Inside Dharavi, a Mumbai Slum


At an academic conference in Mumbai last week, some of us were in two minds when the organizers proposed a tour of Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, made famous by the film Slum Dog Millionaire.

The phenomenon of poverty porn is well-known—it is no longer news when the egregious Bono scurries to Africa every now and again for a photo-op with a child who is nothing but skin and bone.

In the end, we decided to go on the tour.  The institute of social sciences hosting our conference is widely respected, and has dozens of cooperative projects in Dharavi.  One of Dharavi’s leaders was going to be a guide for our group, which was a good sign.

Another good sign was the strict ban on photography by visitors.  Among other things, this reduced to almost zero the possibility of our running into the camera-addicted Bono or Bob Geldof.

Like many mega-cities in the developing world, Mumbai is a city of almost unimaginable contrasts, as Bollywood stars and celebrity cricketers (cricket being India’s national sport) in their opulent high-rise apartments exist alongside crowded millions living in dismal poverty and squalor.

The population of Mumbai is 24 million, most of whom– 60%– live in slums.  The scale on which things are done is impressive–  according to the Guardian, 7 million people use Mumbai’s trains everyday (this is slightly less than the population of Switzerland), and 5.5 million use the buses daily (this is roughly the population of Denmark).

Mumbai appears chaotic, but this is not the chaos of unbridled disorder.  After a while one notices patterns within the seeming disorder, how the ostensible free-for-all on roads is underpinned by informal rules (quite different from the official highway code!), how a basic civility prevails despite the obvious rough edges, how forms of social collectivity and mutual responsibility absent in the west continue to exist in Mumbai, how industrious and business-like the people on the street are, and so on.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the celebrated 127-year-old system of lunch delivery by Mumbai’s tiffinwallas (or dabbawallas in the local language).  The tiffinwallas pick up hot meals in tiffin carriers from the residences of office workers in mid-morning, deliver the meals to the appropriate offices using bicycles and trains, and return the empty carriers to the worker’s residence later that afternoon.

Over 400,000 lunches and more than 200,000 customers are served by a workforce of over 5000 each day.

The tiffinwallas are from poor backgrounds and tend to have limited literacy. As a result, they use a relatively simple coding system inscribed on the lids of the tiffin carriers.

There is nothing high-tech about this operation, which makes it astonishing that the tiffinwallas have an error rate of 1 in 16 million deliveries.  FedEx or UPS would eat their hearts out for this kind of efficiency.

All earnings are shared, and the tiffinwallas receive the same pay. Each tiffinwalla is given the responsibility of negotiating the price per delivery with their customer, with the strict expectation of truth and trustworthiness.  (Clearly a con artist like Donald Trump could never belong to this kind of organization, with its powerful fiduciary element!)

The tiffinwalla system is a vast network of inbuilt interdependencies, with a minimal organizational structure, and although the name is not used, it is socialist to the core.

At Dharavi, between 750,000 and a million people live in an area of 1 sq. mile, i.e. the size of New York’s Central Park or 1/3 that of London’s Hyde Park.  Residences are between 200 and 400 sq. feet, some are shanty-like, others have a bricks-and-mortar solidity indicating permanence.

Dharavi’s striking feature is its combination of a residential area with another devoted to micro-industries including recycling, leather, metal, pottery, and garment-making.  There are over 20,000 mini-manufacturing units, generating an annual turnover of around US$650 million.

This is an informal economy primarily, so health and safety standards and supervision common in the west are in abeyance where Dharavi is concerned.  Some of our group went into a mini-factory where recycled aluminium cans were being smelted down.  It had no ventilation system, and we beat a rapid retreat as the acrid fumes stung our eyes and nostrils.  The workers operating the smelters seemed habituated to the toxic breathing environment.

Officially, child labour is forbidden in India, but a fair number of children seemed to be working.

