Shivaji Nagar after the handstorm

March 28th, 2014 by urbzman

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The Handstorm workshop brought together residents, artisans, builders, designers, architects, botanists, geographers and theorists from Shivaji Nagar and other parts of Mumbai, Brazil, New York and Europe. It was organized by the URBZ team together with a group of motivated and knowledgeable residents, which included Rafique Bhatkar, Shrinivas Mysaiah (Shenu), Shambhu Ganga Sharma and Sushant Singh.

Invited guests included Yehuda Safran, professor of art and architecture theory at Columbia University and adviser to URBZ and the Institute of Urbanology; Sameep Padora, a Mumbai based architect; Geeta Mehta, who teaches urban design at Columbia University and is a co-founder of URBZ; Julia King, a sanitation and water system specialist who recently received a Holcim Foundation award for her work in India; Bhau Korde, a social activist from Dharavi who is also an adviser to URBZ; Saleem Bhatri a Mumbai based industrial designer; and Laurent Thevoz a participatory planning expert based in Switzerland.

Our most special guests came from Brazil. Ataide Caetite, a self-made home builder from Paraisopolis – a large homegrown neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, and Marcella Aruda who is a co-founder of URBZ Brazil. We had met Ataide in 2012 when we visited Paraisopolis for the first time and documented some of his work, a few from the hundreds he has built. URBZ Brazil is now helping him design and build his own home, as a starting point for more such engagements in Paraisopolis and beyond.

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Discussion about construction practice in homegrown neighbourhoods in India and Brazil. From left to right: Shrinivas Mysaiah (Shiva Temple caretaker in Shivaji Nagar), Alexis de Ducla (UrbanLab), Pankaj Gupta (local builder from Shivaji Nagar), Yehuda Safran (Columbia University), Bharat Guangurde (URBZ), Aditi Nair (URBZ), Ataide Caetite (local builder from Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo), and Marcella Aruda (URBZ Brazil).

Ataide came as an ambassador from the homegrown neighbourhoods of Brazil to the homegrown neighbourhoods of India. He met our partner Pankaj Gupta, one of his counterparts in Shivaji Nagar, visited few of his sites and traded knowledge on construction practices. That encounter was one of the highlights of the workshop. (A full transcription of their dialogue will soon be available to those interested.)

The weeklong event (from March 14th to 20th) aimed at showcasing the amazing range of “homegrown” skills available in a neighbourhood that is usually only described as one of the poorest and most depressed parts of Mumbai.

The participants who traversed long distances by plane and/or rickshaw to reach Shivaji Nagar were not disappointed. Not only did the workshop produce a range of actual physical interventions in the neighbourhood, but also demonstrated what can happen when worlds that usually never meet, come together. The result is a creative explosion with the potential of improving the lives of local residents, and unleashing a wave of innovations that could well inspire far away places. This is partly because in Shivaji Nagar “user-generation” is not just a slogan or a concept, but a central aspect of how the neighbourhood is organized and developed.

The workshop was organized by URBZ as part of a new initiative on affordable housing that we have recently started with ‘social-entrepreneur’ Aaron Pereira called ‘Homegrown Cities’. The ‘Homegrown Cities’ project is based on the premise that neighbourhoods such as Shivaji Nagar have the ability to improve over time on their own. Such incrementally developed neighbourhoods are not only the largest providers of affordable housing in India and others in emerging countries such as China and Brazil, they also have the potential of becoming nice mixed-use, low-rise high-density, pedestrian neighbourhoods, as can been seen in parts of the world that have let them grow and consolidate – especially Japan or Europe.

What homegrown neighbourhoods need however is as much support as they can get to improve infrastructure and amenities (something that requires a larger planning vision), to finance home repairs and upgrading, to multiply employment opportunities, and to optimize spatial organization. The Handstorm workshop focused on the two last aspects.
Participants were asked to build things that could improve the neighbourhood based on discussions with residents and with the help of local artisans (welders, carpenters, plumbers, builders, etc).

From the first day of the workshop – when the 30 odd participants in their Blue or Maroon T-Shirts walked through the streets – we knew that somehow the connect had been made.

