Dharavi: A Place of Paradox and Misconceptions

14 Aug

Editor’s Note:  This is from Kritika Seth, an associate from Mumbai who previously managed GAPW’s youth effort. Kritika now works for an NGO in Mumbai where her compassion, attentiveness and thoughtfulness have resulted in the following reflections.  

Lakshmi Dhadke – A star, a ‘sorter’, a lady that oozes dynamism and passion from every ounce of her body; her laughter lights up the entire room; her effortless ways of dealing with life’s problems and her smooth ability to deal with the full range of human emotions will leave you awe struck. She seems almost limitless. Lakshmi Tai, as we like to call her, is a simple Marathi lady, a mother of two adorable sons and a wife to a rickshaw driver living in the labyrinthine slums known as Dharavi.

The first time I met her and realized that she possessed all of these creative, life-affirming qualities, I wondered, what is she still doing living in Dharavi?

With more than 60,000 structures, many of them shanties, and as many as one million people living and working on a triangle of land barely two-third the size of Central Park in Manhattan, Dharavi is one of the world’s most infamous slums. It is often seen as a cliché of Indian misery, a visual eyesore and a symbol of raw inequality that epitomizes the failure of policy makers to accommodate the millions of rural migrates searching for an opportunity in the magical city of Mumbai. Paradoxically, it is also a churning hive of shops and workshops resulting in an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million and perhaps as much as $1 billion.

Perhaps those who have not seen Dharavi would consider it to be nothing more than a huge slum, but when I have looked, I see Dharavi as a city within a city, a city of many faces and many facets.

Despite India being a rising economic power, a huge portion of its economy operates in the shadows. In most developing countries, there is only one economy, but in India, there are two. The formal economy consists of businesses that pay taxes, abide by labor regulations and polish the country’s global image. The ‘informal’ economy is everything else: the hundreds and millions of shopkeepers, construction workers, taxi drivers, tailors, street vendors, middlemen and more. The informal economy is responsible for the overwhelming majority of India’s annual growth and as much as 90 percent of all employment. Thus, Dharavi could welll be referred to as one of the self-created, special economic zones for the Indian poor.

“What do we make?” questioned, the ever-enthusiastic Lakshmi Tai during our brainstorming session intended to help her start and run her own business. “We live in a world where we can get almost anything and most of it is made in Dharavi. What can I do to make my creation different?”

It is not an easy question to answer.  Leatherwork is now a major industry in Dharavi. Small garment factories have proliferated throughout the slum, making children’s clothes or women’s dresses for the Indian market or export abroad. According to a 2012 study by the United States Agency for International Development, Dharavi contains at least 700 larger garment workshops and about 40,000 smaller ones. Then there are 5000 leather shops. Then there are food processors that make snacks for the rest of India. And then still more: printmakers, embroiderers and, most of all, the vast recycling operations that sort, clean and reprocess much of India’s discarded plastic.

As Lakshmi Tai rightly puts it, “Every slum has its businesses. Every kind of business is there in the slums.”

Plans to raze and redevelop this informal city of Dharavi into a “normal” neighborhood has stirred a debate about what would be gained but also about what might be lost by trying to control and regulate Dharavi. Every layer of Dharavi, once exposed, reveals something far more complex and organic than the image of a slum serving merely as a warehouse for the poor.

Discrimination is still common practice towards Dharavi residents. They often complain that they are routinely rejected for credit cards if they list a Dharavi address. Private banking institutions are reluctant to make loans to business owners in Dharavi or to open branches there. Part of this stigma is as much about traditional social structures as about living in the slum itself.

But money talks in Mumbai, and Dharavi now has money, even millionaires existing alongside its misery and poverty.

Dharavi’s fingerprints continue to be found across Mumbai’s economy and beyond, even if few people realize it.  And thus, after zooming out, looking at the bigger picture, I believe there is no other place that Lakshmi Tai be other than the eccentric hive of Dharavi.

The area is imprinted in the Indian imagination, depicted in books or Bollywood movies, and even featured in the Oscar-winning hit “Slumdog Millionaire.”  Dharavi has been examined in a Harvard Business School case study and dissected by an army of urban planners all over the world. Yet efforts to fully capture Dharavi’s diverse character are elusive.  May they remain so.

Kritika Seth, GAPW Junior Associate

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