Mumbai authorities look at the Dharavi slum and see an eyesore of ragtag huts and open sewers. Dhruv Arora sees architectural inspiration and a holdout of authentic Indian culture in an increasingly Westernized city.
The Bond University Master of Architecture student wants to offer a better way of life to the estimated 6.5 million people living in Mumbai’s 2400 slums – but his vision is in stark contrast to the government’s plan for the residents of Dharavi.
“They are disrupting all of them,” Mr Arora says of a contentious plan to redevelop the shantytown, which sits on prime land in the heart of Mumbai.
“They are building banal eight-storey towers on the outskirts of the city for the people to move into.
“The towers don’t relate to the lifestyle and social fabric that exists in the slums and they are far away from the jobs that brought people to set up these settlements in the first place.
“The apartments are dark inside and there is no natural light and ventilation.
“Being an architecture student I am quite concerned about the design aspects of the rehabilitation housing models offered by the government. I believe that they might just be building vertical slums.”
So Mr Arora set out an alternative in his Master’s thesis that preserves the best aspects of slum life while banishing the worst.
The 23-year-old grew up in Ludhiana, Punjab in the north of India and said he always had a special connection with Mumbai, India’s largest city.
But it was only while gaining experience with an architect there, before embarking on his postgraduate studies on the Gold Coast, that he started exploring the city’s vibrant slums and honing his solution.
“For an architect, it would be quite naïve of me to go out there and say, this is the product I am providing for you, now you move in and live the way I want you to live,” he said.
“You have to be very sensible and humble to provide a solution for them.
“There are things that really work in the slums. And there are things that needs improvement, such as sanitation.”
Mr Arora studied the fabric of slum life: families of 25-50 people are managed by a representative who looks after their needs.
“I designed a cluster for a family of 50 but inside that are sub-clusters as well, as opposed to apartment living where you are thrown randomly together and you’re living around someone you don’t know,” he said.
Mr Arora’s design include kitchens, toilets, retail stores and “elastic” spaces used for education, festivals, and food markets.
The plans are rooted in practicality.
“I did a density study,” he said. “Sydney is 32 people per hectare. Mumbai is 278 people. In the slums it’s 2320. The solution I’m providing, with all the amenities, is 2400.”
But the Abedian School of Architecture student admits the fate of the informal settlements is sealed.
“I was looking at filling in gaps in the existing slum area but I realised quite quickly that the government is not going to give up on their redevelopment plans,” he said.
“So I started looking at little open spaces that still exist in the city and one of them is this fish-drying land in one of the most famous suburbs in Mumbai, Bandra.
“The government gave the people the land 50 years ago. (With my design) they could still dry fish there but have all these other facilities.”
Mr Arora hopes to realise his vision one day before globalisation robs his home country of something that make India so unique.
“I strongly feel that in a lot of metropolitan areas in India, they’re losing the culture and the tradition of the country,” he said.
But in the slums, culture is still preserved. We should try to save it.”
Head of the Abedian School of Architecture at Bond University, Professor Adrian Carter, said Mr Arora’s thesis demonstrated “great humility and altruistic determination”.
“While modest in architectural expression so as to be economically feasible, the well-considered design would provide greater amenities and much improved living conditions while most importantly maintaining and strengthening the sense of community,” Prof Carter said.
“Dhruv’s work is an outstanding example of the strong tradition at the Abedian School of Architecture for students to personally choose to make final thesis design projects that are highly principled and socially motivated; where the intention is to make a positive difference in the real world.”