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One of the world’s richest men wants to transform India’s biggest slum

A view of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India, on April 14, 2024 Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Mumbai, India CNN  —  When Masoom Ali Shaikh arrived in Mumbai in 1974 as a young man from northern India, the patch of land where he set up shop was “just a creek with no proper road and garbage all around,” he said. Fifty years later, that swampy area — once a fishing village and rubbish dump — is now Dharavi, one of Asia’s biggest slums and a bustling hub of industry in India’s financial capital. Famously depicted in the 2008 Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” Dharavi is a cacophonous maze of small businesses on every corner, from bakeries to butchers to barbers. These shops service roughly one million residents living cheek by jowl in cramped buildings and narrow alleys. Many of them are migrants and artisans who brought the crafts of their home states to establish businesses in the sprawling 500-acre slum. These small-scale enterprises, which generate a collective annual turnover of more than $1 billion by some estimates, are a crucial source of livelihood for many families, some of whom have lived in Dharavi for generations. Shaikh is one of them. After arriving in Dharavi from his home state Uttar Pradesh, he set up a shoe-making business which allowed him to support six family members over the years, even opening a second shoe store for his daughter to operate. Masoom Ali Shaikh works at his workshop in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A man works at Shaikh’s workshop in Dharavi slum on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN However, many residents fear their livelihoods could now be at risk as the slum prepares to undergo a drastic transformation, overseen by one of Asia’s richest men. Over the decades, there have been several failed attempts to redevelop Dharavi, a process which experts say has always been politically fraught for several reasons: the sheer scale and density of the slum and the high value of its land in central Mumbai, for starters. Residents and authorities point to the slum’s myriad problems, including extreme crowdedness and poor sanitation. Many residents have no access to running water or clean toilets and suffer from various health problems. In some poorly-ventilated areas, dust perpetually hangs in the air and smoke wafts from nearby workshops. That could change with this newest plan, led by billionaire and infrastructure tycoon Gautam Adani, founder of the Adani Group, who briefly ousted Jeff Bezos as the world’s second-wealthiest person in 2022. India has its Rockefellers and Carnegies. Photo Illustration by Alberto Mier/CNN/Getty Images Related article Billionaires alone won’t turn Narendra Modi’s India into a rich country “A new chapter of pride and purpose is beginning. It is a historic opportunity for us to create a new Dharavi of dignity, safety and inclusiveness,” Adani wrote in a message on his company’s website after winning the bid to redevelop the area in 2022. He vowed to “create a state-of-the-art world-class city, which will reflect a resurgent, self-assured, growing India finding its new place on the global stage as the 21st century belongs to India.” But his vision of a new Dharavi has been met with mixed reactions, from hopeful residents ready for change to skeptics who have heard empty rhetoric for years. Some are vehemently against the proposal, with demonstrators taking to the streets in protest, concerned that Adani’s plan could imperil their homes and businesses. “When redevelopment happens, the only thing I want is to be relocated to the same place,” Shaikh told CNN during a visit to his workshop in April, speaking as his employees hammered out soles and manipulated leather onto shoe moulds. “If I am thrown into some different area, I will lose all my business and my livelihood,” he added. “My vendors and buyers will not know where I am moved, which would harm my business.” Lofty promises Migrants have been flocking to Dharavi for more than a century, according to Mumbai authorities, many settling there because it was free and unregulated government-owned land. Almost from the start, Dharavi was defined by its industries: from the traditional potters of Gujarat who began arriving in the late 1800s, to leather tanners from Tamil Nadu and embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh. The slum’s growth reflected that of Mumbai itself, a diverse city famous for attracting Bollywood hopefuls and job-seekers from across India. Throughout the country, migrants and poorer populations often settle on “peripheral lands, unwanted lands, because they’re seen as hazardous in some way or uninhabitable,” said Lalitha Kamath, a professor of urban planning and policy at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. In Dharavi’s case, “they built a habitable place … they reclaimed it from marshy land to something today that’s really valuable,” she added. But because of its informal nature, Dharavi remained undeveloped and haphazard for many years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the government made basic improvements: building key roads, laying sewers and water lines and providing residents with taps, toilets and electricity. For decades, the government struggled to find developers and builders who could carry out the expensive, logistically complicated task of redeveloping Dharavi from top to bottom. There were also many questions at play: Which residents would be re-located, and to where? How would business owners be compensated? Who would be eligible? “All slum redevelopment is quite fraught,” Kamath said. But Dharavi had unique challenges due to the size of its population, the importance of its economy, and the value of the land — surrounded by affluent commercial districts in the heart of the city, close enough to the airport that arriving planes