Koliwada (Dharavi)
by Rahul Srivastava & Matias Echanove

Koliwada literally means the habitat of the Kolis. The Kolis are a fishing community that lived in the seven islands off the Arabian sea that subsequently merged to form the city of Mumbai. There are several Koliwadas scattered all over the city.

Dharavi-Koliwada was already an established village on the Mahim creek even before the British took possession of the Portuguese port of Bombaim on the Arabian Sea in the seventeeth century. 

It has been argued that the very name of Dharavi comes from that time. The words Dharevarca bhag means “the creeks’ shore” in Marathi. The Kolis who came in from the Arabian Sea are often referred to as the original inhabitants of Dharavi and Mumbai.

Over the years, but most dramatically in the past four decades, the marshy land surrounding Koliwada saw the arrival of thousands of immigrants from all over India, who made the village of Dharavi their home. The city of Mumbai was never quite able to absorb its poorer citizens, and it was left to villages such as Dharavi to accommodate the different communities. Dharavi is full of stories of people making themselves up from scratch in a tough natural environment with little infrastructural facilities.

Consequently, the growing metropolis swallowed up the village of Koliwada-Dharavi and the Dharavi Creek itself dried up. In the 1950s the busy Dharavi Cross Road replaced the shore.

Many Kolis however kept and continue to keep practicing their profession and Koliwada is well known for its fresh fish market even today.

In the midst of Mumbai’s real estate frenzy involving the Government of Maharashtra, private investors, developers and NGOs, the residents of Koliwada are fighting for their right of self-determination. They want to retain control over their land and are now legally challenging the government’s attempt to incorporate Koliwada in the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.

The Kolis argue that they have been occupying the area for about 450 years, long before the Government of Maharashtra existed. If they are squatters then all villages in India are squatter settlements as well. Luckily, the community is in possession of many documents proving their claim, including the early maps made by British surveyors.

Mr Ravindra Keny who was born in Koliwada and now works for the state's customs bureau is one among many representatives leading the community's grassroots movement for recognition. He himself is directly interested in redeveloping the colony since his 68 member strong family occupies a century old building in a context where space is getting uncomfortably scarce. Under the current terms of the DRP, which is not set to deal with such special cases, the whole family would be entitled to a single 225 sq ft. flat.

The typology of Koliwada is indeed still very much that of a village, with many old self-standing houses and small patios. The feel of Koliwada is rather unique in Dharavi and doesn’t correspond to any preconceived idea of what a slum is supposed to look like.

In spite of this however, the community doesn’t seem particularly interested in historical preservation. The idea that the future will be high-rise, seems to have settled in the minds of many residents to the point that they can hardly envision the low-rise, high-density alternative that would appeal to architects and urban planners interested in preserving the present feel of the neighbourhood. At the same time, there seems to be a willingness amongst the community to explore all types of alternatives ideas for the redevelopment.

Any redevelopment scheme will have to be cross-subsidized by the sale of market-rate condos and commercial spaces. Koliwada also needs a school, a community space and a playground. By taking the redevelopment process in their own hands, the community hopes to retain for itself, either in the form of cash or space, the profits that would otherwise be shared between developers and the government under the current SRA scheme.

Glossy brochures brought by real estate contractors featuring glass and steel high-rises and swimming pools are pilling up in the office of the Koliwada-Dharavi Association - a reminder that the once isolated fishermen’s colony is now sitting on a gold mine. Located right on the edge of T-Junction, Koliwada is one of the juiciest pieces of real estate in Dharavi. But the community feels no urge to jump in with the first developer promising a new Eden.

Over the years the fishermen’s colony has developed a fierce sense of independence that is preserved till today. The community, stretching beyond confessional lines, is deeply rooted in a space it has occupied for centuries.

Unfortunately, most communities in Dharavi cannot claim ownership of the land they are sitting on. The Government owns 70% of the land and doesn't seem to be willing to simply give it to slum dwellers for free, treating them rather as squatters and thieves in water –a perception which seems to be shared by a majority of the population outside Dharavi. A legal and historical victory of the Kolis might help turn the tide for other communities in Dharavi and help them secure long term tenure and gain from the redevelopment process as well. At the end of the day the triumph of Koliwada-Dharavi will be a triumph of Dharavi as a whole.



Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky, Untouchable Bombay, Le bidonville des travailleurs du cuir, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2002

Kalpana Sharma, Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s largest slum, Penguin Books India, 2000