Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Dharavi redevelopment: Can Adani really do it?

Talk of Dharavi's redevelopment has been around for decades and mostly on paper. While some residents are hopeful, once again, others have concerns about their livelihoods

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Jul 27, 2023 04:18:54 PM IST
Updated: Jul 27, 2023 04:36:20 PM IST

Dharavi redevelopment: Can Adani really do it?Sayed Sajid Ali owns three properties in Dharavi and is concerned about running into losses because no space will be provided for the extra floors. Image: Mexy Xavier

On a busy Monday afternoon with sporadic rain, we walk through one of the most densely populated slums in the world, ducking under low-hanging cables. Dilip Kamble, 58, points out that the monsoons are difficult for residents of Dharavi. Recalling an instance, he tells us why he decided to renovate his house instead of waiting for the redevelopment to commence, which has been all talk and no action for decades. “The first time I heard about Dharavi getting a makeover was when I was six years old, back in the 1970s. Nothing has changed since then,” recalls sub-inspector Kamble, who recently refurbished his house, following his family’s struggles every monsoon season.

"In 2021, my youngest son video-called me to show how water was flowing into the house from everywhere, and I couldn’t do anything to help them because I was on duty. I had tears in my eyes to see my family go through such a situation.” That day, Kamble decided to use his savings and get a loan to renovate the house. He is not alone. There are over 1 million people living across 259 hectare in the world’s largest slum, cramped in small houses, sharing one common toilet between 300-odd people.

Dharavi is also a thriving business centre and manufacturing hub, with more than 12,000 micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) engaged in businesses such as leather making, garment manufacturing, pottery, and plastic recycling. These industries export goods across the globe, with an estimated annual turnover of around $1 billion.

The plans for Dharavi’s redevelopment have now resurfaced, with the Maharashtra government approving Adani Group’s bid on July 13. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada) granted final approval for the appointment of Adani for the redevelopment of Dharavi. The agreement comes eight months after Adani Realty emerged as the highest bidder for the project, with an initial investment commitment of Rs 5,069 crore against a base price of Rs 1,600 crore. The entire project is estimated to cost around Rs 23,000 crore.

Those who have lived in the slum since before January 1, 2000, qualify as beneficiaries. This criteria was decided on the basis of the last survey done in 2008, and since then, the population has doubled. Around 56,000 structures were surveyed in 2008, of which 46,000 were residential and 10,000 were commercial. Today, there are over 1 lakh structures. There are also numerous three-storey structures, occupied by owners and tenants. There is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt among the residents about the project, as this is the fourth time in the last two decades that the state government has tried to redevelop Dharavi.

Ram Kolane, 62, who sells leather products in a rented shop, is a little hopeful but more doubtful about the latest announcement. Forty years ago, he migrated to Dharavi from the Osmanabad district of Maharashtra in search of a job. “I have been hearing about redevelopment from the time Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. Now this has become a pattern before every election.” Kolane has a family of four and lives in a 100-sq-ft house. He says the business has suffered since the imposition of an 18 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST). “I am not against this project. In fact, I look forward to it. Who doesn’t want to have good and clean basic amenities?”

Billionaire Gautam Adani, who runs airports, ports, and mines, intends to not only transform Dharavi into a modern city centre but also preserve and promote the local MSMEs. This will be achieved using a multi-pronged strategy with the help of sectoral experts and civil society, he said in an online blog post. It could be a combination of training centres focussed on upskilling, common facility centres for product-based as well as service-based entrepreneurship models, R&D centres, data centres, MSME help desks, etc. Another important element could be the creation of organised and systemic marketplaces in line with the Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), he added.

Yet, Sayed Sajid Ali, who owns three properties, including a four-storey factory, is concerned about running into losses because no space will be provided for the extra floors. According to the Government Resolution, only 250 sq ft of space will be allotted, explains Ali, while his factory is over 400 sq ft. “Where will I take all my extra equipment? It took us over 20 years to build this business. We can’t just let it go and settle for less,” says the 43-year-old, who runs a garment factory and a shop that sells children’s clothes.