A local Sufi – priest who had his own wall garden outside his house shared his wisdom with a team interested in greening the neighbourhood. A relative of one of the local participants immediately commissioned a team to start working on a piece of furniture that would suit her special requirements. The caretaker of a Shiva temple (that we had help design) challenged us to find an affordable way to cover an open water drain in the small alley running on the side of the temple. A young couple needed a cheap partition to provide them with intimacy in the tiny room they shared. More projects kept coming.

Over one intense and active week – with the summer heat starting to rise – the handstorming sessions began to take shape and moved towards the final day – when collaborations took concrete shape. The only real interruption to the groups intense work was an equally intense Holi party (festival of colours).

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Rafique Bhatkar a young engineer from Shivaji Nagar presents the output of his team to fellow residents. After hearing many residents expressing their interest for plants but also explaining how difficult it was to find diverse plants in the area, the team is thinking about the possibility of creating a mobile shop for Shivaji Nagar.

A local nursery cum gardening school was set-up across the street in which several local kids got introduced to the possibilities of greening their homes. Adrienne Thadani and Nicola Antaki, who had co-ordinated this team, ably supported by Rafique and others also facilitated the creation of a special window grill that could keep and nurture plants as well as do all that window grills do in Shivaji Nagar – dry clothes, ventilate the room, store objects and provide security.

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Pankaj, Julia and Rahul inspecting a small street adjacent to a Shiva Temple with an open drain, which regularly gets blocked with plastic bags and other waste.

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Ataide, Aditi and Marcella working on a ferrocement structure to cover an open drain.

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Shenu trying out the prototype, which still needs some adjustment!

Julia King worked with Aditya Vipparthi and Aditi Nair to design a special chicken-mesh and concrete drain cover that could adapt to any contour in the tiny lanes. They were helped and advised by Ataide, Pankaj, Shenu and Sameep. It allows water to seep in while keeping garbage at bay. In a place where clogged drains are an everyday reality and where the local municipal authorities take their time to reach the intricately networked streets, this was presented as a do-it-yourself temporary solution that could be adapted to any type of drain.

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Shambhu, Prateek, Cecilia and Shenu working on a staircase/shelves for a small home in Shivaji Nagar
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Just a little paint job and it is ready for use!

Cecila Tramontano a young architect from Milan and Ganga K. Sharma a local carpenter designed and crafted a staircase that would also act as a storage cupboard at varying levels – something that could be customized to absorb any other object in the tiny home for a little over Rs 8,000.

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In the heat of the action.

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Kids all over the jungle gym (located on Road 11).

Aditya Vipparthi and his team managed to find a spot where a steel-framed ‘Jungle Gym’ for kids could be placed, and also got local support to ensure that within the limited time frame of the workshop it could be completed. Along with local welder Mansoor Ahmed, and a special design input using rubber tyres the whole structure was created within a week from conception to use and for less than Rs 15,000.

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Lavish Jain showing the simple partition system  he made for a couple’s home.

A very simple request for privacy to bathe in a tiny 10 x 10 feet house saw Lavish Jain and collaborators design and make a simple partition that involved a steel pallet frame, cloth and nylon rope. This tiny contraption, that costs less than Rs. 750 to make was quite enthusiastically absorbed into the home and the lives of its residents.

Anne Piveteau and Shriya Malhotra had the un-enviable task of implementing an ambitious public shade project using inexpensive material so that the summer sun would not torment bazaars at the street-level. What emerged was a prototype that could well build substantially on what local shop-keepers presently use.

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Carpenter Ganga K. Sharma from Shivaji Nagar building a hot wire cutter.

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Sarover and Shardul cutting EPS blocks to build the future URBZ office. Extra light construction allow existing houses to be expanded vertically without adding much weight on the structure.

Similarly, a piece of an ambitious construction intervention on the terrace of a two storied building, using extra light material – started under the skilful hands of Shardul Patil and Sarovar Zaidi. Along with Sameep Padora, they made a machine that could shape the material into the exact dimensions they wanted to start building an igloo shaped terrace-room (once completed this will become the future URBZ office).

The coming weeks will continue to see interventions take new form and shape. The handstorm continues beyond the workshop, fuelled by each new message we get. In fact the very next day after the formal ‘conclusion’ a participant informed us that he saw about 20 kids playing on the jungle gym and ‘felt happy’.

