Some of you may have visited Dharavi, and know most of what i am going to say here 🙂 For me, two hours spent in Dharavi (Reality tours conducts a guided tour here) was time well spent. Balaji, a young boy from Dharavi, who has now picked up English fairly well over the last five years, guided us. His NGO found his ‘navigation skills’ through Dharavi extremely good and he was therefore the preferred choice as a guide for tourists. English, he picked up as a necessity, just like Dharavikars pick up various skills, for survival.
Dharavi, Balaji said, is not typically a slum, since many people do have some rights on land there. He recounts how his grandfather along with his cousin came more than fifty years ago to this place from Tamil Nadu – which was marshy and swampy. They first grew some trees here and then brought some land under cultivation – to claim right over it. That is how settlements began over this land by different communities. Over a hundred communities/ linguistic groups are inhabiting, what is called Dharavi now. These include Gujaratis, Marathis, Tamilians, Muslim community and many more – each staying in their own small settlement within Dharavi. Occupationally and linguistically, they are unique, and derive comfort from living with their own people. Typically, kumbhars are from Gujarat, papadwallas from Maharashtra, and phoolwalalas from Tamil. There seems no conflict within these groups – Dharavi cannot grow further now : this two square km odd area bound by two railway lines on either side, Dadar at one end and marshy area on the fourth. There may have been some conflicts earlier over land : now every inch of Dharavi seems to have been taken and so there is no competition.
What keeps Dharavians/ Dharavikars tied to this place ? The first thing perhaps is community. As people from villages come to Mumbai, they like to have the same community feeling – this security is invaluable lest a small village person gets lost in the fast pace of this Metro. He is willing to suffer all inconveniences – provided he has the satisfaction of his children playing with their cousins, overlooked by family and extended family; the satisfaction of having his own people around in case of any problem.
The second pull factor is housing. Having a place, a shelter, a roof over head is the most basic human necessity. Even a small place works. Places so small – less than 100 sq feet – accomodate families/ joint families. This house may have a tap inside where ladies can take bath – gents can bath outside in the street. The space available is as much as was occupied when no one else claimed it. So it varies, and a few managed to have slightly larger areas : still however, small in terms of a planned house. Of course, there are no – there cannot be any – planning norms here. Narrow alleys lead from end to end, at some places two people cannot cross simultaneously. Overhanging wires are testament to a complex grit. A few houses now have built second/ third storeys and rent it out at even 20,000 per month. The current market rate here may be between Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh for a 100 square foot. People from different economic background – up to even lower middle class – stay here. A house is not just a house. It is a work place. In most houses there are home-run businesses – tailoring, scrap, papad making, pottery and many more. Close to 10,000 professions may be found in this 2 square km area. For lack of any norms, the vibrant economy that this living space/work space provides may be difficult to find outside. Combined with the community feeling, this keeps local people from trying to move out.
Dharavi is also a place that skills you – more than any formal Skill India programme ! There is no compulsion on child labour etc – however, parents want, and children/ youth understand what will fetch them a livelihood. Opportunity to learn is at home itself or in neighbourhood. Besides the residential area, there is an ‘industrial’ area of Dharavi running different trades. They have all learnt on the job – and learnt well. There is scrap business, with scrap reaching Dharavi from bangarwallas from across Mumbai and even outside Mumbai. The skills vary from segregation to processing – and are specialised. From plastic, to aluminium to clothes, everything comes here – and is moulded back into raw material/end products. There are furnaces and machines. Balaji says there have been no major accidents over past many years. There is leather factory, churning out finished products. One shop here tells me, they source wallets for the brand ‘Woodland’. The quality of the product is indeed good, and matches that found in a prime branded shop. Someone has helped create a brand here as well – it is called ‘Dharavi’. The leather shop owner, who has offers to sell his products abroad, says many ask him, why does he have a shop in such dirty premise – why doesn’t he take a shop outside that he can surely afford. He says, they don’t know the ‘power of a slum’.
The annual turnover of these informal businesses is estimated to be more than US $ 1 billion per year. These factories may not have permissions – and in that sense they are ‘illegal’ ( or economical). One may ponder how is legality to be defined. A city grows faster than its rules and planning. It grows haphazard may be , but is efficient ( ? Pareto optimal). More people in Dharavi are skilled and employed than in any place outside. If Dharavi has done that (mostly) on its own, Dharavi has much to guide rules and planning and skill development- than vice versa ! For is not the raison d’aitre of planners/ State : skilling people and tackling unemployment ?
There are some other pull factors for this area. Dharavi is very well connected – there are six railway stations at walking distance. The area is surrounded by commercial area and provides close opportunities for work/ business. The Lokmanya Tilak hospital is adjacent, and anyone in emergency can be taken there in no time. Vegetables/fruits sold on Dharavi road (by Dharavians, for all) are cheaper.
What more do Dharavians ask for ? The space for many people is (obviously) inadequate and better housing is required. The response to formal projects perhaps has not been very enthusiastic. Some say that getting the same area outside is definitely not worth it – as it breaks the dynamic ecosystem mentioned above without much benefit. What kind of in-situ upgradation is possible, needs to be discussed with Dharavians and a model acceptable to them, and practical for all evolved. There is water supply and electricity. There are schools too – like other schools, these too need attention for improvement in infrastructure and quality of education. Sanitation is another area for improvement. Around 30-40% Dharavians – especially employees in industrial area – may be daefecating in the open. For residential areas, public toilets require maintenance. People are aware of need for better sanitation, and if engaged, sustainable solutions can emerge. The skills of people here may be further polished through government programmes. Those programmes do not seem to have penetrated significantly. Many NGOs also claimed to work for Dharavians, but barring a few, most have either failed to make impact or have a reputation of making their own profit.
Dharavi has cinemas, showing slightly old popular movies at Rs 20. There are no other prominent sources of entertainment – except small open spaces where children can play. There are religious places of all sects.
Seeing a slum from outside, one may have different perceptions – pity on how people stay in such squalor, or perception that many people in slums are goondas or land grabbers indulging in crime or anti-social activities. From inside, a slum is a place, perhaps more humane than a non-slum; a place where people’s grit and community living makes them resilient and tolerant of worse civic conditions, living with a dream of a better tomorrow, a dream we all live with. Their hunger for development, their skills and resilience is an unparallel asset. Ignore it, at your own peril.