top of page

NFTS - Mumbai

My first full day in Mumbai, India, was a chance to explore the culture, with the beautiful architecture in the Fort area, including the Victoria Station and the historic Post Office. The post office was designed by a British architect, John Begg, in 1902, completed in 1913. The stone is a beautiful mix of black basalt and yellow kurla stone, with the main feature being a grand dome.

From here, I took a train to the an informal settlement known for people washing their clothes. This is a spot which attracts lots of tourists, and is an example of how the visibility of slums can be a factor in the government’s perspective – often they will not be evicted if the public perception is positive or attracts tourists (Kim Dovey has some interesting articles on this theory). The last part of my day, I saw the Gateway of India, a very fascinating structure, and much more impressive in real life than I had anticipated. Opposite this is the Taj Mahal Hotels. The original is currently under some construction due to the 2008 terrorist attacks in the city, but I had a look in the new hotel, which is incredible. Although I enjoyed visiting, it was difficult for me after seeing the level of poverty many people in the city face. My final stop was a dress shop, to buy tradition Indian wear. This was important to me to respect the country and culture, but also to provide me with a beautiful gift to myself that I have treasured since.

The main aspect of my research in Mumbai was Dharavi, one of the largest informal settlements in the world. I organised my time in the slum through Jitu from Reality Tours, an NGO that uses the profits from tourism to support local community projects – English and IT classes for women and children.

Walking through Dharavi was an intense experience - in the industrial area, there are around 10,000 businesses, ranging from recycling to textiles, and everything in between. The workers here are usually from the rural areas of India, who have come to Mumbai to earn money to send back to their families. While they are working in the slum, they live in the small factory rooms, many of the workers all sharing the same place, with no home to go back to each day. Fortunately, child labour has become an uncommon sight in Dharavi in recent years, as children nearly all go to school - education is becoming to be seen as more important to improve your livelihood, for both boys and girls. On the other hand, not many people from slums in India manage to get into universities, as the public ones have very high entry grades and the private universities are too expensive. Without a degree, it is harder for people to get higher income jobs, and therefore they are stuck in the cycle.

The fumes in many of these factories are difficult to tolerate. Smoke from coal burning stoves in cramped conditions, as well as melting metals all combine together, making it hard to breathe. Usually the workers are provided some safety equipment, such as masks and gloves, but these are unbearable in the humidity and heat, as well as slowing down the working progress, so often are not worn. The industries here are vital to the economics of the city, providing many objects and services for people around the city, yet the conditions of the workers and the amount of money they earn is very poor.

The potters area is very well known, and although many people use plastic containers etc now, pottery is still important, particularly around the festival season. This time of the year, the potter families earn enough money to last through the rest of the year. During the cooler early morning, the potters work on shaping the clay, which is then left to dry in the day time heat. In the early evenings, the smoke is very thick and strong, as the clay is being heated, creating a stuffy atmosphere.

The dark, twisting lanes of the residential areas are hazardous for a foreigner who doesn't know the area. It would be easy to get lost in this maze, without any hope of being able to find a way out alone. Luckily, I was with a guide who knows the slum very well and helped me navigate the tricky floor slabs and objects hanging down at head level. The proximity of the houses is something I didn't fully comprehend until I went into the slum myself - no photos of videos can really show what it is like. In just one small room, there is a kitchen, the family communal space, and the area for sleeping - all together, rarely with a bed. Being in such a confined space with no privacy must have a high toll on families, and I can imagine tensions may become quite stressed at times.

These issues are accepted by the inhabitants of the slum as they value their sense of community and their personal attributes. Many of the people here own a mobile phone and dress in beautiful clothes - both Indian and Western fashions. This shows the priorities of the residents, and what they most value in their lives. Living in this mostly flat, but cramped morphology gives a strong sense of community, as everyone is so densely packed together, and therefore need to live harmoniously.

In 1995, the Indian government decided to recognise houses in slums are official residencies, giving the land rights to the owners. This means that any structure before that date is now legal, and leads to the inhabitants wanting to spend their money on renovating the house or business building. In contrast, the newer, illegal housing is often left in a much poorer state, with no permanent additions (such as concrete), as people know that the government could destroy the house at any time.