We feel incredibly happy too and thank all our well-wishers and other friends who dropped by – art historians Latika Gupta and artist Alan Kane encouraged us hugely with their visit as did the several other local residents who came to the workshop and asked us to visit their sites all over Shivaji Nagar.

With our office moving from Dharavi and into this hood in the coming weeks we are confident that the storming sessions are going to continue for sure. This is just the beginning.

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Break for the Holi festival.

Many more photos are available on our Flickr page.

The relentless life of urban villages in Guangzhou

March 2nd, 2014 by francescafrassoldati


What if traditional rural settlements were historic urban nuclei? Layout and features of Xiaozhou Cun (International Urban Planning and Design Workshop organized in 2006 by: South China University of Technology, Università di Ferrara, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts). (Click to enlarge)

The transformation of traditional villages in coastal China is a remarkable counterpart of city growth since the late 1980s. Villages maintain an aura of ancestral kinship, but also accommodate newcomers and incorporate small business entrepreneurship in the vicinity of expanding city areas. The advantages of locating in villages mostly concern settlement cost, which is generally cheaper. Indeed, in terms of regulations and decision-making, villages also offer loose regulations as bureaucratic procedures are frequently substituted by personal trust and individual contracts. The current model of mega-urbanization and global modernization emphasizes, in China as in many other contexts, the high adaptability and resourcefulness of traditional settlements.

In 2000, the municipal “Research on the countermeasure for the planning, construction and management of the ‘urban villages’ in Guangzhou” surveyed 139 villages amidst the urbanized area. Guangzhou – the capital of Guangdong Province and the largest city of the Pearl River Delta – is an urban agglomeration whose population has doubled from about 6 million to 12 million people between the late 1980s and 2010. It is estimated that nearly 80% of the built stock is less than 30 years old and, by and large, it results from farmland conversion to urban area. Contrary to other cities in China, villages in former rural areas were not totally removed during the urban expansion of Guangzhou, to reduce contested dispossession, people’s relocation and expensive compensation procedures. Yet, villages surrounded by the new city were named “villages in the city” or “urban villages”. Local inhabitants incrementally modernized their buildings to match with the surrounding urban context, but for the most part the layout of narrow alleys and dwellings allotment beside ancestral family halls were respected. This regular fabric dates back to hundreds of years and characterises for historic continuity and quasi-urban contextualization that new city development cannot accomplish.

Villages adapt to opportunities and new needs. Villages retain a distinct way to deal with the inhabited space, in which village’s inhabitants are relatively free to pursue immediate convenience and individual choices are made coherent by the respect of communitarian rules settled by the native family clans. In fact, contrary to the city, villages do not obey urban planning regulations and standards as far as land use is regulated directly by the village collective and not by state administration. Yet, only a minority of built structures outlive their builder. The respect of codified household allotment in case of building reconstruction guarantees a certain layout regularity even in absence of formal building codes. Villages remain different even while becoming more urban, as their transformations rejuvenate a multifaceted tradition.

Selective substitution of single lots can easily coexist with uninterrupted traditions; images from Xiaozhou Cun (2006) and Zhu Cun (2009). (Click to enlarge)

The range of home-grown transformations is better understood while observing a single house. The traditional single-story buildings with curvy roofing and grey brick walls are still visible in some cases. More frequently, households have written a history of social and economic upgrade in house transformation: elevating storeys, installing AC engines and iron fences, introducing coloured tiles, toilets and kitchens, etc. In doing so, families respect the law of the village that assigned allotments to each household according to a precise order along main and secondary streets. Native people practice a pragmatic coexistence with migrants, who rent extra floors and live in the most undesirable places, but thus far have in villages the sole chance to approach urban life. Villages without farmland have demonstrated capacity to self-adapt and reinvent their role in the urbanizing society. Needs evolve, spaces transform, new functions overlay, newcomers substitute the former inhabitants. There are social processes of inclusiveness in villages that are not shared by most monofunctional residential compounds (housing, basic schooling and security are granted to native villagers, who contribute directly to their management via local committee, but can be accessible to migrants upon payment; this is not the case in the city). The informality of villages is far from being without rules.


