Class(room) politics in Dharavi’s community schools

October 12th, 2016 by urbzman

Schoolchildren from a local Marathi medium school play together during recess.

“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”
Citation from the diary of a local Dharavi school, originally by W.B. Yeats.

For a few hours every weekday the streets of Dharavi, usually bursting with the honks of vehicles and the cries of hawkers, are turned over to a more discreet force as throngs of local schoolchildren follow their daily path back home, the patterns of their neatly-ironed uniforms cutting a sharp contrast to the furious energy around them. In the minds of many, Dharavi’s enduring label of ‘slum’ still carries with it many of the connotations of an uneducated urban poor scratching out a living through menial wage jobs. While this may be true for some of the older residents, education here is actually on everyone’s mind, and it has become a true industry in many ways. Some of the largest structures in Dharavi are its schools, whose multi-level concrete walls rise far above ordinary dwellings and house classrooms teeming with students eager to use any foreigner as the proof of their English skills. However, not all of these schools are created equal; ask Dharavi residents what their opinion of the local public school run by the BMC is, and you’ll likely hear a list of complaints ranging from inadequate teachers to lack of supplies, each flaw a roadblock against academic success.

Parents gather in front of the Kamarajar High School gates to pick up their children. One of the largest in Dharavi, this school was founded by a Tamil trust.

Yet hanging on lamp-posts along Dharavi’s main roads, it’s also possible to spy posters hailing the top marks of local students in high school exams. Many of them come from the numerous ‘private-unaided’ schools scattered around Dharavi, whose roots are deeply bound up with the evolution of the area. The various communities that have converged on Dharavi to make it what it is today have also played a significant role in its socio-political and economic form, most obviously through countless workshops and manufacturing activities but also through larger scales forms of collective organization. One of the most unique of these are what we can call ‘community’ or ‘homegrown’ schools, grassroots efforts started by local trusts during the past decades that have evolved to become respected institutions hosting more than 2000 students each. Stuck between the pressures of Mumbai’s ever-changing landscape and the constraints of the city’s perilous bureaucracy, over time communities in Dharavi have managed to mobilize along lines of caste and ethnicity to give rise to these thriving schools. During the past few weeks, and thanks to the help of Shyam, who is part of the urbz team, I’ve attempted to collect information on this phenomenon, looking at the school’s’ historical role within Dharavi as well as their current evolution to understand through the lens of education the agency of residents in shaping their urban futures.

Trustees of a local Dravidian society, who run the Ganesh temple and the associated high school. The general secretary, pictured on the top right, was kind enough to give some time for an interview.

A look back at the context where these schools were forged brings some elucidation about their present role. Indeed, although Tamil schools have been present in Dharavi since the 1920s, the current generation of schools dates back to the 1960s. At the time, the quality of public education to be found in Dharavi was dismal, and to make matters worse residents endured discrimination and exclusion from private schools outside the settlement in large part because of their lower-caste status. Trapped by the lack of social horizons, many communities had no one to turn to but themselves, drawing upon their own social ties and the resources of prominent members to organize trusts that would eventually fund these schools. Thus over the years, Dharavi has seen the establishment of various Tamil, Kannada or Marathi trusts, and from modest beginnings where students would pack into a single hut many schools have grown exponentially to welcome hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pupils. In some cases, the schools are linked to a religious organization; for example a local Dravidian society, who over a century ago collectively acquired the land where a Ganesh temple now stands, only managed to put together the funds for a school eighteen years ago. The forms of community ties that create schools can cut across not only social lines within Dharavi but also geographical lines, as linkages between the ethnic community that started the trust and their region of origin are formed through the generosity of wealthy individuals or the perpetuation of other socio-economic ties like celebrations and the recruitment of teachers.

Poster from inside the Al Ma’Rif English School, recently established by the local Muslim community to teach various Arabic and Urdu classes to younger children.

