Why Dharavi should not be redeveloped
After a screening of "Dharavi, Slum for Sale" at Mumbai's Max Mueller Bhavan, filmmaker Lutz Konermann thanked the full house of attendees for watching a film as "slow" as his, in total silence. Konermann was being excessively modest.
The film is a beautifully structured multi-strand narrative about the goings-on behind the scenes of the Dharavi Redevelopment Project -- a drive to convert the slum into a vibrant piece of real estate.
Over 80 minutes we are treated to different points of view on the subject of redeveloping a space that houses over 800,000 people and would free up over 500 acres of land for construction and commercial exploitation.
Filming in the labyrinth
At first it appears that Mukesh Mehta, a U.S.-trained architect and the brains behind the project, has a vision for what used to be known as Asia’s largest slum. This vision, if it worked, could be ported to any city that has similar areas of informal housing, improving living conditions and using space better.
Of course this is how it appears when Mehta presents his case.
As time, and screen minutes pass, Konermann's adroit storytelling re-positions Mehta as the fat-cat villain of the piece.
This is a man who arrives for a meeting with Dharavi's residents in a Mercedes; a man who takes pride in announcing to his employees that their project has been given the go ahead to construct buildings with 20 stories and more (where at first they were permitted to go no higher than seven stories); a man who lives far above the plight of the average person (literally and figuratively) in a world of privilege that affords him several employees to fawn over him at work and personal time off to receive classical music training at home.
On the other side of the equation we are allowed into the lives of a tailor, a potter, a young girl and a social activist living within the labyrinthine realities of the slum.
The tailor who has two school-going kids, suffers several setbacks over the duration of the film; the potter maintains a militant outlook toward any talk of redevelopment; the activist believes that any so-called redeveloper needs to first understand the needs of Dharavi's residents and the young girl is simply filled with hope for the possibility of a better life.
Everybody has a justifiable point of view, including some indirectly related parties. But few are able to come to terms with the real problems that will be faced in the razing and rebuilding of such a large sprawl of land where fresh residents arrive every day and where permanence is an idea as incomprehensible as that of dignified living conditions.
'A perfectly integrated city'
Lutz Konermann is a distinguished-looking man of Swiss-German origin. With a salt-and-pepper beard and a measured, scholarly manner of speaking he resembles the actor Jeremy Irons.
Konermann first visited Mumbai in 1988, at the Max Mueller Bhavan's invitation, to screen some of his earlier films. It was his first time in Asia and he calls the experience a "brainwashing." He knew he wanted to come back, but with a reason. And it wasn't until 15 or 16 years later that he saw Rob Appleby's photographs of Dharavi on the Internet and was motivated to return to India.
After deciding to work together their initial objective was to make a portrait of Dharavi. While they were in India doing just that, news of the redevelopment plans began circling.
Around 2005, "there was huge rising interest in Europe to send us there (to Dharavi), to give us the possibility to not only portray the slum and its people -- how it works, how it functions -- but also the struggle that had been foreseen by the TV producers," recalls Konermann.
Though the Dharavi Redevelopment Project has failed to take off (and the film touches upon some of the reasons why), he believes that "Dharavi, Slum for Sale" actually shows the real reasons there is little need for redevelopment.
In his own words, "I think it's so ironic when the government official says it needs a redevelopment to make an integrated city out of Dharavi. Dharavi itself is the best example, in my view, of an integrated city. It is a perfectly integrated city, there is a perfect social network, it is functioning, people earn their living, so what more can you expect from a city? It is working, at a very low level as far as hygiene standards are concerned, as far as space available for the people is concerned."
Like several voices in his film Konermann believes that the need is not for the replacement of Dharavi but rather for acknowledgment.
Acknowledgment that a city like Mumbai would not have developed as quickly as it did, if it weren’t for the services provided by the residents of a slum like Dharavi.
"I very much regret the term 'redevelopment'," Konermann says. "Redevelopment is very presumptuous I think because it says something has developed in the wrong way or has to be changed into something different. Why redevelop Dharavi? Develop Dharavi, or help it develop itself."
His documentary, available via Under Construction Films, salutes the spirit of the slum, perhaps best embodied by the cheerful, can-do attitude of Soni Srivastava -- a young woman who is very proud of the tiny television screen that owns pride of place in her little family home.
Contrasted with the high life of Mukesh Mehta is the reality of Rais Khan's life, a tailor whose wife was killed in an accident and a man who has to leave his two children with other families when he is evicted for being unable to afford rent.
His reality, as it unfolds over the course of the film, serves to highlight the fact that the authorities and the redevelopers haven’t adequately mapped out a plan for the human beings whose lives could end up as collateral damage in the rosy picture of a redeveloped Dharavi.
Konermann further believes that slums like Dharavi will only go away when cities cease to be the only hope for a livelihood for millions of Indians.
"I would like to suggest -- stop the reason for slums like Dharavi to develop in the first place. You have to stop people from wanting to come, or needing to come, into the mega cities. You have to develop the countryside, you have to eradicate the reasons why they are coming into the cities."
In an age of slum tours and Konermann’s honest admission that one could earn a "quick dollar" merely by filming, writing about or photographing poverty, his film serves to remind us all of a neighborhood, not far from ours, where our resilient brethren live in less than human conditions.