can see the sprawl of the slum from the air. A potter works at his workshop in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Women chatting in Dharavi on April 14 Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A woman carrying fabric walks along a narrow alley in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN After years of stalled progress and failed tendering processes, Adani’s company won the right to redevelop Dharavi with a 50 billion rupee ($612 million) bid, Reuters reported at the time. It’s expected to take seven years to complete, and is the latest mega-project taken on by Adani Enterprises, which already supplies electricity in Mumbai. His promises are lofty. About a million people will be “rehabilitated and resettled,” with both residential homes and businesses up for redevelopment, he said in the message on his website. And, he vowed, residents will have better healthcare and recreational facilities, open spaces, a hospital and school, and more, he said. Ineligible residents who can’t be rehoused within Dharavi will be given relocation options instead. But some residents aren’t convinced. “For the last 30 years, we are dreaming and hearing about redevelopment, but nothing has taken place,” said Dilip Gabekar, 60, who was born in Dharavi and works for a non-profit aiding women and children in the slum. “Only during elections, there is noise about redeveloping Dharavi,” he added, speaking to CNN weeks before Mumbai went to the polls in May in a nationwide election that ultimately saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party win another five-year term. “But once elections are over, the talks about redevelopment also die down,” he added, despite Adani having won the bid long before the most recent general election. In response to CNN’s request for comment, a spokesperson from the Dharavi Redevelopment Project Private Ltd (DRPPL) said the project was “committed to fulfilling Dharavi’s needs and providing residents with new homes with better amenities, accessibility, and resources.” They added that they are exploring “all possible options” to protect livelihoods and businesses, and to help raise people’s incomes — for instance, by consolidating supply chains, giving all businesses tax refunds for five years and launching job initiatives for youth and women. Who gets a free house? Chief among residents’ worries is their eligibility under Adani’s plan, which could determine who gets a free new apartment in the redeveloped space and who may have to move elsewhere on their own dime. According to the DRPPL spokesperson, ground-floor residents who lived in Dharavi before the year 2000 will be granted a free unit within the area that is at least 350 square feet. Higher-floor residents, or those who lived there between 2000 and 2011, will receive a 300 square foot home following a one-time payment of 250,000 rupees (about $3,000), located within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of Dharavi. Those who moved to Dharavi after 2011 will also receive a 300 square foot home within the same radius, but will have to pay rent to the government. All apartments, either in or near Dharavi, will have separate bedrooms, toilets and kitchens, the spokesperson said. The plan is a collaboration between Adani and Maharashtra state authorities. The land itself will remain government-owned. With the last survey conducted in Dharavi 15 years ago, a firm hired by Adani is now going door to door to collect residents’ information. That could spell trouble for many residents who never got the proper documents to prove their long-term tenancy. “There is no alternative for someone who has no proper paperwork,” said Gabekar, the NGO worker. Many of those deemed ineligible can’t afford to relocate to the housing options provided by Adani, he added. Even those with the right papers are worried. Shaikh, the shoemaker, showed CNN his tenancy and business documents. They’re written in smeared blue ink, laminated and kept carefully tucked away in a drawer. “I have enough papers to prove that I have been in this place for a long time,” he said. But, he added, many businesses have changed hands over the years, leaving new owners without the proper documents. Baburao Mane, a former elected state assembly member affiliated with the opposition party, and a Dharavi native himself, has led some of the most vocal protests against the Adani plan, including a rally in December that saw thousands of people march to Adani’s offices in Mumbai. Only about 50,000 residents, about 5% of the population, have valid papers, Mane estimated. He claimed that the ongoing survey would bring that number down further. “They should make no difference between valid and non-valid papers to allot places. Anyone who has land in Dharavi should be given land during the redevelopment,” he said. When asked about concerns over proving eligibility, the DRPPL spokesperson said its plan had “suitable redressal mechanisms to address such eventualities.” A sewage drain canal full of garbage is seen in Dharavi on April 18. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Neeta Jadhav, 46, poses for a picture during an interview with CNN at Manohar Joshi College in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Dilip Gabekar, 60, poses for a picture during an interview with CNN at Manohar Joshi College in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Even if eligible residents get re-housed within Dharavi, there are concerns over space. Often, several generations of a family live within cramped multi-story buildings. But only the ground-floor residents will receive the free housing, leaving about 700,000 upper-floor residents ineligible, NDTV reported. “All the houses in Dharavi have two or three floors … I have 15 family members who stay above each other (in the same building),” said Neeta Jadhav, a 46-year-old resident who has lived in Dharavi for 26 years, and who has the documents to prove eligibility. “If we are all put in one small apartment there