Distinguishing themselves through the instruction of classes in their native languages, such as Telugu or Tamil, it quickly became apparent that many of these ‘homegrown’ schools had also sought to emancipate themselves thanks to the constitution of their own narratives of self-assertion. Creating their own curriculum helped communities gain independence from previous constraints, and over time the ability to give their lower-caste students an independent instruction invoked pride as speakers described how “it’s a beautiful thing that those who are excluded then provide their own education”. For many, this sort of independence is inscribed in the lineage of discrimination and suffering that their forefathers had to endure because of their caste status. Schooling can also serve as a way to negotiate the modernity of so-called ‘backward castes’; with the possibilities of social uplift that education makes tangible, ‘homegrown’ schools are viewed as a lighthouse that will help dispel some of the prejudices surrounding the communities that founded them. Dharavi residents are able to show that “education is not the monopoly of one community”, but also question many of the longstanding traditions and beliefs of their own communities as was apparent when a headmaster told me that he urged the parents to donate money to the ‘real gods’, their children, and not the ‘stone gods’ found in the temples. These kinds of discourses, that aim to root residents within their own neighborhood by drawing on collective potential, contrast with those of ‘external schools’, also present but run by trusts from outside of Dharavi. For these institutions (who often manage numerous schools across India) the narrative is more one of need and deprivation, when talking about their students who are “ignorant, downtrodden, and vulnerable” but should be able to “enjoy the same standards as other schools”. Spreading education comes to be seen as more of a charitable mission than an emancipatory act, an aim different from the gospel of uplift, organization and social cohesion preached by the ‘homegrown schools’. There, the capacity to “Educate, Organize, Agitate” can even lend them a spirit of greater autonomy with regards to the local BMC authorities who are often the subject of protest.

The U.M. Thevar School, run by a foundation from outside of Dharavi and which operates schools all over India.

Nevertheless, in the words of one of the trustees of a longtime Marathi-medium school that had recently made the conversion to English medium, “The world is going so fast, but our own students are unable to catch the speed of the world. We are 100 years behind the speed of the world.” In many ways, this statement embodies the contradictions these community schools must grapple with. On the one hand, the interviewee evokes the drive to discipline and progress that fuels these schools, yet he also acknowledges the pace he must keep up with, and the metamorphoses that his organization and its students must bend to if they hope to succeed. Indeed, schools must now face a Cornelian dilemma: to maintain the diversity they sought to represent and celebrate the communities they were created to serve, or adapt their curriculum to reflect the more ‘universal’ possibilities of an English-medium school. For most schools, this decision has already been made, with many of the community schools choosing to conduct the vast majority of their classes in English. Seen as the language that will allow their students the best opportunities to become ‘world-class citizens’, the shift to English-medium can also become problematic since it contributes to a uniformization of these schools while also robbing them of some of the advantages they could provide by teaching classes in the ‘local’ language of the communities that had founded them. Yet in another way the introduction of English has also led to an opening up of the population of these establishments; in one of the Tamil schools I visited, the interviewee confessed that the Tamil Nadar caste, who had started the school for people of their community, were now almost absent and largely sent to study outside of Dharavi while it was Muslims who were now dominant.

The presence of Muslims in this school reflects a pattern of shifting demographics I could observe in many of the schools. Indeed, it seems that the rise of Muslims as a share of the student body is taking place, as well as the more recent creation by Muslims of their own schools. Such a trend can be a testament to a few social factors; different trustees and professionals discussed the changes in local mindsets that the presence of their community schools had helped to spur on. Muslims populations, who for long were plagued with exceedingly high dropout rates and carried an aversion to sending their children (and especially their girls) to school, are now beginning to shift their perspectives. Another notable point is that these Muslim schools were generally less than ten years old, much younger than other community schools that tended to be at least a few decades old. Gradually, they had started their own trusts, and were expanding to add more classes and courses to their programs while often maintaining strong community traditions (for example through the teaching of various Arabic classes). Here, it seems that these schools started by Muslim trusts are following a similar pattern as the older-generation of community schools in Dharavi as they use education as a catalyst for social cohesion.