An easy way to gauge the well-being of a community anywhere in the world is to look at the appearance of its children.  In Dharavi, they seemed well-cared for and happy.  There were a number of rooms full of children of pre-school age sitting on the floor and reading aloud to a teacher who was seated in the only chair in the room.

Our guide told us that an impressive 15% of the children go on to higher education, compared to the national figure of 24% in 2013.  Impressive, because many of these children have parents with little or no formal education, and countless studies worldwide confirm that the golden road to a good education is having educated parents.

Life in Dharavi is tough and challenging.  Sanitation, while improving, is still inadequate, and the water and electricity supplies are erratic and prone to interruption.  Drainage, especially during the monsoon season, is inadequate.  Infrastructure is rudimentary.

However, Dharavi’s biggest challenge lies ahead.  This is the collusion between commercial developers and neoliberal governments at both the state and central levels, which regard “development”, measured crudely in terms of increases in GDP, as a one size fits all panacea.

Dharavi is situated in-between two major railway lines, and is next to the central business district, making it a prized location for developers.

Unless held in check, private developers everywhere are likely to put profits ahead of the interests of local people, especially when the latter lack the power to resist what is likely to be imposed upon them.

The state government, in its desire to get rid of the slums and “rehabilitate” their occupants, enacted a policy which gave developers land for commercial development provided they built free houses for slum dwellers.

There was a catch:  slum dwellers must have have lived in the area to be cleared from before 1995, or, in some cases before 2000, in order to qualify for free housing.

As a result, almost 70% of slum occupants in Mumbai do not qualify for free housing, and are likely to move to a slum somewhere else in the city when they are evicted by developers.

According to Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority, as of January 2017, a mere 162,000 housing units have been built for former slum dwellers in Mumbai over the course of two decades.  The new housing tends to be on the city’s outskirts, far away from the downtown area where the former slum dwellers work as office cleaners, restaurant and hotel workers, porters, sweepers, delivery men, and security personnel.

If Dharavi is cleared and redeveloped, it is almost certain that its micro-enterprises, employing tens of thousands of people, will die a quick death.  Commercial developers make their money from building luxury apartment towers and space-age malls, and the moneyed individuals who are their clients are not going to tolerate the sulphurous fumes, the cacophony of metal-crushing machines, and the stench of leather processing emanating from Dharavi’s mini-factories.  These will be gone in the blink of an eye.

80% of the people who live in Dharavi work in these micro-industries, and it will be almost impossible to replicate these homegrown enterprises elsewhere on the same scale and with the same defining principle, that is, Dharavi as an integrated community where people work where they live and live where they work.  The fabric of Dharavi as a community, socially cohesive and with a robust entrepreneurial spirit, will be destroyed overnight.

As long as its land is treated as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, or to someone with the requisite political connections, the redevelopment of Dharavi will be fraught with disaster.

A more promising recent proposal for its redevelopment in fact calls for its land to be made over to a non-profit communal land trust, thus safeguarding it from the circling land-grabbing sharks who are interested in its commercial exploitation and little else.

(Taking the taxi from our hotel to the conference venue in another part of Mumbai each day we passed a large construction site with a billboard in front of it that read: “Luxury apartments for the precious few”.  A perfect way to let the cat out of the bag, in this case by not putting it in the bag so it’s always there for all to see.)

The same promising redevelopment proposal referred to above also calls for a “bottom up” approach to slum redevelopment.  “Top down” urban planning undertaken by “experts” on drawing boards and computer simulations prior to being implemented willy-nilly has had a woeful record of success all over the world.

Far better to take a “bottom up” approach, and involve the slum’s inhabitants from the outset, by asking them what steps they want taken to improve their community.  The inhabitants have a crucial “user knowledge” that should be the starting-point for any transformation proposed for Dharavi.

If asked whether they want an improved living and work environment, slum-inhabitants throughout the world are likely to say “yes”.  But if this involves placing them in high-rise buildings which jeopardize their long-established social networks and cooperative work practices, then they invariably say “no”.

This has been the case with Dharavi.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.