What might a settlement in modern day Mumbai learn from a Nineteenth Century town planner in Edinburgh?
words & photography – cameron bray
location – london, uk

Dharavi is probably the world’s most famous slum. Nestled in the heart of India’s biggest city, Mumbai, this tiny slice of land is home to around a million people. Iconic thanks to its cameo in ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ it’s a contested site that has become the focus of many film crews, NGOs, tour groups and urbanists.

The settlement is packed with contrasts and contradictions. On the one hand, Dharavi plays a crucial role in Mumbai’s economy: it is home to many manufacturing industries, as well as acting as the city’s main plastic recycling plant. Small factories and home workshops churn out products including suitcase wheels, leather tags for jeans, garments for international brands and poppadoms for diners across the city. But there’s also a high-tech focus – Johnson & Johnson manufacture surgical thread here, seen in operating theatres across the world, and printing companies use the latest technology to supply international markets. In the words of Saskia Sassen, “one can assume that every household in the North owns something made in Dharavi.”

The flip side is that Dharavi faces significant issues of overcrowding and sanitation, especially as India’s urban population is expected to balloon over the next 50 years. Often, whole extended families live between a couple of rooms, migrant workers will sleep on factory floors and residents use communal toilets that empty into the open sewers snaking through the settlement. Neglect from the municipal authorities means that infrastructure is largely self-built. This extends from the roads to water and electricity supply, all kept in check by residents’ councils who wield significant power.

One corner of Dharavi that has its own special story is the “village” of Kumbharwada, on the settlement’s Southern tip. It’s home to a community of potters, originally from the state of Gujarat in Western India, who ended up in Mumbai in the late 1800s. Like many residents of Mumbai whose families migrated to the city, Kumbharwada’s residents remain firmly anchored to their ancestral villages and live in family groups which can be traced back over generations.

Kumbharwada is made up of five lanes, called wadis, dotted with small brick kilns where potters fire their wares. They live right next to these, in two or three floor houses with their workshops on the ground floor. The wadis are the primary social and public space for the area, where everyday life plays out. This creates a scenario where working and living are interwoven, leading to hybrid, localised social structures where friends, colleagues, extended families and employees are one and the same.

This is largely a positive thing – the tight-knit community allows childcare to be shared between family members, or else parents can keep an eye on their kids while they’re at work. Business rivalries are nearly non-existent, with the communal identity encouraging a more collaborative approach. For example, when an order can’t be fulfilled it’s simply passed on to a relative or friend, and new ideas to improve kiln efficiency are openly shared between business owners in the spirit of the open source movement. In India, the term auntie or uncle is used to identify relationships beyond that of direct family; in Kumbharwada, everyone is an auntie or an uncle.

However, there is also a less positive facet to the story. The kilns in Kumbharwada are fired with fabric offcuts from the local textile industry, which often contain plastic fibres and produce a thick, acrid smoke that chokes the wadis. The issue with the complex spatial and social relationships in the settlement is that the pollution from the kilns permeates all facets of life, across generations. When walking through Kumbharwada, it’s commonplace to see children playing, vendors selling vegetables and old men playing cards, all through a haze of noxious smoke.

An obvious solution to the pollution problems in Kumbharwada would be to move the kilns elsewhere and to redevelop the area with green, public spaces and bigger houses. However, this approach imposes a solution that wouldn’t respect existing social structures and practices and would most likely price out its current residents – disrupting an optimised and important industry.

In fact, the whole of Dharavi is threatened by this future. Centrally located in a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world, it’s currently being circled by property vultures. And in spite of its flaws, Dharavi is considered a blueprint for the future sustainable city: it has a vast network of car free streets and passages, it contains a mix of residential and commercial typologies, it places a strong emphasis on local community, and because it’s largely self-built, people are able to respond directly to their needs – when you have a growing family, you can add an extra floor to your house, for example. In his book “Maximum City,” Suketu Mehta describes meeting millionaire slum dwellers who find the idea of living as a nuclear family, cut off from their wider community, completely unimaginable.

So, how can these qualities be respected whilst considering some of the problems that Dharavi is faced with? Perhaps the answer lies within. The settlement’s entrepreneurial spirit abounds in Kumbharwada, where some potters are currently working on designs for biomass burners which emit very little smoke. Ranchod Tank, one of the local potters, has built a new kiln using technology found back home in Gujarat. Ranchod has had problems bringing it to the correct temperature, but this hasn’t dented his resolve – he’s still working to optimise his design through trial and error, in collaboration with other potters. Although this new technology is yet to be proven, this kind of bottom-up innovation should be encouraged and supported, and the work of a Victorian town planner from Scotland might point us in the right direction.

In the late 1800s, the Old Town of Edinburgh had become run down after its wealthy residents fled to the New Town in the North – leaving the old city dangerous, dirty and overcrowded. Whilst the fashionable solution involved complete demolition and reconstruction, town planner Patrick Geddes had an alternative. He devised a cheaper, more respectful and ultimately more effective way to deal with these problems. His concept of Conservative Surgery involved only knocking down the most decayed buildings, planting trees and delicately opening up lanes and courtyards, thus creating open green space. He believed in empowering residents at a grassroots level, so he moved into the area and worked together with them to bring this idea to fruition. Ultimately, it proved very successful and arguably prevented Edinburgh’s historic Old Town from becoming another gridiron pile of dreary, rigid boxes. In reaction to this, Geddes was invited to India, where he prevented the Raj from demolishing swathes of many Indian towns by working with local planners to survey and implement Conservative Surgery.

Geddes was very sensitive to the complexity of urban spaces and how imposing schemes from above could disrupt the delicate networks contained within them. His training in biology led to his interpretation of the city as an organism, the theory of evolution an important influence. Conservative Surgery wasn’t proposed as a way of freezing a place in a particular moment in time, but instead aimed at preserving its spirit – encouraging growth and change. Indeed, both Edinburgh’s Old Town and Dharavi contain what Walter Benjamin described as porosity, which is the capacity to encourage and absorb change through the appropriation and informal use of space. This sits in stark contrast to a masterplanned town, which stifles such a spirit.

Geddes’ teachings offer a different way of understanding Dharavi and make it clear that we should be calling for its protection from real-estate vultures. Of course, there are problems with infrastructure, sanitation and pollution that shouldn’t be overlooked, but Dharavi contains the energy and resources to initiate change from the bottom up. Through supporting its engaged residents’ councils, places like Kumbharwada will continue to foster innovation and eradicate their pollution curse. This will allow their disruptive, collaborative way of doing business to keep growing.

A note: Each month, we update our site as part of our efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our digital estate. The global emissions from the digital industry are on a par with those from the aviation industry, at almost 2% of total global emissions. What’s worse, this is increasing year on year. In an effort to lessen our impact, each month we compress and archive previous features and update our site with new content. Throughout the month, our current features are available to all to enjoy; our full digital archive is accessible to boom saloon members, in thanks for their support to use creativity to inspire and empower those facing challenges. Support our work and become a member by clicking here.