Entrance of the Gandhi Memorial English High School. The trustee whom I interviewed is pictured at the bottom of the photograph.

So what about the future of these older schools, who from their humble beginnings amongst members of a downtrodden Tamil or Kannada community have grown to become landmarks for success? Currently, it seems as if there are two divergent paths that the community schools are beginning to take as they become increasingly exposed to the winds of change sweeping through Dharavi. One possibility is that the schools will become reshaped by commercial interests. In my eyes, this scenario would be a reflection of many of the market pressures slowly squeezing Dharavi dry; as the education competition in the rest of Mumbai becomes more and more cut-throat, the reverse movement that led to the genesis of community schools will happen, and they will attract families from outside who would begin to flock to these relatively affordable and less selective schools to alleviate the stress of admissions found in much of the city. Yet, while the growing commodification of these may be difficult to halt, it is met with resistance. For example, a trustee noted these changes with mixed emotions, saying that “they [the other schools] are all commercial centers. Their motto is ‘taking so many fees’. Our motto is ‘the last man’ ” Indeed another, more optimistic path, that some of the schools are taking is the maintenance of strong moral commitment, which translated into teaching devoted to social progress, the maintenance of some native language classes, and community programs or purposefully low fees. In their own way, these schools are working to rid Dharavi of its ‘slum’ label through the efforts of its own citizens, yet as each one of the students who has passed through their classrooms know this will be an uphill battle.

Raphael Gernath is a graduate student in urban governance at Sciences Po Paris’ Urban School. He obtained a bachelors from Sciences-Po’s Euro-American campus, and has studied sociology and history at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. An urbanist at heart, he is passionate about social movements in cities, political conflicts over land use, and their materialization in Indian metropolises. He spent 8 weeks with urbz researching community schools in Dharavi.

Circulatory Lives

September 13th, 2016 by rahul

What would be your answer to ‘what’s home for you?’ Is it a place, a city, certain objects or an emotion? In a world where people are constantly migrating between the cities, towns and villages, the answer is not very evident. A person hails from a certain place, grew up in another, migrates towards job opportunities and may move again to follow dreams, leaving a trail of footprints across their personal circulatory life map. Little parts of each of these places make up the idea of ‘home’. At the constellation.s exhibition in Bordeaux, we tried to understand what ‘home’ meant to various visitors. The questions we asked them were ‘where do you live now?’, ‘where do you hail from?’, ‘what other places have you lived in?’ and ‘what is your ideal habitat?’. These questions take away from the idea that the house is synonymous with home. In an effort to investigate the relationship between the different spaces that the individual has occupied, we directed our questions to differentiate between the house, home, habitat and the ideal living condition.

While the answers varied from individual to individual, a common expression for the ideal home emerged: home is not one place. For some, home was coming back from a long day and finding comfort in slipping into their bedroom slippers. For some, the ideal was picking little favourites from the various places they had lived in, and having it one place: their childhood house in the countryside, their friends from where they studied, their job from the city, their pool from a holiday house, their favourite food from their county and so on. For a lot of people, home was about the people that mattered, even if they were scattered across the globe. ‘Home’ could be multiple places which would move with people’s trajectories. For others, the ideal arrangement was in the movement of moving between the various places they were connected to. As one of the visitors put it, ‘home is not a place, it’s a condition’.

YouTube Preview Image

The video follows the lives of five of our visitors: Hubert, Eloise, Lucie and Chloé and explores what their ‘ideal home’ would be.

Special thanks to Maria Jose and Tanja Schlumpf for the English voiceover.

Form Follows Recognition

August 31st, 2016 by urbzman

A main street in Dharavi is a flood of activities. (Photo by Julien Gregorio for urbz).

urbz is a part of the Future Architecture Platform for which our take is No Future: Architecture for the living present. We notice that so much energy is invested in conceptualising ideas for a utopian future that a near blind eye is cast towards the current state of affairs. Around the world, clear lines of division exist between the city which embodies the ‘civilised’ and formal habitat, and the ‘slum’ which is the wild, unchartered territory. The existence of two separate terms to define these areas in itself represents the exclusion of one from the other.