There have been some attempts to move the slum dwellers into accommodation with better infrastructure. There are a few reasons this is not always successful, particularly for a slum as big as Dharavi. This area is of high retail value due to its central location, and proximity to two railways, making it an ideal development area. Originally the government had some schemes to move families into high rise apartment buildings, giving the apartment to them for free, but this has now been taken over by private corporations. Usually they will build two residential blocks on the plot of land - one to be given for free to people from the slums, and one to sell the apartments to other residents of the city, in order to make profit. The problem with this is that the slum residents' building tends to be of a secondary standard of housing, using cheaper materials. Another issue is that businesses cannot be run from this type of residence, unlike in the slum, which can be a huge negative aspect to many people, due to this being the way they earn money. The conception of living in an apartment is that the running fees will be much higher, as well as having a lack of community - it is isolated.

Living in a slum can lead to huge health problems. There is on average one toilet for every 1440 inhabitants, which leads to people using common areas or in running water. This can easily spread the infection of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea. For vulnerable members of the community, particularly children and the elderly, this is extremely dangerous and can lead to death. The life expectancy here is lower than the rest of the city, at around 60 years, with a child mortality of approximately 40 children dying per 1000 live births.

Visiting Dharavi has made me realise what a complex situation this is, as there is no obvious answer to the best way in which a slum can be developed. The reasons for people working here is often financial, as people from rural parts of the country come to Mumbai for work, but are forced to take the labour jobs in the slum. This industry is vital in the economics of the city, so replacing it is not an option. It also varies greatly from the favelas I experiences in Brazil. Although I knew that many Mumbai slums would be in more in the central part of the city, while Brazilian favelas are often on the periphery, I didn't realise how different this creates the potential solutions. While access to transport in Curitiba may help people in poverty to access better jobs, people in India already have a close proximity to the jobs, yet they are unable to get them. A lack of good education, to college/university level is evident in both countries, and this may be the way to develop a city and help the community to grow economically. By doing this, families would be able to earn more money, and improve the living conditions around them.

Architecture in India has many influences and attributes to the styles and designs. At sP+a, Sameep explained that their practice focuses on collaborations with other types of design and architects, while aiming to use suitable materials for different projects and teach skills where appropriate. For example, their Jetvana project, a Buddhist Learning and Skill Development Centre – this used a local building method, but changed the material used. Earth walls are very common in this region, and stone is widely available, so these ideas were combined to create a new form of construction, teaching the local workers a skill.

This links to the idea of spatial agency, in which people can develop their own living spaces. Informal settlements, or slums, are an example of this typology, as the inhabitants create their own homes and personal spaces through the materials available to them. By addressing the problems within a slum, such as lack of services, healthcare, transport, etc., you can then improve the situation. Unfortunately, the slums themselves are too often seen as a problem in their entirety, leading to their destruction. The issue with this is that it does not offer a solution to the people, whole communities are displaced, without any alternative offered, leading to them just moving onto a different area.

Social inequality is hugely evident in Mumbai, with areas being vastly wealthier than others, such as the South. Fort and Colaba attract a lot of tourists, bringing more wealth into the area, as it contains attractions like the Gateway of India and ferries to Elephenta Island. In contrast, many people who live in Mumbai cannot afford housing in this type of area, so live on the periphery and commute into the city for work. Train lines from the suburbs allow for people to work in the city where they have better wages, and are often hubs for communities of people who have previously lived in the slums of the city. In addition, there is often a juxtaposition of people living in poverty immediately next to large, wealthy apartment blocks and complexes. This is because the poorer people work in these types of buildings, and it is much easier for them to have quick access.

Dharavi lies in an important part of the city, some say in the heart of the city. The mobility here is a key factor. Although for many people, everything that they need is within the slum itself (schools, jobs, residences), for those needing to leave the slum, it is situated between main roads and two train stations. Many people come to Dharavi from villages in other parts of the country, and while working, they send money home to their families. This then upgrades the villages, as well as being a key factor in the economy of Mumbai.

Overall, my time in Mumbai was extremely rewarding but also the most difficult aspect of my scholarship trip. My original plan had been to travel from Mumbai to Jaipur; however, at the time, there were political led riots in the north of India with high fatality rates. This violence combined with struggles I had already been facing (as a solo white woman) resulted in me adapting my travel plans. I had received a lot of attention, some of it respectful and curious (such as people wanting to take my photo or touch my hair/skin) but some was aggressive and made me uncomfortable. I am really keen to return to India, but personally would not go back on my own again. On a more positive note, my change in plans meant I had the chance to visit family in Australia before moving on to Indonesia!

bottom of page