After his father migrated from Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh in 1955, the family of 13 struggled to make ends meet. Ali and his brother started this business in 2001. “My mother had to sell her jewellery so that we could start this shop. Our business picked up only after 2013. Things are fine now. We generate Rs 60 lakh in revenue each year. We have put in a lot of hard work to build all of this, so we hope the government takes up the redevelopment mindfully.”

Dharavi redevelopment: Can Adani really do it?Sanjay Bhalerao is a Dharavi resident and has been working with the development authority ever since the project was launched in 2004. Image: Mexy Xavier

Adani’s involvement has attracted protests from the local community, which is concerned about their lack of involvement in the decision-making process. They claim that, due to political reasons, no development has been done till now. “Our first and foremost demand is that a fresh survey be done in Dharavi before commencing the redevelopment. Everything should happen with the consent of the residents, and no one should be homeless because of this redevelopment,” says activist Sanjay Bhalerao, a Dharavi resident who has been working with the development authority ever since the project was launched by the Maharashtra government in 2004.

The tendering process for the project has failed multiple times because of the mixed usage of land in Dharavi, the eligibility criteria for rehabilitation of tenants, and political reasons, among others. Many political parties and builders have eyed the redevelopment of the slum, which is in the centre of the city and next to the commercial hub of Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC).

“We are also concerned about Adani's reputation in the international market,” says Bhalerao, referring to the damage caused by the January report by US-based Hindenburg Research, which at one point erased more than $150 billion from the conglomerate’s market value. Adani Group has denied all allegations. “If Adani starts work without doing a fresh survey and without considering the demand of Dharavi residents, then we are going to oppose it. We will not let them do it. We will do everything to save our land,” says Bhalerao.

Dharavi redevelopment: Can Adani really do it?Chetan Chauhan runs a pottery business in Kumbhar Wada, Dharavi. Image: Mexy Xavier

However, Chetan Chauhan is optimistic about the plan. He runs a pottery business in Kumbhar Wada, an area within Dharavi known for its earthenware businesses. “A lot of builders came, but nothing happened. I believe Adani will be able to finally kickstart this project,” he says. Chauhan’s forefathers migrated to the city from Diu, Gujarat. In 1992, he founded Shubh Chauhan Potteries, and today he manufactures and exports items like cooking pots, diyas, and other gift articles to countries like Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, and Canada. “Around 30 people work in my factory and shop. We manage to have more than Rs 70 lakh in turnover annually.” Chauhan, 44, owns seven properties in Dharavi and is concerned about whether he will have his shop along the main road or not after the redevelopment.

In an earlier attempt at Dharavi’s redevelopment, in 2018, Adani Realty had bid Rs 4,539 crore, while in February 2019, United Arab Emirates-based Seclink Technology Corporation (STC) had bid Rs 7,200 crore, becoming the highest bidder. As per the latest development, on July 18, the Bombay High Court allowed a petition by STC challenging the Maharashtra government’s resolution to award the project to Adani.

Dharavi residents are not convinced that Adani won this bid, and the eligibility criteria for rehabilitation is the biggest concern that needs to be addressed, explains Sandeep Katke, an advocate and Dharavi resident. “There are so many industries in Dharavi, and it is only increasing with each passing day. A lot of them have been living here for decades, and 80 percent of residents earn their living within Dharavi. No one is against development. But it should include everyone,” says Katke, who also owns a construction material business.

Abhinav Madhavanunni, senior associate at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, says there are ways in which redevelopment is possible without disrupting the local economy; it is important to first consult with people and understand their needs and requirements. For example, residents can best identify lacking services, amenities, and infrastructure and where they want them to be located. They should also be involved in the planning process throughout, not just initially.

He adds that there have been many failed attempts to provide housing through public private partnerships because of the lack of inclusive planning. Also, higher income groups may gentrify newly developed land parcels, displacing and destroying existing communities, cultures, and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, sub-inspector Kamble is set to retire from work on July 31, and he jokingly says, “From starting my school in Dharavi to retiring here now, not an inch has moved for redeveloping this area. But we are still hopeful. One day it will finally happen.”