This essay is the housing story of Ahmed (pseudonym) and his family, as it parallels housing-policy shifts in India, particularly in Mumbai. The timeframe for this story intersects with the three decades of economic liberalization and policy deregulation in India. As this personal trajectory unfolds in Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia, it raises simultaneous questions and issues when linked to the social-housing evolution at the municipal and national scale. The story is broadly divided into three phases from 1990s to 2020, toggling between Ahmed’s personal journey and the political transformations occurring at different scales.
1990-1998: Economic Liberalization and Migration
In 1991, a period of political deregulation and economic liberalization began as India opened its economy. Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, was the forerunner to witness a systemic transition in its social and physical growth pattern. As deindustrialization took place, the city witnessed a shift from textile manufacturing to the service sector. This did not deter a boom in local informal industries; as people across the socio-economic spectrum moved to Mumbai, the lines between formal and informal blurred. Dharavi emerged as an important hub providing shelter and livelihood to its mostly migrant population.
Ahmed and his family, a part of this migration, came to Mumbai from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. Moradabad was a small town with a population of less than a million and Ahmed struggled to find work and save money there. In 1993, Ahmed followed his elder brother, Nazir, to Mumbai to find work.
Both brothers lived the first floor of their aunt’s two-storey house in Dharavi and began work as laborers in a foundry (locally known as bhatti) earning INR 100 per day. Despite their limited wages, they made sure to send INR 2500 per month back home. Through regular savings they were able to rent two rooms in Mukund Nagar in 1995 and bring their family to Mumbai. Ahmed was now living with his two brothers, two sisters, and parents. The rent of their room was INR 3500 per month (equivalent to a months’ earnings) and was in the same area where they worked. Like many low-income households across Mumbai, the other family-members were now engaged in home-based work to supplement the labor work, with the women doing shoe-fitting and sticking artificial diamonds onto shoes by hand.
While it was impossible to buy a room even after combining the earnings of all working members, Ahmed, like many other Mumbai residents, was persistent to look for newer ways of earning and finding a house. In 1995, the incumbent political party in Maharashtra launched a flagship scheme called the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS). This scheme was intended for the “provision of free tenements to 4 million slum dwellers” through a method of cross-subsidization, with the private developer as the main builder. The Slum Rehabilitation Authority became the main entity responsible for the redevelopment and rehabilitation of slums in the city, including Dharavi. While the ‘free-housing’ for the poor seemed beneficial on paper, it was highly contested as it engendered stronger competition for the city’s booming real estate sector. Between 1995-1998, Ahmed’s family frequently shifted houses as the landlord demanded higher rent every year. This created significant disruption for the family as they stayed in 6-7 different types and sizes of houses within the same area in Dharavi. The political transition in the city, with the incorporation of populist agendas and encouragement for more private-sector investments, reinforced the plight of slum dwellers like Ahmed as state policies failed to recognize their livelihood and housing conditions. With ever-increasing migration, competition for jobs increased and directly impacted the earning margin and work opportunities. Ahmed said “Ek din kaam tha, doosre din nahi” (There was work one day and nothing on the following day). After a year-and-a-half of this, Ahmed started contemplating moving back to his hometown.
1998-2009: World-class Aesthetics and Rebuilding
Post 1998, the market in Dharavi was struck by a recession. Ahmed did not have any work from the foundry, accessing basic food and necessities became difficult, and he went back to Moradabad with his family.
Moradabad is famously called “Peetal Nagri”, or Brass City, for its brass metal industry. Ahmed began working in a foundry there; his family lived in one unit in a shared housing setup which consisted of 24 families, enclosed by a main gate. The rent here was merely INR 40-50 per month. Despite the low rent, working as a laborer in Moradabad did not pay enough to pay rent and secure other basic needs. In 2005, owing to Nazir’s marriage, the family accrued large amounts of debt and struggled to procure basic necessities while repaying the debt. Encouraged by a friend, Ahmed decided to go to Nepal where he heard the daily wage in factories was INR 800-900. Despite the high wage, Ahmed left Nepal within two weeks because of unsafe living conditions. Rather than go to Moradabad, he returned to Mumbai to work in the foundry in Dharavi.
For Ahmed, and the majority of migrant laborers living in informal housing, this was a particularly difficult time owing to the growing neo-liberal paradigm that led to massive slum-evictions between 2003-2006. Two major developments in Mumbai exacerbated the insecurities of slum dwellers. In 2003, McKinsey & Company released a report titled ‘Vision Mumbai: Transforming Mumbai into a world-class city’, and in 2004, the Government of Maharashtra introduced the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) as a ‘special planning area’. The idea of redevelopment was envisioned by architect Mukesh Mehta, where the informal settlements were “to be replaced with high-rise developments irrespective of the existing vibrant economy”. However, these new developments—within Dharavi and other informal settlements in Mumbai—did not alter the dreadful working and living conditions for laborers like Ahmed.