Diagram of buildings transformation in Pantang Cun; students’ work at the South China University of Technology (2013; in cooperation with Bergen School of Architecture). Consulting local people, the student Yi Ding depicted the evolution of three houses. (Click to enlarge)

Space and building morphology of villages reflect the traditional social organization of family networks. The spatial layout, in other words, materializes a collective appropriation of space, something that Chinese modern urban planning refused in principle in cities. Contradictorily, urban villages display lively pedestrian open spaces, heterogeneous street life and pocket landscapes that were common experiences for most people until very recently. Villages are not remote, they are part of the city and can be easily reached by bus and subway; villages and the formal city share the same context of urban life, as most of the inhabitants engage in urban works and have daily contacts with citizens. Notwithstanding spatial and substantial economic proximity, the specific diversity of villages is based on conflicting concepts of ownership and territoriality. Villages and cities are cross-border urban landscapes in which same practical issues act against two different set of institutions.


The disputed urbanity of villages: street life in Pantang Cun (2013) and Xiaozhou Cun (2006 and 2009). (Click to enlarge)

On the other hand, village mechanisms and individual fantasy have generated the so called “handshake building” picturesque typology, which is rather unhealthy. Challenging cantilevers promise extra-room to each house, but in fact reduce natural light and air circulation to all. This private appropriation of collective areas generate semi-dark alleys that certainly are inconvenient in case of emergency or fire accident, and in which the urban folklore multiplies the sense of oppressing control or the opposite fear of unruled activities.


The dark side of urban villages: handshake buildings in Shipai Cun (2006) and Xinxi Cun (2013, International Urban Design Workshop organized by SCUT and UC Berkeley); skyline in Xiasha Cun (2013). (Click to enlarge)

Generally citizens wisdom and technical interventions by the urban planning bureau stigmatize villages as “wrong” illegal and uncontrolled places. The effort is to normalize the existing niches of multifunctionality within the city, aligning them as much as possible to urban characteristic and encircling “memory” into sanitized heritage boundaries.

Too frequently, the repetition of this pattern of intervening on spaces to get control of management issue has weakened resources for our cities.

Francesca Frassoldati has been working on the “urban village” concept since 2006 at the South China University of Technology. Urban Villages, which were not long ago an “exotic” theme for international scholars, are now increasingly recognized by Chinese scholars and students as structural parts of present-day city and not only grey areas in urban plans. The future of such settlements is uncertain, as a reflection of the troublesome relationship with traditions, collective memory and social divide in Chinese society.

HANDSTORM in Shivaji Nagar!

February 26th, 2014 by rahul

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The Handstorm Workshop (March 14-20, 2014) draws on energies that flow from creative manual involvement. It will bring together talent from Shivaji Nagar, surrounding areas and from all over the world to work at 3 levels: furniture/interior, architecture/construction, and infrastructure/streets.

These are all dimensions of everyday life where small improvements can make a huge difference. The workshop will connect the creativity and skills of designers, architects and artists with those of carpenters, masons, plumbers and contractors to produce the kind of innovations that can only happen when knowledge flows both ways.

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The workshop will involve a live, studio-cum-exhibition space in which residents will participate, examine, exhibit, give feedback on a range of products and prototypes such as furniture, wall units, street furniture, plants, trees, model houses, construction materials and 3-D planning models.

The aim is to co-create objects, techniques, tools and models that are break-through designs and user-friendly in the context of homegrown habitats.

The Handstorm Workshop invites contributions that will be exhibited to residents of Shivaji Nagar, Govandi on the first day of the sessions (March 14th).  These could be innovatively designed objects that you feel are useful for any small home (around 16 x 32 feet ground level and rising one to two stories high), both inside the home and outside, the streets on which they exist, or the neighbourhood as a whole.

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These include examples or prototypes of household furniture, embellishments, street furniture, ornamentation, fittings, grills, plumbing, tools, plants, pots, trees that could grow in densely inhabited environments, new kind of materials for construction, anything that you feel residents could use.

To understand more about the context of the neighbourhood and the workshop please read this post.

The Handstorm Workshop involves a set of encounters in which participants will work with local city-makers (artisans, home builders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc) and residents from the neighbourhood over six days to come out with improved prototypes of exhibited objects, produce something totally new or simply endorse the exhibits by actually using them in and around their homes, through the course of the workshop.