My home is not a slum: A friendly couple welcomes you to their home in Dharavi – otherwise misrepresented as the largest slum in Asia. (Photo by Brooks Reynolds for urbz).

Working and living in neighbourhoods that are generally referred to as ‘informal’ has led us to question the validity of the term. Can settlements which are home to 5th generation settlements qualify as being ‘informal’? Informal is a political term to categorise what does not conform to the control of administrative powers. For this reason, ‘Informality’ is generally attributed to unregulated and user-shaped habitats. Governments and officials are constantly battling the existence of such settlements, in an effort to homogenise them to imitate the more planned fabric of the city.

A worker watches his neighbourhors chat on a porch. Back alleys are full of a variety of uses. Homes themselves often double up as work spaces. (Photo by Ishan Tankha for urbz).

Our case for such settlements is not to battle, but embrace them. It could be worth our while to adopt their variegated character, rely on their existing form and view them as components that are active from the start. The best way to deal with the present is to accept that we can’t build our way into the future, and that we must engage with the world as it is – messed up, unpredictable, toxic. At the House of Architecture at Graz, the theme of the exhibition, ‘Form Follows….’ curated by ISSS was an attempt to redefine Sullivan’s popular and widely accepted statement that form follows function. Form can follow more than just function; form can follow economy, habits, necessity, crisis, society and many other factors. urbz’ take was one that reflected its practice: Form follows Recognition

The Form Follows Exhibition at the Haus Der Architektur, Graz (c) Thomas Raggam

Visitors spend a quiet moment at urbz’ exhibit at Form Follows…(c) Thomas Raggam

We prefer highlighting the role of architects as agents of incremental growth and not as creators of a future that doesn’t yet exist. The urbz collective acknowledges that urban development is -whether we like it or not- largely user generated. From this understanding, we try to facilitate change, based on the user’s needs. Our projects ‘A House We Built’ and ‘A House We Built Bigger’ are experiments in bringing architects into an urban realm totally dominated by local builders, where houses are usually built without any plan or drawings. The second movie shows how end-users appropriate the house and make it uniquely suited to their needs in a move that no architect could have planned, but that local builders can perfectly execute on the go.

Semi-fictional street in a neighbourhood of Mumbai, based on architectural ideas provided by artisans in Dharavi.

A diagram illustrating the propensity of homegrown neighbourhoods to push up, spread out and root themselves into the city.

Work in progress… Multiple activities in a homegrown neighbourhood.

A ‘blank sheet’ approach to resolve them is an impractical method to conceive feasible solutions. A more realistic path is to accept the existence of these problems, try to understand their roots and take it forward from there on.

From Dharavi to Rome

July 28th, 2016 by urbzman

Exhibiting at the renowned MAXXI, claimed by the Guardian as ‘Hadid’s finest built work to date’ was an exciting prospect for us. We wanted to use this platform to present one of our homegrown concepts: the tool-house. In very basic terms, the tool-house is a space for living and working. Conceptually located between Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” (also sometimes translated as “house tool”) and Ivan Illich’s “convivial tool”, the ‘tool-house’ is an apparatus that fulfills economic and sheltering purposes.

urbz’ exhibit at the MAXXI, Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo or National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, a museum celebrating contemporary art and architecture.

Ever since the advent of the industrial age, the way that cities have been shaped is fundamentally rooted in the separation between the workplace and the house. Today, with entrepreneurial ventures, freelancing, and the hard to ignore start –up culture on the rise, lines between work and live situations are blurring. In a world where garage start-ups like Apple Inc. grow to become the most valuable company in the world, planners and architects have to reckon with the new challenges that this work-from-home phenomenon poses.

We noticed that the tool-house is a typology that is common in Dharavi and the local builders have both experience and knowledge of this type of housing. These contractors, as they are called, are generally seen as facilitators of construction. They manage large teams of specialized labourers, handle the relationship with clients, and make sure that the houses they build get the official or officious sanction of the authorities. We invited local contractors to design their ideal house for Dharavi. The brief only specified a typical Dharavi plot size (3.5 x 4.5 sq.m) and that the design should incorporate a live-work situation – it had to be a “tool-house”.

