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Monash University > Publications > Monash Magazine > Archive > Spring/Summer 2003

Finding a better future for Dharavi

While many groups are calling for India's Dharavi slums to be knocked down to make way for new housing, Monash Asia Institute director Professor Marika Vicziany is looking at alternative ways to help the residents. DIANE SQUIRES reports.

Giant water pipes carry water to Mumbai and serve as a shortcut for Dharavi residents.

Photo by Robert Appleby

Midway between the airport and main business district of Mumbai, in India, is an area few visitors dare venture into. Known as the Dharavi slums, it is strewn with rubbish, excrement and pools of filthy water. One and two-storey houses so densely populate the area that there is no public access for service vehicles or open space for children to play.

With a population of just over one million, it is one of Asia's largest slums, and there are repeated calls for its buildings to be knocked down to make way for new housing.

But Monash Asia Institute director Professor Marika Vicziany believes that although the area is chaotic and in need of an overhaul, the solution is not as simple as destroying buildings.

Working with Professor S. Vichare from Tadomall College in Mumbai, Professor Vicziany has started speaking to the residents to generate a list of priorities for the area.

The project, which started last year, includes investigating the area's sanitation, sewerage, solid waste disposal, water management and food distribution needs.

Professor Marika Vicziany with Monash postgraduate student Mr Iftikhar Rashid (centre) and Mumbai resident Mr K. J. Kartik.

"What we are looking at is if you have one dollar to spend on the area, what would you do with it? Would you put it towards providing a crèche, new buildings or amenities for waste management?" she says.

"We need to be able to provide a list of priorities to the government as well as organisations in the area, which will identify what needs to be done first, based on what residents need most."

Professor Vicziany says her initial reaction to Dharavi was that the buildings should be knocked down to make way for new housing.

But despite the appearance of the slums, she says, the area is full of hard-working people who are extremely house-proud.

"The living conditions look terrible - they are terrible, but when you go inside the homes, they are spotless," she says.

Despite the filthy water, laundrymen in Dharavi get the washing clean.

Photo by Robert Appleby

"These people are not hopeless - they are the most energetic people in the city. The women make and sell textiles and food such as papadums. They are not people picking through rubbish - they are a population crammed into a small area, surrounded by filth because there are no private amenities and no roads providing vehicle access to the area."

A survey of toilet facilities in Dharavi in 1997 revealed that there was one toilet for every 1488 people. However, 80 per cent of these mainly public toilets were unusable because of blockages, filth and disrepair. While some homes have their own facilities, these are few and far between.

"Public sanitation is certainly an area in which outside intervention could play a critical role. Better sanitation means better health and less expenditure on medicines and visits to clinics," says Professor Vicziany.

Slums such as Dharavi also have implications for engineering studies within India, she says. Courses should include the study of how poor people survive and how their knowledge of slums can be incorporated into planning processes to provide solutions for future developments.

The Dharavi project is just one of a series in Asia that Professor Vicziany is involved with through the Research Unit on Cultures and Technologies in Asia (RUCTA).

RUCTA was established in 2001 by the MAI and the UNESCO International Centre for Engineering Education and brings together expertise on Asia from Monash's faculties of Arts, Business and Economics, Engineering, Law, and Information Technology.

Members have already started research projects on urbanisation, corporate governance, environmental degradation and global responses to the eradication of mass poverty.

"The Dharavi project will have implications for other slums," Professor Vicziany says. "By 2020, most people across Asia will be living in cities - how will the cities cope?".

A man bathes his son in the run-off from the large water pipes that supply Mumbai's water.

Photo by Robert Appleby