Dharavi Times-Mumbai's shantytown
Published: October 2009
When dusk falls, this part of the city is plunged into darkness. Perhaps not absolute darkness, because lamps burn glow in virtually every house and workshop, yet the absence of street lighting allows the darkness to pervade and nightfall is almost a physical sensation. Darkness and silence. And so it remains until sunrise, when a million pairs of eyes open and with a blessing gesture greet the new day. A new day of work, work in the sweltering heat and in the throng.
According to statistics, half of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in slums. Dharavi, a slum covering an area of 223 ha has been described as the largest in the whole of Asia, and by others as even the largest in the entire world. Though neither claim is true, it still is home to unofficially a million Indians. It is located virtually in the centre of Mumbai, between the two main railway lines and the exclusive Bandra district with its diamond markets and Bollywood studios. Dharavi is like a whirlpool, a giant anthill that has been growing for three generations, spilling over into every vacant space. If we view Dharavi from the air, at first we just see a brown mass which only later transforms into a gradually more discernable structure of closely fitting elements. When we come closer to the ground and peer into Dharavi, we see a living organism that, in a way known only to itself, still manages to function, steeped in the smells of incense and oils, fustiness, the flickering play of light and shade, and the explosions of colour.
The rhythm of poverty
The multiplicity of religions, the diversity of traditions and rites, the plethora of odours and sounds at first give the impression that Dharavi is immersed in chaos. Yet, despite appearances, this is a well organised area. Up to the mid 19th century Dharavi was a distant coastal marshland outskirt. With grass, banana tree bark, palm leaves and piles of rubbish the marshland was covered over and thus became available to the poorest migrants from all parts of India. In the 1930s itinerants from the western state of Gujarat established a potters’ community there. To this day their descendants live in one of the characteristic parts of the slum, Kumbharvada, in a potters’ colony at 90 Feet Road. With time the population rose. Hindus from Uttar Pradesh came as textile workers. Tamils came from the south to set up a leather tanning industry, which today is chiefly the occupation of Muslim community.
Dharavi is divided into sectors, depending on what type of workshops are located there. There are over 15,000 workshops in the whole slum area, most of which operate illegally. In each slum district there is the sorting of rubbish. Every day waste from all parts of the city is delivered to the slum. Women and children work on the rubbish tips day after day. They separate plastic from metal and burn what can no longer be recycled.
Every year actual living space within the slum is reduced. Present places of work, including small factories, one-room workshops and numerous service points, account for as much as 70% of the total slum area. Therefore living quarters are becoming increasing smaller. The standard home in Dharavi is approximately 25 m2, a space in which usually a three-generation family is forced to live, sometimes as many as 15 people. Most of the buildings in Dharavi have two storeys. The workshops are on the ground floor, whereas living quarters are on the first floor. The roofs serve as warehouses where all the family’s possessions are stored. The greatest problem is limited access to running water and proper sanitation. Every day women have to ensure that there is enough clean water in the house. They often trek long distances several times a day to the nearest tap, which is lazily dripping with water. There are no underground sewers in the slum and only one toilet for every 1,500 inhabitants. Quite unsurprisingly, therefore, most relieve themselves in an open gutter which flows through the entire slum. It is a dark river of excrements, discarded scraps of food and soap suds that spills out into the narrow streets.
Squeezed in among the homes, stores and workshops are hospitals, schools, tearooms, beauty salons and even a cinema. The slum functions, beats with an extraordinary rhythm.
Yet this rhythm will imminently be silenced. Bulldozers are to enter Dharavi and level it to the ground. In its place a luxurious city neighbourhood is to be built, steel and glass instead of the corrugated iron and plastic and wealthy purchasers of exclusive apartments instead of the urban poor who have inhabited Dharavi for so many years.
Dharavi Baćao. Save Dharavi
In 2004 the land on which Dharavi stands was valued and put on sale by the city authorities for 2.3 billion dollars. This central part of the Mumbai metropolis is actually worth five times more, but the selling price had to be lowered on account of the fact that it is inhabited by a million Indian paupers. A competition was organised to convert the area into a modern district. Mukesh Mehta, an American-trained architect of Indian origins, spent a long time taking measurements, making calculations and designs to put together a project for the modernisation of this shantytown. The Maharashtra state government willingly accepted Mehta’s project, happy to be soon rid of this blemish on the financial centre of India. The plan is to build modern apartment blocks, office blocks, parks, cycling lanes and special paths for jogging. There is also to be a golf course, clinics, shopping centres and a luxury sports complex. All this will replace the huts, open sewage, primitive workshops and the people for whom Dharavi is home.
“Dharavi baćao. Save Dharavi”: black flags are hung outside their homes as a sign of protest and anger.
“Let us not allow anyone to take away our homes” shout the protesters in march against the redevelopment of the slum. At the front is their leader, Arputham Jockin – President of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF).
“We will not let the city make money at our expense. Dharavi is not only our home, it is also our place of work. We have built it with our own hands. Dharavi belongs to us” we read these words in the Dharavi Times, a daily newspaper that has been published for years by political activists working in the slum.
The slum stands up and fights. In the heat and in the crowd, for its own rights.
Text: Iwona Szelezińska
Photographs: Łukasz Rydzewski
Dharavi Times-Mumbai's shantytown
Iwona spends most of her time traveling around Asia, on her private or business trips. The area she is truly interested in is India and its neighboring countries, such as Nepal and Bhutan. This interest was born during her studies – Indian Philology at Jagiellonian University (Kraków, Poland). For the past few years she has been working as a tour guide in India and Nepal, which gives her the opportunity to get closer to the culture of this land. She also publishes articles in travel magazines.