Mahesh Vijapurkar

Mumbai’s geography and demography has to be divided into two, one the formal, genteel, with the other being the slums. There are good reasons for it, for nearly half of the city lives in slums. Though, among the non-slum dwellers, the slum inhabitants are always the “them”.

The glass-fronted high rises dominate the skylines, but slums do not being essentially low-rises, and are mostly two-storeyed and less visible. This despite the fact that as for their respective locations, they intermingle. The overlaps have not made the “them” the “us”.

The slum population is blamed for overcrowding the city. But interestingly enough all slums together occupy less than ten per cent of the total cityscape. Such population size cramped in such tiny space makes the slums overcrowded. Within, each 100-125 sq ft dwelling hosts five persons.

Much as one frowns at Mumbai’s slums, one reality is often ignored. Take away the slums, and Mumbai would come to a grinding halt, much like the way any disruption of suburban trains does. Your maid, your driver, the cab driver, the autorickshawallah, the shop attendants, the tradesmen, etc. mostly come from there.

These slums are visible when you drive through Dharavi on the East-West connector, or when whizzing past any other travelling by a local train. New spaces for the slums to emerge have been hard to come by, and the informal housing sector has brought into play a new typology, the multi-storeyed.

The squat slum dwellings are of brick walls and tin roofs. The tall ones were three-tiered, almost entirely of tin, springing up hither and thither amid the squat slums. The slums near Bandra which burst into flames while being demolished recently was entirely vertical, and four-storeyed.

Civic laws allowed slums dwellings up to a height of 14 feet so that families within could be a tad more comfortable. This led to upper storeys being given out on rent. This signifies both a rental market as well as continuing space crunch within slums. A proposal to allow it to 20 ft is hanging fire for over a decade.

When disasters like the one in Bandra happen, a sudden consciousness about slums emerge, more in negatively than otherwise. It is forgotten that slums are in existence because housing is far too expensive for even the middle class. Even when housing loans are available.

The fact of Mumbai often ignored is that if migrants arrived, they did so for livelihoods, and not because the city happened to be a preferred destination for residing. Not even the distant suburbs which turned into city corporations can be that attractive for they are all going the Mumbai way.

Much as one frowns at Mumbai’s slums, one reality is often ignored. Take away the slums, and Mumbai would come to a grinding halt, much like the way any disruption of suburban trains does. Your maid, your driver, the cab driver, the autorickshawallah, the shop attendants, the tradesmen, etc. mostly come from there.

They are unseemly, yes; they are a sore to the eyes, yes; but they are also homes to nearly half a crore people. With this in mind, a slum rehabilitation programme was launched in 1996, enabling their rehousing in free apartments, with the builders allowed to build extra floors to sell in the free market. That sale is to subsidise the slum dwellers’ component.

However, not much headway has been made, and thousands of rehabilitation projects are in limbo because builders only try to get a sanction and squat on the site for a better gain later. The programme requires in situ rehabilitation. Politicians have intruded and made common cause with builders and none have gained even as Mumbai slums go vertical.