National Geographic : 2007 May
tabloid he envisions as a hard-hitting advocate of grassroots democracy. The first edition fea tured a story about an allegedly corrupt Dharavi policeman. Amit's headline: "A Giant Bastard, a Dirty Corrupted Devil, and Uniformed Goon." Cooler heads, pointing out the policeman wield ed a lethal lathi (bamboo nightstick), suggested a milder approach. Reluctantly Amit went with "A Fight for Justice." Even though the paper has yet to print its first edition, Amit carries a handsome press pass, which he keeps with his stack of business cards. This leads his mother to remark, "That's you, many cards, but no businesses." Looking at her son, she says, "You are such a dreamer." It is an assessment that Amit, who just decid ed to open a rental car agency in hopes of diver sifying his portfolio in the mode of "a Richard Branson of Dharavi," does not dispute. percent of Dharavi residents approve of the plan. But Deshmukh announces that formal con sent is not needed because Mehta's plan is a government-sponsored project. All he must do is give the residents a month to register com plaints. "A 30-day window, not a day more," Deshmukh says with impatient finality. Later, as his driver pilots his Honda Accord through traffic, Mehta is smiling. "This is a good day," he says. "A dream come true." At first glance, Mehta, resident of an elegant apartment building on swank Napean Sea Road, a longtime member of the British Raj-era Bom bay Gymkhana and Royal Bombay Yacht Club, does not appear to be a Dharavi dreamer. "You could say I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth," he remarks at his West Bandra office overlooking the Arabian Sea. "My father came to Bombay from Gujarat without a penny "I had an epiphany.I decided to dedicate my life to fixing the slums," "Talk about doing something about Mumbai slums, and no one pays attention. Talk about Dharavi, and it is Mission Impossible, an inter national incident," says Mukesh Mehta as he enters the blond-paneled conference room of the Maharashtra State Administration Building. For nine years, Mehta, a 56-year-old architect and urban designer, has honed his plan for "a sustainable, mainstreamed, slum-free Dharavi." At today's meeting, after many PowerPoint pre sentations, the plan is slated for approval by the state chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh. Dharavi is to be divided into five sectors, each developed with the involvement of investors, mostly nonresident Indians. Initially, 57,000 Dharavi families will be resettled into high-rise housing close to their current residences. Each family is entitled to 225 square feet of housing, with its own indoor plumbing. In return for erecting the "free" buildings, private firms will be given handsome incentives to build for-profit housing to be sold at (high) market rates. "All that remains is the consent," Mehta tells Deshmukh, a sour-looking gentleman in a snow white suit sitting with his advisers at the 40-foot conference table. Normally, it is required that 60 80 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2007 and built a tremendous steel business. An astrol oger told him his youngest son-me-would be the most successful one, so I was afforded everything." These perks included a top educa tion, plus a sojourn in the U.S., where Mehta stud ied architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. "For me, America has always been the inspi ration," says Mehta, who made a fortune manag ing his father's steel business before deciding to develop real estate on Long Island's exclusive North Shore. "Great Gatsby country," he says, detailing how he built high-end houses and lived in Centre Island, a white community with "the richest of the rich"-such as Billy Joel, who re cently listed his mansion for 37.5 million dollars. "The slums were the furthest thing from my mind," Mehta says. This changed when he returned to Mumbai. He saw what everyone else did-that the city was filled with a few rich peo ple, a vast number of poor people, and hardly anyone in the middle. This was most evident in the appalling housing situation. The city was split between the Manhattan-priced high-rises that dotted the south Mumbai skyline and those brownish areas on the map marked with the letters ZP for zopadpatti,aka slums.