Outbreak in slums forces Mumbai to confront its ‘shame’: Ratan Tata

Ratan Tata (file photo)
MUMBAI: Imagine 8-9 lakh people crammed into a 2.5-sq-km area, and you get a population density that is perhaps the highest anywhere on the planet. That’s the unorganised sprawl of Dharavi in the heart of Mumbai, where experts fear the spread of the infection most. Referring to housing policies which have given rise to such slum-dominated neighbourhoods within Mumbai, Tata Group chairman emeritus Ratan Tata on Monday described it as “a wake-up call” for planners and administrators struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic through social distancing.
Tata, speaking at a virtual panel discussion on the “Future of design and construction” watched by several thousands, said the Covid-19 outbreak had served to underscore a crisis in housing which deprived lakhs of Mumbai’s residents of fresh air and open space.
“We do design for high-value housing and provide in the slums the residue. We should be ashamed because we have the image we want to project of ourselves and there’s a part we want to hide. We are offended when people criticise it, but we have social responsibilities as architects and builders. The corona issue is a wake-up call of what beholds us. What our concern is that it turns around and bites us,” he said.
Tata, a trained architect, expressing regret that he could not practise architecture except for two years in Los Angeles, did not mince words about the condition of the slumdwellers. Their occupants live on top of each other in a manner of speaking, he added, referring to the multistoreyed slum structures in the precinct. “We as architects and developers have been satisfied to do (that),” said Tata.
Tata, who was speaking at discussion organised by CorpGini, a global innovation platform, also questioned the policy of removing slums and shifting the occupants into narrow, high-density structures 20-30 miles away. “For the first time, the close proximity, low-value structures we have built are the cause of new problems. The last few months have taught us that we are suffering from close proximity,” he said.
“I think there should be re-examination of what we consider to be acceptable standards in terms of quality of life,” said the industrialist. While high-value housing is put on slum land, the residue is like “putting the garbage together and calling it a community, making it difficult to survive,” in a clear reference to slum rehabilitation policies.
“Perhaps, there ought to be a revision in terms of the fact that we are dealing with communities, we’re dealing with populations that need to be a part of new India. We are creating a community which we are ashamed of. We should be really driven by the desire of creating a world culture,” he said.
Tata added, “In the last few months, we have been humbled to realise that a disease could run across the globe... I think we have to consider this issue as being our problem and not their problem. We need to concern ourselves with the quality of lives everywhere. We need to ask ourselves, are we ashamed of what we see or proud of what we see? We need to consider urban communities as one. We need to look at the possibility of ownership of slums rather than rentals. We need to be ashamed of what we’re doing and we need to focus on considerably being proud of what we’re doing. Mumbai and Maharashtra need to be proud of the transition that they make. And the transition needs to be real.”
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