Dharavi

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Dharavi—reputedly Asia’s biggest slum, housing about one million people in a very small area, and located right in the middle of Mumbai.  I pass through it everyday on my way to work and have always found the intense activity along the road fascinating.  But I had not gone by foot into the slum until today.  Wanting to learn more about Dharavi, and at least get more than a glimpse of how it operates, I signed up for a “reality tour” of the area.  I had a local guide, and most of the profits from the tour company go to a non-profit that provides training classes for Dharavi residents. 

Dharavi is far too complex to master in an afternoon, and what I saw in a couple of hours is far too interesting to summarize in one blog entry, so I’ll just describe a couple of the highlights.  Dharavi has an annual business turnover north of $600 million and is filled with small businesses and industries.  Our tour began with one of them–the recycling section of the slum.  Plastic, cardboard, and metal containers are all either recycled or reconditioned by a variety of small workshops.  Plastic containers are gathered by rag-pickers throughout the city and sold to middlemen in Dharavi, who sort the plastic by color and grind it down into small pieces.  The machines that do the grinding are themselves manufactured in Dharavi—we visited one workshop that made grinders and sold them to recycling businesses just across the narrow alleyway.  Talk about a great way to get immediate customer feedback!  The small pieces of ground plastic are then sold to other businesses that melt them down.  We visited one where bits of blue plastic were poured into a machine that melted them, extruding small streams of blue that looked like wires which then ran through a tub of water that cooled them down.  The plastic strings then entered a machine that chopped them into uniform pellets.  These pellets are sold to manufacturing plants outside of Dharavi that turn them into new plastic goods. 

Other recycling processes are much simpler:  cardboard boxes are sliced open, turned inside-out, and stapled back together to be sold to local businesses.  What looks like a plain brown box on the outside reveals bottled water labels on the inside when opened up.  Used metal cans that held cooking oil are cleaned, pounded back into shape with wooden mallets, and returned to the cooking oil manufacturers for reuse.  All of this takes place in a series of small workshops along narrow lanes, with the employees often living above their workspace.

We then passed through more residential areas of the slum, checking out small garment factories, leather makers, shops, and homes.  We concluded the tour in the clay pot-making area, where generations of the same families have been producing pots out of their homes and workshops, burning cotton to fire their kilns.  There we met a former guide from the tour company in his family’s home.  He had recently graduated from college with a degree in commerce and had just begun a new job with JP Morgan.  When we asked what he would be doing there, he replied that he was in training to be an investment banker.  He wasn’t sure yet what exactly he would be working on—maybe foreign exchange, maybe derivatives. 

Here was another interesting example of the changing face of modern India, and a great illustration that the complexity of Dharavi defies many stereotypes of slums.  The term “slum” doesn’t come close to capturing all the fascinating individual stories, community ties, and business relationships in a neighborhood that’s been contributing to the life of India’s commercial capital for decades.

By the way, the tour company’s policies prohibit clients from taking photos while on the tour, so I don’t have any pictures to post here.  However, you can see some interesting photos from a 2007 National Geographic article on Dharavi here (the very first photo shows my route to and from work). 

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4 Responses to “Dharavi”

  1. Jawad Says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Chris…quite interesting.

  2. John Tucker Says:

    Chris,
    One thing I enjoy about living in India is how much more visible craft and “the origin of things” is, as compared to Urbia, USA. I think you do a good job of illustrating that here. Just this morning I caught a glimpse of the giant coconut truck loading up a line of coconut push carts. It is just as likely that I could have the same guys passed out from exhaustion on top of the pile of coconuts while the giant truck plowed through traffic into town. The supply chain here is transparent. I think if there were more cows roaming the streets of New York City, people would eat less beef because hey – love the cow. Would people in the US demand more fair trade if they saw how hot it is to pick cotton? I hope we can go back to this neighborhood together soon and think about what it means for our collective future…
    John

  3. Premal Says:

    Chris,

    Good post thanks for sharing it. I lived in an area called “Mahim” which is about 2+ kms from Dharavi, however, I only ventured out to Dharavi to do some cursory leather goods shopping.

    I may have sped past this area on my motorcycle countless times while going to college in Bandra or taking a short cut to go from the west side to the east side. And yet, never stopped by to think about what all went on in this area. Your post reminds of the saying “I was so near yet I was so far…”.

    Premal

  4. Catherine Casey Says:

    Chris,

    I did the same tour when I was in Bombay in January. What struck me most about Dharavi was the amount of business that was happening directly in the slum, and how that changes peoples’ interaction with their environment. Compare Dharavi with Kibera, for example, where there are few/no employment opportunities/businesses directly in the slum. In the post-election violence in January, Kibera was the first place to go up in flames as people had very little to lose. I wonder if Kibera had the same amount of business as Dharavi, and people had more at stake (and more economic opportunity), how this would have been different.

    Will look forward to discussing when you are here!

    Catherine

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