Monday, 18 May 2009

Shifts and milestones: Saturday 16 May

Today was a day of change. While everyday we receive and strive to absorb huge amounts of information and new learning on Dharavi and its connections and flows through space and time, today brought a totally unexpected shift in our work, driving us in a new direction. A handful of us went for a much anticipated meeting with a key person overseeing the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan, whose process of development is embedded in a highly contested and complex environment. We had a decent sense of the basics, but as the Plan is still under negotiation we did not have an idea of its spatial manifestation. Approaching the physical space and context of the meeting opened up a deeper understanding for me of the politics and intense power dynamics at play in its shaping, walking down a pristine, gleaming corridor towards the imposing board room, seeing many key figures in the game emerge from the phase II presentation of the Plan. Fascinating.

Expecting more of an interview, a question and answer session on the Plan, we were instead asked to give our thoughts and proposals regarding Dharavi. We pulled together some of the main issues we have found working in the field, key elements around the intersections between livelihoods and space, relatively well, although this experience definitely reinforced the learning we have had to be flexible, adaptable and to expect the unexpected. Yet as the discussion unfolded it became absolutely apparent that we (students) and our audience were approaching Dharavi from two completely different mindsets and paradigms. We had roughly outlined our vision as bridging global demand and local aspirations by first understanding and then making proposals to strengthen livelihood and spatial connections, a very bottom up approach based on building opportunities and assets of communities, working with their complexity and diversity. My mind and emotions started on a rollercoaster as we were explained the hypermodernist, futuristic spatial vision of this 239 Ha area in the heart of Mumbai, erasing anything we can imagine existing today. Picture Bladerunner. And not just in one part but throughout Dharavi. The informality formalised, raising huge questions about the hundreds of thousands of people dependent on such systems. The organic growth of its built form, the labyrinth-like mazes with productive activities tucked away into any and every space imaginable, gone.

Coming back to the hotel and discussing with the rest of the team was intense, I had to concentrate to find words to explain what happened, to keep my intense emotional reaction at bay. It was a serious reality check and has completely shifted our approach, our challenge now being to find a way to insert the rich learning and analysis from our fieldwork – profiling livelihoods in residential and commercial settings, analysing the urban fabric – into this framework, and how we can imagine an alternative scenario within the parameters of this Plan. The coming week will tell.

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