I sat at a posh restaurant overseeing the sea on Marine Drive. I held a huge slice of a delicious cheesy pizza in my hand. As I put the yummy cheesy pizza in my mouth my eyes shut automatically, the hot cheese melting in my mouth. As I opened my eyes again two children on the street were eating biscuits and looking at me standing at the doors of the restaurant. I smiled at them, they looked away and got back to begging. I have always wondered why was I born in comfortable circumstances and they in extreme poverty. What did I do right and what did they do wrong? As I thought about it and finished my pizza I knew for a fact that there is no reason good enough to fail or not earn a living with your head held high, not even poverty. I knew this because I thought of and knew Dharavi.
Dharavi has always made me curious. It made me even more curious when I read a book that described it as an example of sustainable living, building strong communities, religious tolerance,of using minimum resources to maximum advantage, and being satisfied in less and not more. I was also curious about the crime in the slum, stories like Shantaram kind of made me think what exactly does this place have? Why a million people choose to live here in minimal comfort and still never leave? There were too many questions and the answers just had to be found. So I looked for ways to do it, and I exactly found what I needed with “Be the Local tours”.
‘Be the local tours’ got famous with a video that kind of went viral on youtube. It was about how this concept was founded. This company is the brain child of Tauseef and Fihan who are both best friends who live in Dharavi. They knew that Dharavi had the potential to be projected as the place to visit especially to the foreign crowds. Initially they struggled but then slowly they did get a good response. Then the video happened, which was sponsored by Intel and they started getting attention from a lot more people, Indians as well.’Be the local tours’ is run by young educated Dharavi boys who are mostly still studying. They take you around their own backyard and charge you 500 rupees to take you into the interiors of Dharavi, which not everyone can see. Its an absolutely fair deal.
My guide was Hamza who is doing his mechanical engineering and speaks fluent English with almost a foreign accent. “I am more used to talking to foreigners in this tour. Accent toh marni padti hain,samjhe ga kaise unko? India ke logon ko Dharavi gutter lagti hai par yeh jagah sone ka anda hai. It is a city not a slum. It is a city within a city. You will see.” With this our 3 hour walk began and I did see with amazement.
Dharavi is Asia’s biggest slum. It has a little more than 4000 industries within it. Yes 4000! There top four industries are manufacturing of leather, recycling waste, textile and pottery. Ofcourse there are a lot more small scale industries as well. You can get anything in Dharavi, absolutely anything. From a pen to a Mercedes Benz. Dharavi has a a revenue of 2 billion US dollars and counting every year. It is home to millionares and crorepatis. All this revenue is absolute white, taxable income.
Dharavi hires thousands of people every year. These people are not locals. They come in from UP, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bengal and so on. Most of them work on a payroll that ranges from 250 to 1000rs a day. The pay roll is decided upon the kind of skills the workers pursue. The more skills you show more you get paid. They all live in the same place where they work. The living conditions of these workers is absolutely petrifying. Around ten men sleep in a place for 5, without complaining. They sleep amongst dirt, polluted particles of plastic,rubber, iron, aluminium and what not. The safety regulations for their health are not followed. Basic things like wearing a mask or hand gloves is mostly avoided. Though most of them dont have a choice. They are in desperate situations and making money is extremely important. Every end of the month 90 % of the money goes to their families in the village. The industries in Dharavi are for the strong hearted, the weak both mentally and physically have no place here. Needless to say the owners of most of the industries are millionares, and choose to not leave Dharavi even if you bribe them with a house full of daimonds. Dharavi has made them what they are. It took them from rag to riches and they choose to be faithful.
The rag pickers that we see all around Mumbai are the people who should get a huge salary at every end of the month. Why? Mumbai’s plastic and 90% of it’s crap is collected by them everyday and sold to the recycling industry in Dharavi for peanuts. The recycling units in Dharavi recycle 90% of Mumbai’s waste. If not for the rag pickers and Dharavi ,Mumbai would be the world’s biggest dustbin. Most of us continue to treat the rag pickers and Dharavi as they are worth nothing. After seeing the amount of crap the rag pickers collect everyday I feel like bowing down in respect to every rag picker in the country. We all should, really.If not for them our streets would be nothing but garbage.
The leather industry has the largest or the most amount of exports. The leather made in Dharavi is of a world class standard, its pure and of the best quality. The poaching of animals is done in Bhiwandi. The skin is then sent to Dharavi. The godown where the skin is cleaned and processed stinks so badly that standing there for even a minute is impossible. Not just the leather but even the final product like ladies sling bags and purses are made in Dharavi. They have mastered the art of manufacturing of leather, if it wasn’t so why would Gucci and Louis Vuitton be their customers.
