Let's not forget our own Dharavi

Updated: Jul 20, 2020, 11:04 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

The success in keeping Dharavi's infected numbers under check might have earned acclaim but local authorities should dust off accolades and get to work to restructure its inadequate civic and medical infrastructure. Here's an inspiring lesson from Bu

A cliffside view of the Gamcheon Cultural Village, Busan. Pic/Wikimedia Commons
A cliffside view of the Gamcheon Cultural Village, Busan. Pic/Wikimedia Commons

Fiona FernandezWe were in one of those fatigued end-of-week moods, where we were looking for any kind of travelling [the armchair kinds, of course] to offer temporary respite after another locked-in working week, where days, nights, and everything in between slip into newfound routines that we're learning to adjust to. Well, just about.

And as luck would have it, a travel channel on the telly was airing a show where a knowledgeable Brit anchor was in South Korea, sharing a 10-day itinerary. Shot in the pre-pandemic era, by the time we had tuned in, he had reached Busan, the country's busiest port and nucleus of commercial activity. As we glided through its sights and sounds, the city faintly reminded us of Bombay – port city, business hub, shopping and food hotspots, and cinema – it is home to Asia's biggest film festival – the annual Busan International Film Festival. It offers a stunning cable car ride across its bay; we immediately began to imagine the possibilities of that here, in Mahim Bay.

But, I must fast-forward some of the remaining tourist attractions to share about the Gamcheon Culture Village. This residential area-turned artistic village, dating back to the 1950s, emerged as a home for thousands of refugees from the Korean War who began living here. The village is carved into the side of a mountain with narrow, winding and uneven roads. For the longest time, the area, the anchor shared, remained a neglected area, until in 2010, the local government decided to collaborate with urban planners, artists and its residents (many senior citizens) to rejuvenate this unique cluster into a self-sustainable neighbourhood as well as a tourist attraction.

Different groups were formed, with residents' expertise, and they worked towards improving basic infrastructure, healthcare facilities and upgrading civic needs like running water and sewage systems. Simultaneously, artists and residents from Gamcheon began working together to create a socio-cultural ecosystem where they set up galleries, museums and other artistic platforms. Cultural and educational activities began to mushroom in old, now-restored structures. Gradually, and with sufficient financial stimulus from the local government, businesses were revived; shops, cafés and workshops sprung up, thereby giving the area much-needed commercial revival that had seen a nosedive after its younger population moved to Busan's commercial centre for employment. And the best part – the local government continues to help its residents with educational programmes to ensure they remain self-sufficient. Today, Gamecheon is a success story of having transformed from a marginalised locality to a vibrant, bustling and commercially reliant village.

Now, imagine a similar sort of makeover being undertaken in say, Dharavi. Possible? Impossible? 50-50? Busan's Gamcheon neighbourhood is just one of the many million examples to highlight the success story where a cluster revived their very core using their own resources, and propelled of course, by the government.

After the manner in which Dharavi was able to challenge the virus and bring numbers under check, shouldn't the local authorities use the timing to galvanise and pump in all their efforts to give the locality a much-delayed makeover with better basic living conditions, for starters? A large part of what we've mentioned above, Dharavi already boasts of – be it an industrious, enterprising community, a massive workforce, and artistic and educational platforms. So, what is stopping the powers that be from transforming it into a more livable neighbourhood; and not just a draw for slum tourism to fill the pockets of a few? Let's hope an inspired, farsighted mindset ensures we don't shove this huge elephant in the room back under the carpet when this virus is forgotten and the new normal becomes old news. Because Dharavi deserves better.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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