Tools and materials needed will be provided. Our only requirement from all participants; they should be willing to work with their hands in actually creating objects. (This is a computerless workshop!)

Just your hands, a desire to produce something useful and beautiful which you feel the residents would love to use and loads of enthusiasm

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For more details contact us.

Shivaji Nagar, M-Ward, Mumbai

February 26th, 2014 by matias

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Typical incrementally built multi-story houses in Shivaji Nagar.

The Shivaji Nagar area in the M-Ward of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Area comprises other neighbourhoods (including Rafiq Nagar, Baba Nagar, Lotus Colony, Gajanand and Baiganwadi). The area grew in the 1980s around the abattoir and Mumbai’s dumping ground which were given over to resettlement projects of the city and the state. Slum dwellers from Matunga Labour Camp were moved there in 1968. Additional neighbourhoods within the area were registered officially in 1982.

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Map by Aditya@URBZ. More maps here.

The entire area is 135 hectares out of which half has a grid layout (69 hectares) and the other half (64 hectares) is “organic”, meaning that it was developed outside of any plan.

In the last 30 years shops, educational institutions, religious structures have developed in the area and several parts of the neighbourhood are full of commercial activity.

While some parts are well developed with “pucca” houses, others are still in bad shape, especially near the dumping ground. Yet, there is a strong collective drive towards reinvestment in housing that has improved the area in successive waves.

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Section of of street in Shivaji Nagar (drawing by Shardul@URBZ).

The area is diverse and includes migrant communities from Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Gujarat (both Hindus and Muslims). The proportion of Muslim community is significant and the area is said to have 101 mosques and madrasas (most of which are Sunni and Tablighi).

The area has one of the most dynamic construction market in the city. Every year the maintenance and reconstruction of its nearly 50,000 structures are serviced by 43 construction material shops, which provide standard products such as bricks, cement, I-beams and so on.

Dozens of local contractors build and repair about well over a 2000 homes a year. Houses built in the gridded area are typically 10×15 feet (3×4.6 meters) and go up to two floors above ground. In the organic area, houses tend to be a smaller in floor area and height. The physical and population density of the area is very high. Yet its still has a vast potential for growth and improvement.

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One of many commercial street in Shivaji Nagar.

Many residents have occupancy rights and the neigbhourhood is built on government land sanctioned specifically for resettling the present residents who have come from different areas in the city. Shivaji Nagar is not technically or legally speaking a “slum” but a planned resettlement colony.

Some parts within the area have greater instability because they sit on officially demarcated dumping grounds on the Mumbai Development Plan. Also the proposed city’s Metro project phase 2 is planned to pass near the area. This might also cause the eradication of another settlement.

While residents may live here and work elsewhere, this neighbourhood also shows a high level of its own economic activities. These include rag picking , embroidery (jari), tailoring, shops, carpentry, construction, and other small-scale industrial work comprise its main economic fabric.

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Street life.

Should Dharavi be ashamed of itself?

February 18th, 2014 by fabianfrenzel

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Image found on the Web (source).

Tourism in Dharavi is booming. An estimated 18.000 people paid for a tour of Dharavi in 2013, numbers have been growing with double digits, every year since tourism here started in 2006.  Most tourists come for three-hour tours in small groups, and 90% are foreigners. Dharavi’s tourism industry now consists of several operators and the biggest ones are placed as the top four activities (out of over 100) on the Mumbai page of Trip Advisor, the global social media site for travel and tourism ratings.

Tourism in Dharavi is controversial. Voices on Trip Advisor speak a clear language: Under the heading ‘it should be removed from Trip Advisor’ a commentary on Dharavi in January 2013 states

‘it is not the place to visit nor the place to be proud of Guys we should do something about this The westerns thinks that we live slums have tan false idea of it. We have to do something about this. I’m ashamed of it . It’s something we should be ashamed of‘

Is Dharavi something to be ashamed of? Should ‘we’ be ashamed of Dharavi? And who is this ‘we’? The people of Dharavi, Mumbaikers, Indians, the people of the world?

