Dharavi’s days in its current form may be numbered. An ongoing, long-delayed plan to demolish the area and start afresh seems to be gathering momentum, with a Dubai-based firm currently bidding to overhaul it completely.

Similar redevelopment schemes in other Indian cities have often smashed the heart out of neighborhoods, destroying social and cultural support networks without meaningfully improving conditions for displaced residents or building something sustainable and vibrant. So is it really the best option for Dharavi? Urbz, an “experimental action and research collective” that’s been based in the neighborhood for 10 years, insists the bulldozer is not the answer.

A courtyard in Mumbai's Dharavi neighborhood.
A courtyard in Mumbai's Dharavi neighborhood. © URBZ

~ * ~

What Dharavi exhibits isn’t chaos, but something altogether different, Urbz’s researchers say. It’s an intricate and valuable complexity. Through their work shadowing and working with the local community, Urbz has been trying to expose to Mumbai’s largely unresponsive officialdom how Dharavi is the creation of a highly engaged community, and could indeed stand as a bottom-up development model for elsewhere.

CityLab discussed this complexity in conversation with Urbz co-founders, urban planner Matias Echanove and anthropologist Rahul Srisvastava at the reSITE 2018conference in Prague this month. While he’s not strictly advocating for architectural preservation, Srisvastava suggests that wholesale redevelopment that shatters Dharavi’s development model and community links would be shortsighted.

“The conventional approach to redeveloping Dharavi would be what most cities do—the global model of multi-rise structure in a mass-housing project. But Dharavi has grown through very special relationships between economic activity, family needs, community needs.”

One of Urbz’s own projects reveals some of these relationships geographically. The map below, created by Urbz for an exhibition staged in Mumbai last year, shows the sheer variety of links between the city and the rest of India. On the left is a map of the whole country, on the right one of Mumbai. Visitors were asked to pin a ribbon between their Mumbai neighborhood and their home village. The result is not a simple exodus to the city from the countryside, but an intricate network of two-way connections between the two.