Dharavi: Self-created special economic zone for the poor
It’s a symbol of raw inequality, epitomising the failure of policy makers towards millions of rural migrants
At the edge of India’s greatest slum, Shaikh Mobin’s decrepit shanty is cleaved like a wedding cake, four layers high and sliced down the middle. The missing half has been demolished.
What remains appears ready for demolition, too, with temporary walls and a rickety corrugated roof. Yet inside, carpenters are assembling furniture on the ground floor. One floor up, men are busily cutting and stitching blue jeans. Upstairs from them, workers are crouched over sewing machines, making blouses. And at the top, still more workers are fashioning men’s suits and wedding apparel. One crumbling shanty. Four businesses.
In the labyrinthine slum known as Dharavi are 60,000 structures, many of them shanties, and as many as 1 million people living and working on a triangle of land barely two-thirds the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Dharavi is one of the world’s most infamous slums, a cliche of Indian misery. It is also a churning hive of workshops with an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million to more than $1 billion.
“This is a parallel economy,” said Mobin, whose family is involved in several businesses in Dharavi. “In most developed countries, there is only one economy. But in India, there are two.” India is a rising economic power, even as huge portions of its economy operate in the shadows. Its ‘formal’ economy consists of businesses that pay taxes, adhere to labour regulations and burnish the country’s global image. India’s ‘informal’ economy is everything else: the hundreds of millions of shopkeepers, farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers, street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, repairmen, middlemen, black marketeers and more.
This divide exists in other developing countries but it is a chasm in India: Experts estimate that the informal sector is responsible for the overwhelming majority of India’s annual economic growth and as much as 90 per cent of all employment. The informal economy exists largely outside government oversight and, in the case of slums like Dharavi, without government help or encouragement.
For years, India’s government has tried with mixed success to increase industrial output by developing special economic zones to lure major manufacturers. Dharavi, by contrast, could be called a self-created special economic zone for the poor. It is a visual eyesore, a symbol of raw inequality that epitomises the failure of policy makers to accommodate the millions of rural migrants searching for opportunity in Indian cities. It also underscores the determination of those migrants to come anyway.
Dharavi is Dickens and Horatio Alger and Upton Sinclair. It is ingrained in the Indian imagination, depicted in books or Bollywood movies, as well as in the Oscar-winning hit ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ Dharavi has been examined in a Harvard Business School case study and dissected by urban planners from Europe to Japan. Yet merely trying to define Dharavi is contested. “Maybe to anyone who has not seen Dharavi, Dharavi is a slum, a huge slum,” said Gautam Chatterjee, the principal secretary overseeing the housing ministry in Maharashtra state. “But I have also looked at Dharavi as a city within a city, an informal city.”
It is an informal city as layered as Mobin’s sheared building – and as fragile. Plans to raze and redevelop Dharavi into a ‘normal’ neighborhood have 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, when exposed, reveals something far more complicated, and organic, than the concept of a slum as merely a warehouse for the poor.
The streets smell of sewage and sweets. There are not enough toilets. There is not enough water. There is not enough space. Labourers sleep in sheds known as pongal houses, six men, maybe eight, packed into a single, tiny room – multiplied by many tiny rooms. Hygiene is terrible. Diarrhea and malaria are common. Tuberculosis floats in the air, spread by coughing or spitting. Dharavi, like the epic slums of Karachi, Pakistan, or Rio de Janeiro, is often categorised as a problem still unsolved, an emblem of inequity pressing against Mumbai, India’s richest and most glamorous city. A walk through Dharavi is a journey through a dank maze of ever-narrowing passages until the shanties press together so tightly that daylight barely reaches the footpaths below, as if the slum were a great urban rain forest, covered by a canopy of smoke and sheet metal.
Traffic bleats. Flies and mosquitoes settle on roadside carts of fruit and atop the hides of wandering goats. Ten families share a single water tap, with water flowing through the pipes for less than three hours every day, enough time for everyone to fill a cistern or two. Toilets are communal, with a charge of two repees to defecate. Sewage flows through narrow, open channels, slow-moving streams of green water and garbage.
At the slum’s periphery, Sion Hospital treats 3,000 patients every day, many from Dharavi, often children who are malnourished or have asthma or diarrhea. Premature tooth decay is so widespread in children that doctors call them dental cripples. ‘People who come to Dharavi or other slum areas – their priority is not health,” said Dr Pallavi Shelke, who works in Dharavi. “Their priority is earning.”
And that is what is perhaps most surprising about the misery of Dharavi: people come voluntarily. They have for decades. Dharavi once was known for gangs and violence, but today Dharavi is about work. Tempers sometimes flare, fights break out, but the police say the crime rate is actually quite low, even lower than in wealthier, less densely populated areas of the city. An outsider can walk through the slum and never feel threatened. Misery is everywhere, as in miserable conditions, as in hardship. But people here do not speak of being miserable. People speak about trying to get ahead.