Amartya Sen once called shame the irreducible core of poverty. What he meant is that poverty comes with stigma and social exclusion, that being poor makes you feel like being unworthy. Reviewing a recent book on the stigma of poverty, Roland Lomme summarises:

‘poor people are often ashamed of their own condition; in a prosperous society, they feel inadequate, having personally failed; they resent being dependent from state assistance or their lack of agency in social assistance programs such as workfare; they feel dehumanized by their deprivations and subjected to public contempt or even reprobation. This adds an important dimension to income poverty and other deprivations captured under various poverty indexes. Poverty is not only an economic or social condition, it affects individual psyche, self-esteem, self-confidence. Poverty is insulting poor people’s dignity.’

These observations confer with many of our experiences. They highlight a symbolic economy that stands along side the ‘real’ economy. Accordingly the moral worth of a person relates to their wealth. What we need to note here, however, is the political construction of worth and worthlessness in the symbolic economy of shame. The link of poverty and shame is not a given, something that poor people necessarily feel, but the result of processes in which our shared notions of worth and wealth are formed.

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Images found on the Web (sources: 1 and 2)

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Photo-montage from airoots.org: Dharavi 2025

Touring Dharavi it becomes obvious to many visitors, that people in Dharavi might be poor in relative terms, but they are not very ashamed. There is instead a lot of pride. It also pretty obvious why there is pride. The people of Dharavi, over several generations, have achieved small and large wonders. Migrated from poor villages, they have laboured; build houses, roads, schools, businesses, futures for their kids, literally out of mud. The state was mostly absent, and if present then as obstacle, rarely as a help. So people here might be poor when compared to Indian elites, but they are rich when compared to where they came from.

So why should they feel ashamed? Or rather, who wants them to be ashamed?

Just as the individual feeling of shame is linked to ‘real’ material poverty, the symbolic economy of shame and poverty is linked to the ‘real’ economy. In the real economy labour needs to be cheap. The cheaper the labour the better for the ones who are already rich. But how do you keep labour cheap? Historically the best way to keep labour cheap is by denying it visibility, recognition, and rights. While there are many ways of doing so, including the repression of labour organisation, one of the more successful ones is to project moral unworthiness on labourers, to dehumanize them.

I have visited several low income neighbourhoods around the world; they often have their own categorical names, townships, favelas, or the generic slum. What is significant here is the spatial dimension of the stigma attached. With it, it doesn’t matter anymore how much individuals here earn, how successful their businesses are, how well they build their houses, how well they plan communal living in their neighbourhood. Once a neighbourhoods is described as a slum, then stigma and shame of poverty are upon it, regardless of facts. Often this serves the interests of the richer parts of the city, be it to keep labour costs down, be it to enable real estate speculation. It results in the two most prevalent modes of urban slum policy globally: ignorance and neglect on the one hand and removal, at least ‘transformation’ in grant schemes like the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan on the other.

Against this background, how does it sound when commentators are claiming on tripadvisor that ‘there is nothing to see’ in Dharavi?

“Never ever try to visit this place. It is not a place where you can enjoy anything. It is sad that the website has put this under attraction section.“

It sounds like Dharavi should remain invisible, ignored, on the fringes and that its people should continue to feel like second or third class Mumbaikers, ashamed of their poverty.

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Image found on the Web (Source).

Tourism disturbs, ignores this attempt. Tourists are attracted to Dharavi, often for pretty dubious reasons. Some tourists seek adventure, some want the thrill, some just want to come home and say they have been. Others romanticise poverty and seek to find their true selves among those who live by the bread line. Sometimes they follow the beaten track of ‘Othering’, searching for European or Western identities in encounters with projections of an exotic urban jungle. In sum however individual motives don’t matter much.

What matters is that tourists value Dharavi, make it visible, find it beautiful and spectacular. They – often inadvertently – intervene into the symbolic economy of shame and may help to reverse the stigma attached to the place. Thus tourism might serve an agenda that increasingly emerges across political and social discussions about low income neighbourhoods: let’s start paying attention to them, not as problems, shame to themselves and to all of us, but as places full of ideas towards solutions. It is worth considering how this potential of tourism can be nurtured more.

Fabian Frenzel is a lecturer at Leicester University and Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Potsdam, Germany. His research and interests cover democratic politics with a special focus on the role of leisure, mobility and culture trans-national political action and the potentials and limits of a ‘globalisation from below’.