In Maximum City, a Pocket of Hope Called Dharavi - The New Indian Express

In Maximum City, a Pocket of Hope Called Dharavi

Published: 17th August 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 16th August 2014 06:06 PM

The remnants of some white plastic chairs are piled up on the roof of one of the corrugated huts in the slums of Dharavi. Another roof is covered with blue and yellow canisters.

A third roof is made up almost entirely of black plastic barrels.

Beneath these coverings are rooms illuminated by cold neon lights and tens of thousands of hands are busy at work, sifting through the detritus of the Indian metropolis of Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

Dented containers are teased back into shape to be sold anew, waste paper is piled high and other scraps of plastic are washed, ground and converted into reusable pellets.

“None of this stuff is actually rubbish,” says Subhash Naidu. The tousle-headed 21-year-old was born and bred in Dharavi—among around 1 million other people. Recycling is the big industry here not only for the locals but also for labourers from the outlying regions.

“The shop owners let them sleep in the workshops for nothing,” explains Naidu. “That ensures that they have unpaid security people keeping an eye on things and that people do not arrive late for work.”

Naidu is a member of a hip-hop and break-dance group, the Slumdogs, named after the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, which was set hereabouts. When the inquisitive young man clambers onto the roofs he can gaze over one of Asia’s largest poorhouses. The squalor here is fringed by elegant skyscrapers and the powerhouse offices of India’ financial and economic stakeholders. This is Bollywood, and Dharavi is slap-bang in the middle of it all.

The bankers and traders of India’s booming middle class generally do not set foot in Dharavi.

Krishna Pujari is an exception. The wiry man with a broad smile is in charge of the education foundation Reality Gives and he believes there is more to this densely populated 1.7 square kilometres than meets the eye.

“Dharavi represents the heartbeat of Bombay’s cottage industries,” he says. The tangle of roads, dusty tracks and narrow passageways is a hive of activity.

At one place women are rolling out papad, allowing the thin, round sheets to dry before the crisp savouries are delivered to restaurants around the city.

In a tailor’s shop, men are hunched behind sewing machines assembling jeans. Elegantly cut dress clothes wrapped carefully in protective plastic are being loaded onto a cart which is drawn by an ox.

Pujari reckons that the combined turnover of Dharavi’s workshops adds up to the equivalent more than half a billion euros a year. Most of the firms are not officially registered. They would not qualify for a stamp of approval anyway because of poor working conditions, long hours and the toxic materials used. “Living and working here is hard as the infrastructure is very bad,” he says.

“The power supply is intermittent, the sewers are open and there are hardly any adequate toilets,” says Pujari. Yet despite these hardships, people manage to organise themselves and get work done.

Dhanji Bhai Laxman Prajapati is at work on the ground floor of his tiny house, sewing sari blouses for his neighbours. The light green room is sparsely furnished. Apart from the sewing machine and a stool, there is only enough room for the blouses, a small set of shelves and a twin hotplate. Adorning a wall is a small red mirror with a comb attached.

His clothes washing and shower facilities are outside, says the 45-year-old tersely. Beyond the front door he shares a tap with around a dozen other families. Water issues out of it for just a few hours a day.

A flight of stairs leads to the next floor where the Prajapatis live much as their grandparents did 50 years ago. Their sleeping quarters consist of just a few square metres but are becoming increasingly confined.

“My son will be getting married soon and we need more space,” laments Prajapati. He would like to see the local administration finally make some progress on a plan mooted eight years ago to tear down the huts in Dharavi and replace them with new apartment blocks.

These would provide 30 square metres for every slum family and people like Prajapati could use the premises as workshop at the same time.

The same does not apply to the aged potter on the corner who perches on a brick while propelling his potter’s wheel with a stick. His fingers slowly form the clay into a bulbous vessel before he slices it off with a knife and sets it down alongside to dry in the sun, along with hundeds of other clay items. The man with the white cap and a grey beard sits in a large open pit which will be later covered over and used as furnace to fire the pottery. It is hard to imagine anyone doing that in a high-rise apartment.

Local potters are understandably getting hot under the collar over the whole subject of “urban redevelopment.”“We need somewhere to put the clay for our work. We don’t know how to do anything else,” says Ramiben Devaliya. Her job every day is to heave a woven basket full of jugs on to her heads and walk with it from Dharavi into a Mumbai suburb where the pots are sold.

“We are not going to give this up,” she says fiercely. Her cousin suddenly appears and joins the invective. “The best of apartments is of no use if we cannot make pottery in it,” he says.

The planners have not taken these wishes into consideration and their blueprints envisage the bulldozed slum territory being occupied in future by shopping malls and luxury retail outlets.

“These people are living in a grey area,” says Vinod Shetty, a lawyer and director of the Dharavi Project Arcorn. The land under their feet is mostly owned by the state but the houses belong to those who dwell in them.

Since the business are not officially registered, they are not eligible for loans from local banks. Although they are treated as outsiders by the rest of the city, the people hereabouts are determined to be taken seriously.

“They have got there by dint of hard work and their will to survive,” says Shetty. A slum identity has since emerged, she adds. “These people do not see themselves as part of civil society and even though they are successful in economic terms they stay in Dharavi where they are appreciated,” says NGO founder Pujari.

One of his female friends from the slums is a flight attendant but she doesn’t tell anyone in the outside world where she lives.

Oddly enough, the main street in Dharavi with its eateries, kiosks and pharmacies does not look a whole lot different from other streets in Mumbai.

On 90 Feet Street, so named because of its width, there is even a jeweller’s shop and a photo supplier. There is no cinema but that is more than made up for by Mr Ramaswamy. He sits on a much-washed piece of cloth with a sign above him which reads: “Raapam Video Theatre.”

Those who pay 10 rupees can take their place in the darkened room behind him.

The premises can hold around 40 people. Most of them lie on the concrete floor asleep. Others stare at the outsized flat TV screen.

“There are four video parlours in Dharavi,” says the proprietor. He and his family specialise in Tamil-language films for immigrants from the south of the country.

“Dharavi is like a city in its own right,” says Pujari. There are bakers, cooks and carpenters and the place even has its own police station, a cemetery and several schools. As is often the case in India, Hindus, Muslims and Christians live here in harmony.

“I even know one Muslim carpenter who makes Hindu shrines, says Pujari.

Entrepreneurship is everywhere to be seen in Dharavi, says Shetty. One businessmen is Jameel Shah. Like many others, the 30-year-old lives in a tiny room. He sports designer stubble and carries an iPad.

His walls are draped with traditional sherwani garments and he specialises in fashioning high-quality dancing shoes from soft velour leather. Pop star Kylie Minogue owns a pair.

Shah is a runaway. The young man fled his village of Doghra in Bihar at 12 and arrived in Mumbai aged 15. His ambition was “to become famous in Bollywood,” he says. To do that he had to learn how to dance.

“My dancing instructor had these great shoes from the UK and I wanted to have some too.” The price tag of $1,200 was astonomically high and I realised that “if I wanted some like these I would have to make them myself”. The first of his creations were snapped up by his teacher and dance partners. Now they are worn by Katrina Kaif, Bipasha Basu and Farah Khan.

Shah has eight staff at his workshop. There are versions for all styles of dancing from flamenco to ballet. He has to laugh when he quotes what the slum people call him: “You’re the Bollywood Shoemaker, aren’t you?”

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