Local contractor, Datta, picks up the pencil and explores his idea of Dharavi’s ideal home

The outcome was not an extravagant architectural feat. For the contractors, ‘ideal’ was more in the small details like having 2 feet extra ceiling height, larger windows and well-thought staircases to access roofs for hot summer nights. For us, as urbanologists, this process helped us learn from some of the most active participants of Dharavi’s incremental transformation. Local contractors have shaped the fabric of Dharavi from the very first day. Their knowledge is based on a long experience of the neighbourhood where they live and work. Their design expresses a better version of the present. Not quite a radical departure from it, but a pragmatic, creative and at times audacious expression of potentialities lying within Dharavi.

Local artisan collaborates with the contractor to bring their design to life, using a material of their choice.

We then put the contractors in touch with local artisans to build a model of their design (at a 1:20 scale). As the contractors saw their designs come to life, they would realise existing design flaws and correct them on the spot, asking the artisan to make changes accordingly. Sometimes, the artisans offered their own suggestions. This exchange reflects the on-site, adaptive and evolving manner in which contractors work. Contractors operating in Dharavi and other incremental neighbourhood of Mumbai don’t use drawings or plans. They simply give instructions to the labourers on site, projecting the ideas they discussed with their client directly onto reality. For some, the models were the first time they saw their work as “design” rather than construction.

The contractor, local artisan and architect in conversation, developing and retrofitting the design as the model is being built.

These models are the ones that we are exhibiting at Maxxi to state that answers to what are considered ‘new’ problems in urban planning can be found in what is considered the ‘largest slum’ in Asia. We simply want to recognise that this is a typology that exists in homegrown settlements around the world and studying this typology further could be the way forward to reconsider the way cities are planned.

Three of Dharavi’s ideal homes fabricated out different materials: wood, metal and acrylic as chosen by the contractors, on display at the MAXXI

Some visitors take a seat to watch our movies ‘A House We Built‘ and a ‘A House We Built Bigger‘ while others explore the rest of the exhibit.

More photos of the exhibition on our Flickr album

Dense with waste

July 14th, 2016 by urbzman

Waste accumulated at Versova Jetty

Jai and Ketaki of urbz Mumbai have drafted a project for Versova Koliwada, a historical fishing village in Mumbai. The project was submitted to Shelter Global’s international competition “Dencity” and just won the 1st prize! Shelter Global is an interdisciplinary, not-for-profit organization focused on solving the world’s shelter crisis by providing safe, clean living conditions for everyone.

The project deals with a number of critical issues relevant to the Koli community of Mumbai. The Kolis, a fishermen community, are some of the earliest inhabitants of the city, having lived here even before it was named Bombaim by the first Portuguese colonisers. These fisherfolk, known for their convivial way of life, live in small settlements spread across Mumbai’s coastline. The Versova Village is one of about 38 Koliwadas in the city. Mumbai’s urban villages, which include the Koliwadas, are only vaguely acknowledged under the Gaothan Act. Yet, they provide its residents with affordable costs of living and livelihood opportunities.

Mumbai’s population has grown tremendously over the past century, and urban villages have densified and spread accordingly. Today, many of them are mistakenly considered as slums. The Kolis of Mumbai have been fighting for recognition and opposing the redevelopment plans of the government. urbz has always supported Dharavi-Koliwada’s efforts to be excluded from the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.

Versova-Koliwada, situated along the Malad Creek, is a lively village with 5000 inhabitants that is now classified a slum by the government. The community of Versova-Koliwada has managed to thrive in harmony with the help of various existing activity centers and ancillary industries. However, deteriorating environmental conditions have compelled the Kolis to migrate and look for opportunities outside their settlement.

