The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Reflecting on Dharavi: supporting slums as centres for economic growth

Reflecting on their recent tour of enterprises in Dharavi, one of Mumbai's largest slums, Julius Gatune and Dinh The Phong perceive that while economic development policies in the BRICs might contradict and undermine the needs of the urban poor, slums like Dharavi may incubate industries that can export to the world, and thus should be embraced and supported as entrepreneurial centres.

Cities: Mumbai, Hanoi, Accra

Topics: Local economic development, Labour and livelihoods, Informal settlements

The roofscape of Dharavi. Photo: Carlin Carr
A potters' kiln in Dharavi, from which pottery goods are now being exported internationally. Photo: Carlin Carr
Bricklayers build a boundary wall between the shacks of Dharavi. Photo: Carlin Carr
A stream of fetid water trickles through a garbage dump where children play. Photo: Carlin Carr
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In April 2011, Intellecap and the Rockefeller Foundation convened over 40 researchers from 15 countries in Mumbai for a five-day conference focused on 'The Future of the Urban Poor'. The international researchers were part of the Rockefeller Foundation's Searchlight function, which tracks trends in urban poverty.

Participants attended workshops on various forecasting models and spent time in the field at social enterprises in the city as well as in Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums. In Dharavi, the researchers visited a number of eye-opening areas, including a pay-per-use toilet facility, the recycling centre, and the potters' block. They also were introduced to the leather products that are sold in shops all over Europe and the US.

These massive industries in Dharavi gave the international guests an inside look at the entrepreneurial spirit of the place as well as the intertwined relationship between the tangled streets of Dharavi and the global market place.

Here two participants offer their reflections on these visits with a comparative lens to their home experiences of the urban poor.

Slums should be seen ... as places that can be engines of growth themselves rather than just pools of cheap labour. As we observed in Dharavi, slums can create industries that can even be competitive enough to export.

Julius Gatune: slums can be engines of growth

Dharavi is the reality that will face many of the rapidly urbanising populations around the world. However the future of the urban poor need not be bleak, as Dharavi shows. We saw examples of programs improving living conditions in slums and actively supporting the growth of slum-based industries.

Dharavi is the way cities of the future should expect to grow. Rather than try to prevent slums we should let them be and work on how to improve them in an organic way. The resources available to plan cities can be numerous, so it will require that cities find ways to create their path out of poverty through homegrown solutions founded on entrepreneurial zeal. This is what I observed in Dharavi.

The future of the urban poor can, therefore, be good if the right program and the right attitudes are in place. Slums should be seen as places that can grow and upgrade, and also as places that can be engines of growth themselves rather than just pools of cheap labour. As we observed in Dharavi, slums can create industries that can even be competitive enough to export.

So future efforts should be designed to facilitate this organic growth rather than grand plans from the city halls and other government agencies. Policy makers need to observe what is appening and listen to slum dwellers and only intervene to help the organic growth that slums are capable of incubating.

Dharavi's future is different from the slums in Ghana, because Dharavi has the ability to grow organically through the entrepreneurial spirit being nurtured there. The slums in my region have been seen as pools of cheap labour. Few jobs are available in the slums, mostly by design. Workers therefore stay at the slums and have to travel elsewhere to work as need be. This strains the already meager resources that the slum dwellers earn, and to save on transport, slum dwellers have to walk long distances to work — on average between one and two hours.

The future of Dharavi would seem a little bit better, as the people are likely to experience growth with the slum. As was evident, there were efforts to improve the neighbourhoods through upgrade of slums, and as the homegrown industries grow, they are also likely to provide job opportunities and bring more resources to the slum. Thus the potential for organic growth is real.

In my region, since slums are not really recognised and are seen as illegal settlements, the possibility of this kind of upgrading is low unless we see a change of policy on settlements. This is particularly important as land values raise the real possibility of slums getting demolished to pave way for up-market developments.

Efforts to protect slums needs to be increased, especially as the land they sit on appreciates and becomes attractive to real estate developers. We saw that the continued existence of the slums is also due to the efforts of stakeholders and other activists fighting to keep the slums for the poor. It is only through guaranteeing slums' future existence that the poor can invest in their slums and upgrade themselves to a better livelihood as we saw in Dharavi.

...since these governments have ambitious and long term plans which require re-designing their country's landscape and industrial sectors ... the poor in these countries are having more difficulty in adapting to these new changes.

Dinh The Phong: economic growth and sustainable development are not identical

Thomas Friedman's 2005 book, The World is Flat, focused on the idea that countries in the world are getting more equal chances to compete on an increasingly level playing field. However, loooking at this issue from another angle might reveal a quite spiky world. The problem is predicting whether the world will be flatter or spikier.

If we compare the worst condition of the present urban poor to those of the past, then we see an improving world. If however we look at the gap between the conditions of the poorest and the richest in the world, then we might see a negative trend. So it depends more or less on how we want to see and perceive the world.

There are many conclusions we can draw from this problem. First, the governmental development strategy of developing countries may be quite different to, even sometimes opposite to, the concerns of the poor. Governments want to use a site for a new city, industrial zone or business centre. But the people living on that site want to keep living there and maintain their livelihood. They can't easily get out of the place, learn an new occupation, or get a new job to start a new sustainable life.

In fast-growing developing countries like China, India and Brazil, this is definitely a big problem, since these governments have ambitious and long term plans which require re-designing their country's landscape and industrial sectors at a large scale. Why such a large scale? Because these governments are thinking big about doing business, supplying services not only with other BRICs but to the entire world. The catch-up attitudes of these governments make these changes all the more drastic, and the poor in these countries are having more difficulty in adapting to these new changes.

Other focus points for policymakers of these developing countries are the need to synchronise policies of different sectors. To move people away from where they currently live requires many synchronising measures and policies, like training for new jobs which are quite different than their traditional livelihoods. Real experience shows that poor people that receive what is for them a large sum of compensation money for being moved away from their living space will face risks of losing their livelihood. In this way, economic growth is not necessarily identical to sustainable development.

Vietnam is facing the same urban poverty problems as India, since both countries have almost the same growth ambition. India's ambition might be larger than that of Vietnam since it has a larger population and India might want to supply more goods and services to the world. Still, India's poor have more chances to get new jobs with higher value-added since they already have English skills and knowledge about doing business that is more easily adaptable to the demand of the developing world.



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