uncovers a pearl of remarkable purity. Determined to sell it and use the wealth to provide better living conditions for his family, the diver is thwarted by a series of antagonists who use fraud and violence to diminish his ambitions. This is the situation that confronts many of India’s urban poor. They squat atop some of the most treasured real estate in the world but are unable to extract its value, and are all the while subject to fraud and abuse by opportunistic developers and state authorities. Dharavi sits in the middle of Mumbai’s rail transit network, bordering the city’s emerging business districts. The economic potential of this land is nearly limitless, and investors have noticed (to the detriment of its residents).

Dharavi sits in the middle of Mumbai’s rail transit network, bordering the city’s emerging business districts. The economic potential of this land is nearly limitless, and investors have noticed (to the detriment of its residents).

Rental space in Mumbai is kept scarce by a regulatory regime that has frozen rents at pre-Second World War levels, which has resulted in a halt to all middle- and low-income rental construction. Since few but the rich can find rental space, Mumbai’s informal settlements are distinctly cross-class, housing middle-income workers and civil servants. Data obtained by longtime Mumbai urban planner Shirish Patel under India’s Right to Information Act revealed that more than 4,200 city police constables come home to extra-legal settlements.

Because housing the poor generates insufficient incentives for profit-driven developers, the official redevelopment scheme proposed for Dharavi allows builders to use the land for more profitable commercial and residential development. As long as they provide a certain amount of floor space for low-income housing, developers are free to use the land for other purposes. City regulations are tied to floor space indexes, necessitating vertical construction with narrower bases and leading the re-housing residents on a fraction of the land they currently occupy. “No one is asking whether the final densities, several times anything seen so far anywhere in the world, will be livable,” wrote Patel, now a member of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, in the Indian peer-reviewed journal Economic & Political Weekly. “By the time it is discovered that such crowding is in fact not viable, the original promoters will have made their money and vanished.” Informal communities in Mumbai risk losing much of their already tiny share of land if this approach prevails.

High-density growth has become a cornerstone of new urbanist thinking, stemming largely from the Western experience of inner cities that hollowed out in favor of sprawl. Dense, infill development is praised for its efficiency and its potential for minimizing environmental impact. And increasing the housing supply by way of vertical construction is in theory supposed to bring down costs. The World Bank’s Reshaping Economic Geography is a singular ode to density, describing how so much economic activity can take place on such small slivers of land in the world’s richest cities.

Pushed to extremes, the current high-density approach—when not matched by investment in infrastructure and amenities—threatens to relegate the poor to unjust confinement with little open space. Besides concerns over individual quality of life, the redevelopment plan makes no provisions for the kind of public spaces that serve as seedbeds of democratic interaction and cultural foment. As it stands, Mumbai has just one square meter of public parkland per person, compared to twenty-six square meters per person in New York and thirty-one square meters per person in London.

And the measures of urban crowding in Mumbai may be off. A recent op-ed in the Hindu by Patel criticized the World Bank’s use of floor space indexes for understating levels of density in Mumbai. Using an elegant formula to compare crowding in one of Mumbai’s densest districts with Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he concluded that the latter had six times the residential floor space per person and five times the commercial floor space per worker. Patel called for adding to Mumbai’s tight, peninsular land mass by extending transportation arteries to outer areas.

But with urban planning becoming less democratic in India, we shouldn’t assume that the situation on the ground for slum dwellers will be reflected in official policy proposals. Earlier redevelopment schemes ostensibly required the consent of at least 70 percent of affected settlers. The current plans—stalled by global financial tumult and local protests—have no such requirements. As it stands, people who can prove residence dating back to 1995 would be entitled to small apartments—a single-use, residential mode of living wholly unsuitable for a place whose economy rests in large part on industrial homework. And that’s for the people who can get one of these apartments at all.

For those who can procure re-housing rights, high-rise living may well seem attractive. It connotes middle-class status, and many may find these units more manageable than the severe conditions that currently prevail. But those who depend on mixed-use structures that provide residential, manufacturing, and commercial space will have to set up shop elsewhere (in other slums) if vertical development takes place. Prominent Mumbai architect P.K. Das has argued that the ultra-high density approach in current redevelopment thinking “would only further displace and destabilize the settlements of the poor.”

Architects such as Das and planners such as Patel have made their own proposals to deal with one of the world’s most intractable housing crises. They call for low-rise architecture that, where possible, builds upon what informal communities have already developed, recognizing the resources and labor that informal settlers have already committed to their communities. Humanistic design principles, these voices argue, may incrementally improve the desperate conditions that exist in informal communities without destroying their social fabric.


Mumbai has retained an unsettling security presence in the wake of the 2008 assault that left nearly 200 people dead—the latest manifestation of a simmering ethnic conflict. Despite innumerable divisions among the city’s poor, collective action is likely the only vehicle by which slum dwellers will gain leverage over redevelopment schemes. Activists’ loud criticisms of the top-down, undemocratic process of urban planning in Mumbai arguably played a role in stalling bidding on the Dharavi Redevelopment Project in 2009. They have also loudly protested state-led demolitions. SPARC director Sheela Patel asserts that better organized communities get better deals from the state—provided they speak loudly enough to reach an opaque and distant development machine. (Mumbai has a figurehead mayor and most power is exercised at the state rather than the city level, with the largely rural Maharashtra casting a shadow over decision making.)

Activist networks have demanded the right to keep their homes in any scheme. They also seek greater transparency and involvement in planning. Under the current planning regime, developers must commit to some low-income housing, but those commitments are often mysteriously scrapped for more profitable investments without penalty. Slum advocates argue that the outcomes of these projects should be known at the outset and confirmed by architects and planners with local input, rather than remaining subject to change. Activist groups are also conducting meticulous demographic, topographical, and opinion surveys to fill the voids left on official maps, registering the wants and needs of these communities so that they are harder to ignore or misrepresent.

Despite state-led attempts to limit popular control over the land, informal settlers are increasingly self-aware as a political force. “Poor people were much more docile earlier and could be pushed around,” Shirish Patel told me. “Today, they are well aware of their rights, and the power that voting gives them. And I think no development solution will work unless it has the tacit consent of a significant majority of the local residents.”

Informality is more than a legal designation; it is a social status and a political harness. Mumbai’s majority has little room to challenge the forces seeking to define them: an illegal existence coupled with the threat of physical displacement handicaps a population otherwise prepared to make claims on the state and to challenge an unfair economic system. Overcoming these barriers to participatory democracy could widen the political and human potential of millions.


Joshua K. Leon’s writing on cities has appeared in venues including Metropolis, Cities, Foreign Policy in Focus, the China Beat, the Brooklyn Rail, and Next American City. He is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He lives in Manhattan.

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