Dharavi gives lie to the traditional conception of Mumbai’s slums as places of squalor and poverty. This ‘city within a city’ is a model of economic efficiency and productivity, a place where most things appear to be broken but everything seems to be working rather nicely.
On the surface, the Dharavi slum in the heart of India’s largest city, Mumbai, is an eyesore. Thousands upon thousands of corrugated iron roofs give the appearance of a place mired in poverty, a place in which every day is a struggle just to survive. In many ways, this appearance reflects the reality. Open drains leave a smell of human excrement in the air, and rats infest the streets. Dharavi’s residents often live ten people to a room the size of which a student in a British university would be unhappy with, and have access to clean water for only three or four hours a day, and this they have to share with their neighbours.
One third of the population of Dharavi have no access to clean drinking water at all. There is a serious sanitation problem in Dharavi, with poor drainage systems causing the spread of diseases and serious public health problems. This is only exacerbated by the annual monsoons, with the flooding leading to increased spreading of contagious diseases. In Dharavi there are 4000 cases of disease reported every day. Recent figures suggest that there is only one toilet for every 1440 people. It is clear that the Indian government, for various reasons, has failed to address the serious health problems that present themselves in Dharavi, and in this sense the slum stands as a prominent and ugly example of the huge social problems faced by an India in the process of rapid economic development and population growth. It is estimated that up to 300 families arrive every hour in Mumbai alone.
However there is more to Dharavi than poverty, squalor and disease. The slum is often described as a city within a city, and it is estimated that the annual turnover for the thriving businesses within Dharavi stands at somewhere in the region of $500-650 million. Well over three quarters of the residents living in Dharavi are employed, and the slum even has its own millionaires. A recent Times of India report found one slum dweller, named Mohammad Mustaqueem, who started out sleeping in the streets of Dharavi as a 13 year old, to be in charge of 300 employees in 12 garment workshops with a turnover of $2.5 million per year.
Moreover, the economic and employment opportunities that Dharavi has to offer its residents appears to outweigh any concerns they may have about the health effects of living in such unhealthy conditions. One doctor working in Dharavi told the New York Times that “people who come to Dharavi or other slum areas- their priority is not health…their priority is earning”. Indeed many Indian’s, particularly from states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, see moving to the slum as a great opportunity, enabling them to find work, gain skills, and escape rural Indian poverty. Whilst agricultural wages in India are measly, many households in Dharavi are earning up to 15,000 rupees per month, and the slum also provides cheap accommodation relative to other areas in Mumbai. Several industries thrive in Dharavi, including textiles, pottery and leather. To add to this, there is now a thriving recycling industry, which stops the city of Mumbai “choking to death on its own waste”, according to one Guardian journalist.
What’s more, the people of Dharavi seem quite satisfied with their lot. Crime in the area is low in comparison to other districts in Mumbai, an impressive fact given that the slum has somewhere in the region of one million residents. A scheme to revelop the slum, funded by private investors (who are attracted to the valuable land upon which Dharavi sits, with its proximity to the railway lines, and thus the rest of India, and its central location in Mumbai –it is close to the new Bandra Kurla financial district) is vehemently opposed by many of the slum dwellers themselves. Whilst they would be given a free and legal apartment on the same site, many feel that they would be unable to earn a living if they were moved from their street-side accommodation into high rise buildings.
It is not only economic considerations that lead people to oppose the redevelopment, but cultural considerations as well. Residents feel that redevelopment proposals will erode their traditional ways of life, disrupt communities with rich histories, and point out that the government is offering to re-house only those who can prove they have lived in Dharavi since before the year 2000. Thus, under the redevelopment proposals, the majority of Dharavi’s residents (many of whom have no paperwork to prove how long they have lived there) would have to leave, a scenario which would only lead to the creation of new slums. What angers the slum dwellers most about the proposals for redevelopment is how little they seem to have been involved in the process. Whilst they do not oppose redevelopment in its entirety, they feel that the motives behind the current proposals (which are led by the private sector) are predominantly, if not totally, commercial.
It is perhaps this reaction against the proposed redevelopment that most clearly makes evident the sense of community felt by the residents of Dharavi. Opposition to redevelopment plans which show scant regard for the preferences and desires of Dharavi’s inhabitants unite people across the religious divide, with both Hindus and Muslims (the two most represented religions in Dharavi) often taking to Dharavi’s streets to protest against the plans. Indeed, Dharavi’s residents seem determined to fight, quite literally if they have to, to preserve their way of life.
In an open letter to the private companies and government agencies involved in the redevelopment, Jockin Arputham from the National Slum Dwellers Association India stressed that the slum “provides income and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of Mumbai citizens who would otherwise have no employment”, in addition to cheap accommodation. He goes on to claim that if the slum dwellers’ offer of partnership is ignored, and development plans continue without taking into account the views of slum dwellers themselves, then they will resort to the more traditional tactics of blocking the city’s main railway lines (which run in close proximity to the slums) and even the airport runways. Arputham makes clear that if only for economic reasons, those in charge of redevelopment plans would do well to accommodate the slum dwellers’ demands.
In truth then, Dharavi gives lie to the traditional conception of Mumbai’s slums as places of squalor and poverty, whose residents have little or no hope of a bright future. The slum is a model of economic efficiency and productivity, a city within a city, a place of opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of Indians who flock there every year in search of jobs, housing and education. Its residents have a very clear sense of their own identity; they have hopes and aspirations, and a genuine belief that these are achievable. This is not to take away from the serious public health issues which the government must do everything in its power to address, but it should make any potential developer stop and think about the virtues of a redevelopment plan which has the people of Dharavi at its heart.
It seems that in a place where most things appear to be broken, everything at present is working quite nicely.