How the chain works
The order was for 2,700 briefcases, custom-made gifts for a large bank to distribute during the Diwali. The bank contacted a supplier, which contacted a leather-goods store, which sent the order to a manufacturer. Had the order been placed in China, it probably would have landed in one of the huge coastal factories that employ thousands of rural migrants and have made China a manufacturing powerhouse.
In India, the order landed in the Dharavi workshop of Mohammed Asif. Asif’s workforce consists of 22 men, who sit cross-legged beside mounds of soft, black leather, an informal assembly line, except that the factory floor is a cramped room doubling as a dormitory: The workers sleep above, in a loft. The briefcases were due in two weeks. “They work hard,” Asif said. “They work from 8 in the morning until 11 at night because the more they do, the more they will earn to send back to their families. They come here to earn.”
Today, Dharavi is as much a case study in industrial evolution as a slum. Before the 1980s, Dharavi had tanneries that dumped their effluent into the surrounding marshlands. Labourers came from southern India, especially the state of Tamil Nadu, many of them Muslims or lower-caste Hindus, fleeing drought, starvation or caste discrimination. Once Tamil Nadu’s economy strengthened, migrants began arriving from poverty-stricken states in central India.
Later, the tanneries were closed down for environmental reasons, moving south to the city of Chennai, or to other slums elsewhere. Yet Dharavi had a skilled labor force, as well as cheap costs for workshops and workers, and informal networks between suppliers, middlemen and workshops. So Dharavi’s leather trade moved up the value chain, as small workshops used raw leather processed elsewhere to make handbags for some of the priciest stores in India.
Today, more than 8 million people live in Mumbai’s slums, according to some estimates, a huge figure that accounts for more than half the city’s population. Many people live in slums because they cannot afford to live anywhere else, and government efforts to build affordable housing have been woefully inadequate. But many newer slums are also microversions of Dharavi’s informal economy. Some newer migrants even come to Dharavi to learn new skills, as if Dharavi were a slum franchising operation.
“They are talking about redeveloping Dharavi,” said Mohammad Khurshid Sheikh, who owns a leather shop. “But if they do, the whole chain may break down. These businesses can work because Dharavi attracts labor. People can work here and sleep in the workshop. If there is redevelopment, they will not get that room so cheap. They will not come back here.”
Matias Echanove, an architect and urban planner, has long argued that Dharavi should not be dismissed as merely a slum, since it operates as a contained residential and commercial city.
He said razing Dharavi, or even completely redeveloping it, would only push residents into other slums. “They are going to create actual, real slums,” he said. “Nobody is saying Dharavi is a paradise. But we need to understand the dynamics, so that when there is an intervention by the government, it doesn’t destroy what is there.”
Education is hope in Dharavi. On a recent afternoon outside St. Anthony’s, a parochial school in the slum, Hindu mothers in saris waited for their children beside Muslim mothers in burqas.
The parents were not concerned about the crucifix on the wall; they wanted their children to learn English, the language considered to be a ticket out of the slums in India. Once, many parents in Dharavi sent their children to work, not to school, and child labor remains a problem in some workshops. Dharavi’s children have always endured a stigma. When parents tried to send their sons and daughters outside the slum for schooling, the Dharavi students often received a bitter greeting.
“Sometimes, the teacher would not accept our children, or would treat them with contempt,” said Mohammad Hashim, 64. “Sometimes, they would say, ‘Why are you Dharavi children over here?”’ Hashim responded by opening his own school, tailored for Muslim children, offering a state-approved secular education. He initially offered the curriculum in Urdu but not a single parent enrolled a child. He switched to English, and now his classrooms are overflowing with Muslim students.
Discrimination is still common toward Dharavi. Residents complain that they are routinely rejected for credit cards if they list a Dharavi address. Private banks are reluctant to make loans to businessmen in Dharavi or to open branches. Part of this stigma is as much about social structure as about living in the slum itself. “They all belong to the untouchables caste,” said Korde, the longtime social activist, “or are Muslims.”
But money talks in Mumbai, and Dharavi now has money, even millionaires, mixed in with its misery and poverty. Mohammad Mustaqueem, 57, arrived as a 13-year-old boy. He slept outside, in one of the narrow alleyways, and remembers being showered with garbage as people tossed it out in the morning. Today, Mustaqueem has 300 employees in 12 different garment workshops in Dharavi, with an annual turnover of about $2.5 million a year. He owns property in Dharavi worth $20 million.
“When I came here, I was empty-handed,” he said. “Now I have everything.”