The textile industry is the third largest revenue producer. The tailors in Dharavi are amazingly skilled. I know because a designer friend gets all her stuff stitched by tailors in Dharavi. She says in 10 years she has only found may be ten bad pieces or mistakes in their creations. They are fast, efficient and cheap. A lot of processes like dyeing and wax printing are done here. They now also have computerised stitching units, which cuts down on a lot of manual labour. Adding to this Dharavi has pottery experts who are all Gujaratis. Gujaratis make for the largest community in Dharavi and they are again highly skilled in making anything and everything with mud and clay.
Dharavi has around 50 odd restaurants, one small theatre which sells tickets for 20 rupees each, it has a vegetable and fruit market, a huge number of medical shops, meat and fish market, clothes,electronics,etc. everything that a human being needs to live is sold in Dharavi. What really impressed me though was that Dharavi has 9 government schools, 7 semi private, and 5 private schools. The literacy rate from may be 15 % some ten years back is now close to 70% . That is a great achievement by any standard.
What really hits you hard though is the lack of space in the residential area of Dharavi and the filth. It is quite overwhelming. The houses which would be as big as a bathroom of a basic middle class house would be Dharavis home. The houses are separated by the narrowest of alley. If your waist size is 40 you will have to walk side ways and the wall will press you from both the sides. If you are more than that you wont be ever invited in a house in Dharavi due to pure techincal reasons. The are really that narrow, so all you can do is get fitter. In this small houses live big families, ranging from 2 to 10. Most of these houses have a small room above, which is used to live in the monsoons when there is excessive flooding. In all the other seasons it is rented. For a Dharavian making money is number one priority not comfort. If for example 30000 people live in a square foot in Mumbai then 5 lakh people live in the same area in Dharavi. Now close your eyes and just imagine that before you read further.
There is a gutter that flows beneath these alleys 24/7, which is deposited in what is called as the ‘Sweet River of Dharavi.” All their crap is thrown in spaces as big as a playground without any concern for their own healths. The Corporation sometimes doesnt come for months to collect that garbage. Children play there as if it isnt garbage but trees and flowers. The parents are not really bothered. Most of the houses dont have bathrooms and toilets. Men bath anywhere in the open with a lungi on, women have a common bathing area. Toilets are common and not too many. So mornings in Dharavi are not very pleasant. God needs to bless you with a strong bowel system, or else you are in serious trouble. Water is supplied for every two hours in the morning and the evening, from a tap which have been designated to every 10 to 15 houses. Electricity is available 24/7 , thanks to which every house in Dharavi has a TV, a computer and also WiFi connections. Dharavians are too smart to not know the importance of high speed WIFI.
Honestly it is not as much Dharavi’s 2 billion dollar industry but its people that amazed me. There is every religious community that lives in Dharavi. They all live with absolute peace and harmony. They also dont have a choice. Every industry in Dharavi is run by workers belonging to a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim community. One riot and everything in Dharavi will cease to exist. The feeling of belonging to a community is very strong in Dharavi. The crime rate has gone to a very low rate in the recent 10 years. Hamza, my guide explained the reasons to us, ” If you look around you wont see a person begging for money in Dharavi. They wont. They are all extremely busy making themselves useful. If the men are working in factories , the women are busy making pots or providing domestic help in the near by vicinity. Everybody works. We are very busy people and we really dont have time to commit crimes. We might live in small houses but we have big egos.”
Dharavi is a living example of a smart city. What does a smart city boast about? ( eg; Nanded city, Lavasa) A place where you live, work, study, play, shop, party, eat and drink, have medical facilities,hospitals etc everything at a walking distance. Come to think of it Dharavi provides with the same facilities. Yes it is dirty, the houses dont have a swimming pool. Though Dharavi is a place made by its own people without too many blessings of wealthy and corrupt politicians or by grabbing land of a farmer for a petty amount of money. Dharavi is a self made smart city, that gives huge amount of profits to the Government that calls it a slum and gives Danny Boyle 11 Oscars for showing the worst of it.
Dharavi teaches you about humanity,religious tolerance, fighting hard, the art of survival, finding happiness in the smallest of places and things, to not expect help but to help yourself. Though most importantly it shows you that even if you live in filth the filth doesn’t have to define you.