Dharavi

Manoj Thomas and Yours Truly, with their respective kids, went for a Dharavi walk.  The walk had been arranged by Deepa Krishnan, an IIMC senior, through her company, Mumbai Magic. (http://www.mumbaimagic.com/) The walk started at Mahim station, on the Tulsi Pipe Road. A little away from the station is a  pedestrian overbridge to enter Dharavi. Clear instructions for the tour were given on the overbridge itself. No photography. We were assured that Dharavi is a safe place. Indeed, our wallets and phones did survive the walk. Though we did not come across any beggars, we were told by Faiz that the place is popular with beggars, all of whom are not residents of Dharavi.  Mumbai city lives in its cars, buses and trains, and so Mumbaikars don’t have the space to give alms. But in Dharavi, where everyone is on foot, giving alms, part of the religious duties for most Indians, comes much more easily.

Dharavi is spread over 550 acres. The population is close to 10 lakh. Possibly the highest density of population in the country, if not Asia. It was settled sometime in the mid 19th century. It was earlier a swamp, which was then filled in with construction debris of mainland Bombay. Dharavi has always been the first stop for migrants. Through our journey, we found that the hamlets inside Dharavi are more based on geography than religion. So you have a Tamil block, which is probably amongst the oldest. You have a UP block. And we also found a Gujarat block. Religion wise, it is split equally between Hindus and Muslims, with 40% each. The remaining 20% are Buddhists and Christians. There are almost 100 temples and 50 mosques in Dharavi.

Faiz, our guide, grew up and continues to stay in Dharavi. He is doing his internship with an IT company, which is working on some projects for Unilever International. According to Faiz, the Dharavi tour was introduced by Mumbai Magic after the success of the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.  

I checked with Deepa, who had a very different perspective. I quote Deepa here: ‘Actually the tour pre-dates the movie. I started in 2006, after a chance meeting with 3 sisters.  The meeting got me thinking about my preconceived notions of slums, and I asked my driver (who lived there) to show me around. I was fascinated by the various small entrepreneurs, all part of a highly informal but very effective interlinked network. Thus the tours began, with my driver taking some business visitors / tourists, along with an English-speaking guide. It was mainly for business visitors, about the commercial and industrial areas, and concepts like frugal engineering, informal networks, informal credit etc. After the Slumdog movie was released, I stopped the tour and took it off my website, because I was very irritated. There was some sort of perverse “poverty tourism” type interest from visitors. I was not keen to be part of that. Later I met a young man named Fahim, who was from Dharavi, and he and his band of boys wanted to do tours to earn some money and go through college. Fahim wanted to start a company of his own, so I mentored him, he came to work for Mumbai Magic, and I helped him to start his company. It’s called Be The Local Tours. Fahim’s boys now do all our tours. To support this group of boys, I decided to start the tour again, but contribute income from the tour entirely to Fahim and his boys, and to Dharavi Art Room.’

(Note: A video was shared by Rohan Singhal about Be the Local Tours. You can check it out here: https://youtu.be/JkLpCFmDKbM)

Encroachment is a way of life in Dharavi. Houses enveloping trees, even electric poles and streetlights. Incidentally, Dharavi’s land officially still belongs to the government, though there have been a lot of slum redevelopment schemes. Sale and purchase of tenements is allowed. What this tour wanted to achieve, was to show the brighter side of Dharavi. There are some, especially the young, who want to shift out. But not for the older generation, whose work and social life is based completely in Dharavi. In fact, there is an apartment complex in Dharavi, where flats are sold at 2.5 crores upwards. With clubhouse, gym and most importantly, car parking. We ended the introductory talk, by discussing the mafia of Dharavi. Faiz’ observation was that most of the slums in Bombay have members of the mafia, and Dharavi is no different. But overall, it’s a peaceful place. The only time communal riots have happened here is in 1992, like in the rest of the country.

The industrial area of Dharavi is very close to the Mahim railway station. Most of the units over here are related to recycling of scrap. We started with plastic scrap. The first step in recycling is segregation. Most scrap that comes does not have any identification marking. It is  manually segregated by people, based on touch and feel. After segregation, the material is washed. And then it goes to a grinding machine. The next process is melting and making into pellets. This process used to happen earlier in Dharavi, but because of pollution norms, it has been shifted out now. We next visited an Aluminium recycling unit. Old aluminium parts are mixed with some kind of aluminium ore. The melting is done in two batches per day. Each batch produces about 350 kg of aluminium ingots. I understood, quite early in the tour, the reason why cameras are not allowed. Most of these units are not operating with adequate safety norms. There is an unwritten code of conduct, where government officials turn a blind eye to these things, once paid a bribe. But putting photos of these units on social media, can create trouble for the unit owners. Deepa’s perspective differs from mine. I quote her again: ‘The reason we don’t allow photography is not because we worry about legal violations. It’s because there is something offensive and intrusive about it.’