will be a lot of conflict, so the developer should consider giving us a bigger space,” she said. Mane, the former politician and protest leader, said the group was demanding 500 square feet for each Dharavi household, vowing to “not let even one house be demolished” until the government agrees to their conditions. Hope and mistrust Despite the pushback from some, there is uniform agreement among residents that Dharavi does need redevelopment. It’s just a question of how, and who can be trusted with such a mammoth project. “I will be happy if development takes place,” said resident Jadhav. “I want my children to have a better life, and move from here to a place that has proper amenities like a good school and a park for them to play.” “If Adani gives what he has promised, then our life will improve for sure,” she added. And there are some who are enthusiastically in favor of Adani’s plan. Dhanshuk Purshottamwala, 42, poses for a picture during an interview with CNN in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN “If Adani redevelops Dharavi, it will be good for us as we don’t want to stay in Dharavi any longer,” said 42-year-old potter Dhanshuk Purshottamwala, whose family has lived in the area and run the pottery business for generations. He hopes Adani’s plan will end that family tradition, with all their necessary papers in order. “I don’t want my children to be living the way I am,” he said, speaking to CNN from his workshop where wet and drying pots line the walls and floors. “I don’t teach my children this skill, I want them to study and have a better life.” While the redevelopment is a massive challenge, Adani is behind some of India’s most ambitious infrastructure projects. He is India’s largest airport operator and owns India’s biggest private port operator and private thermal power operator. He’s also one of the country’s largest developers and operators of coal mines, and is simultaneously building the world’s biggest clean energy plant. However, he’s a relative newcomer in the field of slum redevelopment and affordable housing, said Kamath, adding that the lack of affordable housing is what prompted people to set up informal settlements in the first place. And for most residents that CNN spoke to, their hopes for change are dimmed by deep distrust of Adani’s conglomerate and the city government. Several pointed to the 2023 fraud allegations against the Adani Group, which sparked an ongoing investigation by India’s regulators and lost the company over $100 billion in value in a stock market meltdown. In January, the country’s top court ordered the regulators to quickly finish their investigation and said no further probes were needed, a decision Adani celebrated at the time. His representatives have called the allegations baseless and malicious. Others residents complained about a lack of transparency, saying they had received little official communication and were not included in meetings about the redevelopment, leaving them in the dark about the details or timing of the plan. Reshma Prasant Bobde, 42, sits in front of her house in Dharavi on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN This is common across many slum redevelopments in India, said Kamath, describing these projects as top-down, with power held by a small group of private developers and state officials. “Folks from the community will very rarely get much space at the table,” she said. It’s one reason why “there are concerns with all kinds of redevelopment projects that have been proposed, not just this one, because they usually don’t do justice to every group that lives there or has claim to that space, who has made it what it is today,” she said. Then, there’s an ongoing lawsuit by a rival company that alleged the Maharashtra state government had improperly canceled an original 2018 bidding process and restarted it so Adani could win, according to Reuters. The state and Adani deny any wrongdoing, but that hasn’t stopped many residents from viewing Adani and his government ties with suspicion. Adani is a vocal champion of Prime Minister Modi, and opposition leaders have ferociously questioned their relationship — with some even claiming that they were punished for pursuing the issue. The DRPPL spokesperson said Adani had won the project “through an open, transparent, fair, and competitive bidding process,” and said claims of any political relationships were “baseless and aimed at spreading misinformation.” Meanwhile, some are simply tired of listening to the same old promises. “I have grown from a child to a woman (in Dharavi) and the development saga just keeps going on,” said Reshma Prasant Bobde, a 42-year-old housewife whose family has lived there for generations. She described seeing the same cycle of politicians pushing redevelopment for “their own agenda,” followed by residents protesting and, ultimately, stagnation. “This talk of development has been going on since my grandmother’s time, but it hasn’t moved an inch,” she said. “My children, who are 11 and seven years old, will grow old and nothing will change in Dharavi.” A woman carries a tray of clay pots in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 14, 2024. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A woman peeps out along a narrow alley of the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Workers process animal skins in a leather workshop in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 18. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A man works at Masoom Ali Shaikh's workshop in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A man works at his workshop in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A tailor works at her workshop in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN A woman carrying a basket atop her head walks along an alley in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on April 14. Noemi Cassanelli/CNN Living and Working in Dharavi Prev Next Priti Gupta, Esha Mitra and Diksha Madhok contributed reporting.