Handstorming in Dharavi Continues

Handstorming in Dharavi Continues

NYU Abu Dhabi students are back in Dharavi, this time for more in-depth interactions with various community members of the neighbourhood.

urbz and New York University, Abu Dhabi, over the last few years, have been able to create The Handstorm Workshop - a unique platform for their students through the ‘Engineering for Social Impact’ program run by Prof. Matt Karau. It allows students to step away from their preconceived notions, and experience ground realities by taking Dharavi, one of the largest homegrown settlements in India, as a case study. 

After COVID-19 put a halt on the yearly collaboration, students of NYUAD were back with the fifth edition of the Handstorm Workshop after three years. Every year students come for a short span of time, where they tackle various lines of enquiries within Dharavi after engaging with the community through intense discussions, researching about and studying the neighbourhood, to further understand the needs of people as individuals or communities, with topics ranging from infrastructural to social support. Taking learnings from the context, they come up with remedies and solutions. For example, during the previous workshops, students worked on resolving issues such as toxic fumes in Kumbharwada through creating ‘The Cool Roof Project’, improving water access to the public toilet by connecting the open wells, which not only helped bring better sanitation to the toilets but also replenished water from the wells. Introducing green inserts within the urban agglomeration by converting a garbage dumping site into a garden for the community.

This year 16 students were initially exposed to long walks on the streets of Dharavi to observe, critique, ponder, and reflect on their ideas about Dharavi. Post our evening discussions over chai, we started making clusters of insights that we gathered during our first impressions. Each group conducted primary research in the form of interviews, studying street maps, and referring to the existing research done by urbz. After discussions and debates among the students, the teams finally narrowed down their specific areas of interest. Since the approach for the entire workshop was done through a grassroots-level approach, interviewing many residents and people of influence, was pertinent. These conversations formed a strong base to help them identify one key problem that they would be working on. They arrived at three broad themes, firstly the issue of drainage and water supply, secondly the lives of women in Dharavi, and lastly the potential of a Dharavi-centric digital platform for people in and outside Dharavi to interact and support each other.

The second half of the week went into analysing all the data collected from the interviews. One of the groups worked with the water supply of the entire urban village of Koliwada, along with Dominic Keni, a resident of Koliwada, who is keen on upgrading the water supply system. The second group wanted to address the concerns of women. It was after talking to Aatma Devi, a housewife turned social activist, that they finally decided to work on a project to support women. Lastly, after meeting with several activists, social workers and upcoming artists, the third group realised that a digital platform would not only allow people to connect socially, and culturally but also empower small business owners. Therefore they decided to work on reviving the ‘Dharavi.org’ website.

They presented a final brief for their project at the Homegrown Street Exhibition. The brief explained how the project would start, whom would it cater to, what impact will it have and how will it affect the community. The students got a chance to interact with local residents, contractors and other friends of urbz who attended the Exhibition and get feedback about their ideas. They are now headed back to their campus with extensive research material and solid ideas and will be working on further detailing their projects in the course of the next 7 weeks!