Friday, 5 June 2009

Emerging from the immersion

Back from the heavy heat of Mumbai to summer in London, unbelievable that almost a month has past since our departure, a month so full of richness, learning, intensity. Andrew was spot on in his earlier post, staying on an extra few days really highlighted the multiplicity of the city as our posh eighth floor hotel rooms in Colaba with lovely breezes and views of the ocean were seemingly cities away from the grit and intensity of Dharavi, just one of many highlights of the huge disparities and conflicts in one of the most urban of urban environments. Arriving back I feel the foot lifted off the accelerator – or perhaps better said the hand removed from the incessantly honking horn, shifting out of the constant buzz, chaos and vibrancy that seems to mark every moment of life in India.

It was a fascinating time to be in Mumbai, to feel the highly complex and delicate political process Dharavi is embroiled in as it sits on prime land in the heart of the city, on the front lines of a battleground to make Mumbai a ‘world class city’. We were very fortunate to have a huge range of speakers, from high government officials to activists, share different perspectives of the transformation of the city, helping us begin to unravel the complexity and balance it with a glimpse of what happens in practice in in-situ redevelopment through our field work with residents of Dharavi. The latter was an amazing and powerful experience, as my group was invited into people’s homes and lives in Bharat Janata and Rajiv Indira, attempting to understand how their livelihoods have been impacted in the shift from horizontal to vertical living. The news of some foreigners' arrival spread like wildfire, by the time we left doors would be opened, children shaking our hands and practicing their English. My favourite part was always at the end of the interview, after asking dozens of questions, to then ask the interviewee if they had any questions for us. Many would have sheepish grins, enjoying the tables being turned, and ask what exactly are we studying and trying to understand in Dharavi, how does what we’ve seen in Dharavi compare to places where we are from, how does it feel being in their home and asking all our questions? It was an enormous privilege.

As we began to get under Dharavi’s skin, to decipher a few of the thousand rich strands of DNA, I was completely bowled over (and remain so) by the hyper-modernistic podium typology vision for the entire site, one that nullifies the recognition – and indeed destroys – any existing structure or character of merit in place. Dubai-ing Mumbai, a caricature of reality. I was really upset the day we heard the details of this bladerunner-esque vision, and in writing to explore why realised that this approach represents the absolute antithesis of my values, rooted in a bottom up driven development process, working with residents of a place, building off opportunities and assets….Violence is indeed required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old, as David Harvey says in his recent New Left Review article. As a development planning practitioner, how do you respond to this violence, interact in this situation? How do you play this game – and when do you stop playing, and organise and resist? While the answers are not clear, one must never stop asking and reflecting on these questions, as they are crucial to maintain a critical practice.

I found it very telling that the one woman we interviewed in Bharat Janata who never went to school gave likely the most appropriate response to the question regarding her thoughts on the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan: it is just for people who want to make money, that who do not earn a lot will not benefit. Fortunately the financial crisis, illustrating the precariousness and false illusions of our hypercapitalist era, is good news for Dharavi, slowing the pace of the face-lifting plans. After such a rich and deep experience, I think many of us will follow up on this prime spot in the coming years and decades to see how this model of contested urbanism unfolds, with intense memories of our time in Dharavi and the amazingly resilient and resourceful people we met inside.

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