We then went on to a leather processing unit. 70% of Dharavi’s economy is driven by leather. The hides are mostly got from Mumbai itself. They are sent for tanning to Chennai. In addition to Calf and Buffalo hide, sheep and goat hide is also used. After tanning, paint is applied to the leather and it is pressed. So black and brown are actually paints, and not the natural colour of leather. My question was is there anything which gets made without adding colours to the leather? The answer given was ‘No’. The skin is smoothened out in a press. There is also some scraping done, in order to make it smooth on the non-painted side. Sometimes with thick leather, they even manage to make two layers out of the skin. Suede is made from the underside of the animal skin, which is softer and more pliable than, though not as durable as, the outer skin layer. Often, the skin is exported at this stage, typically to Europe. The manufacturer who we visited, has even got his own brand, called interestingly, Dharavi. The prices were quite expensive, so we didn’t end up buying anything!

The last stop was Kumbharwada, the Gujarati dominated pottery establishment of Dharavi. The main road has shops selling finished goods. And inside are the kilns used for firing the clay items. The fuel for the kilns is waste fabric, generated by the garment manufacturing industries of Mumbai. There was a lot of smoke coming out of the kilns. The houses close by didn’t need any paint, because they were blackened quite nicely by all the soot! We asked Faiz if residents don’t have a problem with this. Evidently they don’t, because this is their livelihood!

A question to Faiz was, how is it that all these units give you permission to take tourists in? Talks have already happened with the business owners, who have given their consent. Some of the funds collected from these tours are given to charities like the Dharavi Art Room. This helps get the cooperation of the local business owners. And some of the leather guys also operate on the standard tourist-factory model, where some of the factory visitors could end up buying stuff. We should have bought some stuff from some local shops, we could have had conversations. And maybe, we could actually have had a chai at one of the hotels inside Dharavi, and chatted up with fellow drinkers..

We finished the tour at Kumbharwada. Saying bye to Manoj, we walked to Sion, where we got a bus to Pune. The auto-walla who took us back from the Baner bus stop, was also quite a guy! His day job was to run a jewellery shop. He also got rent from 3 shops he owns in Pune. And lest I forget, his corporate daughter earns 80 K a month.. So why the auto? ‘That’s what got me my capital.’..

Manoj’s comments at the end of the tour. The tour guide, Faiz, was very good and helpful. Overall, we enjoyed the tour. In terms of suggestions for improvement, based on my experience with other tours, I found this tour to be a bit dry on the human and socio-cultural aspects. The focus of the tour was the economic activities in Dharavi, which was very interesting. This tour could be more engaging if the guide could spend 10 minutes on human stories, such as the stories of famous residents of Dharavi. To be clear, the tour as such was good; this suggestion is to make a good thing even better.

I do behavioral science research and I went to Dharavi to observe whether and how poverty affects people’s attitudes and behaviors. I definitely did not go there to judge the residents or for schadenfreude (as some people have suggested).  You might find some of my observations interesting:

As I expected (but contrary to popular belief), the tourist guide Faiz said that people in Dharavi are happier than the residents in richer parts of Mumbai. This is consistent with the finding that a farmer in Bangladesh reports greater happiness than an average American. Faiz believes that that their happiness comes from their sense of community. Importantly, happiness from a sense of community is not ephemeral; it is long lasting. In contrast, richer Mumbaikars get their happiness from material and conspicuous consumption which can only offer short-term happiness. (I am not saying that this is factually correct, this is the tourist guide’s lay belief and definitely a viable hypothesis).

Many older Dharavi residents do not want to move out of Dharavi even when they can afford to do so. They would rather buy a luxury apartment in Dharavi itself. However, the younger ones do aspire to leave Dharavi one day. I think it is because of the differences in their social networks. Most of the older folks’ friends and acquaintances reside within Dharavi and they all share a common positive image of Dharavi. The younger residents have friends outside Dharavi – for example classmates at college – and they have a negative stereotype of Dharavi. Thus differences in social networks can influence people’s self image and their motivation to change.

One can easily see several layers of group identities harmoniously coexisting in Dharavi. There are regional linguistic groups within Dharavi; there are religious groups; and there are also economic classes. So a typical Dharavi person will define himself as Tamil, Muslim, or entrepreneur depending on the social context. Despite these distinct identities, they all live in close proximity, often sharing even the toilets. Perhaps it is the physical proximity that primes them to focus on the similarities between the groups rather than on the differences between the groups.