Ahmed eventually called one of his younger brothers to work with him. Renting a room for the two of them was impractical and unaffordable, so they decided to sleep outside the foundry, adjacent to a smelly gutter, and with big rats for roommates. They lived like this for 2-3 years, while sending a majority of their savings to the family in Moradabad. Ahmed’s enterprising nature helped him develop contacts within the foundry, and within a year, the owner offered him the foundry on rent. As the two brothers ran the foundry, their earnings doubled, and they saved enough to call the whole family to Mumbai again in 2007. This pushed Ahmed to rent a new room. Since it was a single room, the men slept outside at night while the women slept inside. Ahmed expressed the main challenge of sleeping outside was the social stigma of being labelled ‘criminals’ by the police with the perpetual risk of being removed. However, by this time, Ahmed and his brother managed individual foundries while the family was engaged in home-based work like shoemaking and decorations. This pushed Ahmed to rent another room, adjacent to their current house, where they lived for around three years.
Since the family now managed two foundries with additional sources of income, their place in Dharavi was secure while there were slum demolitions and evictions going on in other parts of the city. The third phase in Ahmed’s life talks about a series of major formal housing transitions that gave stability to the family and improved their livelihood conditions significantly.
2009-2020: Political Realignment and Social Mobility
Ahmed got married in 2009 in Moradabad and decided to upgrade to a better house as their existing space in Dharavi did not have a private toilet. In the same locality, a slum rehabilitation project (SRS scheme) called the Shivneri Cooperative Housing Society had been constructed recently. These rehabilitation projects typically prioritized households originally living on that plot of land, while additional houses were given to Project Affected Persons (PAPs). However, once people got possession of their apartments, many would informally put them on rent and move back to the slums themselves. According to Ahmed this was because people were not used to living in high- rise structures, and they looked at an opportunity like this to earn. Ahmed was one such beneficiary of the system. Ahmed managed to informally rent one such apartment.
Ahmed rented his first apartment in Shivneri in 2009 for INR 5500, with a deposit of INR 50,000 to the owner. He also kept possession of one of their earlier rooms to accommodate all family members. Ahmed and his wife slept in that small room while the rest of the family lived in the apartment. However, since these houses were rented informally, there was no rent ceiling and the landlord demanded higher rent every year. After having the same experience in a second apartment in the same building, Ahmed and his brothers began the hunt for another apartment. Despite the constant burgeoning of rents, they decided to live in the same complex since it was stone’s throw from the foundry and Ahmed’s family had steadily built significant social capital in the vicinity.
By this point, the required initial deposit had doubled from INR 50,000 to INR 1 lakh. They found an empty apartment in Shivneri where the owner was demanding a massive deposit of INR 7 lakhs but with a condition that Ahmed’s family would then live rent-free. During this phase, a primary source of money for them was their regular deposit in the Bank Correspondence (BC) scheme, centered around peer-to-peer banking where individuals decide to pool in some money every month into a ‘chit fund’ and one person a month gets the full money to use through a draw. By the time Ahmed was able to put this large amount together, the deal was redundant, and he ended up renting a smaller apartment in the same building for around three years, with a deposit of INR 2 lakhs. This was his family’s third move in the same building.
This instability and continuous fluctuation in Ahmed’s life had a parallel reflection at the national level. In 2014, the BJP government took charge at the Centre, with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister. This massive political shift had an impact on the urban policies and programmes that were launched, like the Smart Cities Mission in 2015. Further, with the third Mumbai Development Plan 2014-2034 as a simultaneous advancement, the development focus was to further incentivize the private sector. Locked pockets like the salt-pan lands and the mangrove areas in Mumbai were opened up as ‘special development zones’ to construct more ‘affordable housing’ for the poor. These contrasting narratives of inequality became increasingly conspicuous as on one end, many like Ahmed were continuously fighting with burgeoning living costs, while at the other end, the number of vacant houses in Mumbai kept surging.
The rise in vacant housing stocks was complemented with rising rents. Seeing a strand of this pattern, in 2015, Ahmed’s apartment-owner got a better deal and sold the unit to someone. This gave Ahmed’s family two months to vacate the apartment. Unfortunately, they could not find any vacant and affordable unit in the same society; Ahmed and his family shifted 1 km away and reluctantly stayed there until 2019. Through contacts with a bank manager and an agent, in 2019, Ahmed finally got an opportunity to buy a one-bedroom apartment in the Shivneri Society again—his fourth apartment in the same society. Ahmed took a loan of INR 40 lakhs by keeping the property document as a collateral and arranged the remaining INR 10 lakhs through BC savings and by borrowing from friends and family. He repaid all the borrowed money and lives there till date with his family. With time, Ahmed managed to get a room for INR 13 lakhs for commercial purposes, which he converted into a three-storey workplace. The current value of this property stands at INR 20 lakhs and they can easily get a rent of INR 17000 per month if they put it in the market.
The multiplicity of transitions Ahmed and his family went through must be realized with simultaneous socio-political shifts at the city, state, and national levels. At different moments over a period of three decades, there was a rhythmic interplay between the personal and political. How did the launch period of Slum Rehabilitation Scheme coincide with Ahmed and Nazir bringing their family to Mumbai? What brought Ahmed back to Mumbai in 2006, at a time when development control regulations were modified for Dharavi? Policies, political changes, rise of civil society, evictions, and increasing real estate pressure are some of the factors which directly or indirectly induce people’s decision-making. Community perceptions and systemic changes often have a non-linear relation which calls for a multi-dimensional analysis. Exploring individual narratives, then, becomes a unique way to understand the grounding of policies and the state of our ‘global cities’.