The industrial effluents and solid waste, especially plastic debris from the neighborhood, pollute the 19 km long Oshiwara River before it enters into the creek. Due to the nature of the water current, the solid waste eventually settles on the banks of Koliwada. During monsoon, mountainous heaps of plastic debris accumulate on the coast. As a result, the nearby, polluted mangroves experience a loss of cross-breeding. The consequence of this extreme pollution has brought about an increase in the fish mortality which negatively impacts the livelihood of the fishermen.  These actions affect the local economy, allied skilled occupations in the hamlet, and fuels ecological concerns.

Active fishing harbour at Versova Koliwada

The proposed four-phased intervention encompasses a number of critical questions and tackles two major issues: integration and sustainable development. The intervention intends to blur the existing social boundary between the kolis and the city dwellers, and effectuate an integration across various levels: social, economic, spatial and political. This proposal wishes to address the issue of an ‘unseen future’ of these communities by exploring different methods that can sustain their existence and propel it forward in an exemplary environment-friendly manner.

The first phase aims to inaugurate a ‘Knowledge Center’ with the support of the already established Versova Co-operative society. This center proposes to facilitate new activities and services based on the principle of micro-intervention. One of the major pollutants responsible for the coastal and mangrove degradation is plastic debris. The first step of this phase designates focal points for waste collection and segregation. The center would use the skills of the net weavers to make filter screens, suspended 2 meters deep in the creek and anchored along the edge, imitating a water filter system. This ensures uninterrupted movement of fish while creating an efficient method for waste collection. The plastic debris collected from a comprehensive waste sorting would be recycled and repurposed.

Plastic filters in the creek: floating pods attached with locally made nets act as plastic filters allow easy collection points of plastic waste

The technology of ‘Plastic Boats’ will be used to make a ‘Poor man’s boat.’ This is a float which is made of plastic gunny bags with three compartments. They are filled with empty, used plastic bottles and stitched together to make a homogenous mass. Its design and the air in the empty bottles allow it to float, much like any inflatable swim-tube or ring. The proposed floating-island would benefit and prolong the lives of the mangroves and corals. A floating island of a base diameter of 18 m consists of two components: plastic nets made of tied bottles and a wooden board. This technology is presently used to build inflatable tubes/rings for closed system aquaculture.

The second phase aims at introducing to the creek a closed system aquaculture, one of the most environmentally conscious methods of rearing aquatic species. This would increase the fish population, help the fishermen in increasing their catch and strengthen socio- cultural and economic sustenance.

The third phase focuses on uplifting the economy and supporting the fish market by introducing ‘Inland Fish Culture’ where fresh water and ornamental fish breeding is carried out.

The final phase aims at setting up a Fish Processing Industry. This expansion would extend Koliwada’s economic reach to the city, establishing a socio-economic interaction between the two. This phase also includes setting up a restaurant, an aquarium and an information center. Creation of spaces designated for workshops and exhibits of local fish produce like the popular dry fish pickle, especially during the yearly Versova Seafood Festival, are also proposed.

Boats made of plastic waste and wooden boards along with fish culture floating pods being used

The proposal is envisioned to have a ripple effect across the various Koli communities of Mumbai. The ideas in this project could potentially be duplicated in different Koliwadas with the Versova-Koliwada as a starting point. The interventions in the project use technology as a means to empower local business and strengthen ties both within and outside the Koli community. Finally, the project hopes to erase lines of social division between the city and the ‘slum’, looking at both as one mutually beneficial and interdependent entity.
The urbz team is now looking forward to engaging with the Koli community at Versova to bring the project to life. The main goal of the Dencity proposal is to incrementally develop the existing ancillary industries, stimulate employment, and encourage the germination of more small-scale industries. The projects hopes to highlight existing skills sets and incorporate clever use of technology to enhance the social, economic and cultural state of the entire village.

Dencity Competition 2016 : Panel-1 (click on the image to enlarge)

Dencity competition 2016 : Panel -2 (click on the image to enlarge)

Article in Mid-Day, Sunday July 10th, 2016 (click on the image to enlarge)