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Hidden entrepreneurs in urban poor dwellings

  • Published at 12:13 pm April 4th, 2019
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Made in Dharavi Bigstock

Dharavi- the becoming of a new business district. This is the concluding part of a yesterday’s op-ed


Dharavi is touted to be the world’s next Shanghai. 

Crossing the industrial hub of Dharavi is no different from crossing any other street of Mumbai, but we are now in Dharavi’s residential area, located in suburban Mumbai. Small children welcome us with their toys, while some can be seen bathing -- bathing is a must for all residents of Dharavi, owing to the living conditions here -- as we manoeuvre our way through dark, narrow lanes that form complex labyrinths to reach Dharavi’s famous bakeries. 

It is here that Mumbai’s favourite pavs are made, to be consumed across the city as vada-pavs, misl-pavs, and samosa-pavs. Owais hands me a Khari-”pattice” in Mumbai parlance -- to sample. 

It is delectable, warm, and crunchy, fresh from the oven. “From here, these kharis and pavs will find their way to different parts of Mumbai, and will be sold by roadside tapriwalas (stalls) for Rs20, while 5-star hotels will sell them for Rs200,” Owais chuckles. 

Right next to the bakery is the soap factory, which produces a brown coloured bar of detergent which is reminiscent of yesteryears. Known locally as kala sabun (black soap) despite its brown color, this is a staple in every household not just in Dharavi, but almost every other slum of Mumbai. 

It also enjoys great fan-following in the states of UP and Bihar.

We are now making way into the actual residential area, and saying that the lanes are narrow would be an understatement. Each house has at least four-storeys, each of which belongs to a different family, and each floor is further divided into two floors -- one for dining and washing, and another for sleeping. Sunlight reaches me in glimmers, and I find myself walking on a municipal water pipe, with live wires jutting out dangerously from the walls. 

Through an open door, I am able to see a family of four, resting on the floor in an area as big as a train coupe. It is here that they eat, sleep, and live. 

Owais guides me to the community latrines, but not everyone is lucky to have these latrines in such close proximity; some need to walk as much as a kilometre to use clean washrooms, which are often charged at Rs2 per usage. With an average of just one toilet per 1,000 residents, resilience is a strong attribute of Dharavi’s residents. The community latrines are neighboured by a small patch of land that doubles up as a playground for children, and flattened cardboard box serves as a pitch for the local youth. It is here that I see a tall, brightly coloured building which is in sharp contrast to the residences I have just seen. 

Owais explains that the building is owned by one of Dharavi’s plastic businessmen, and each apartment in the building costs Rs2 crore. He proudly announces that each apartment has an attached bathroom.

Our penultimate stop is the tannery, which has a state-of-the-art, air-conditioned shop offering authentic leather goods produced right here in Dharavi, and it is hard to imagine that I am in one of the largest slums in the world. These leather goods were once sold as Michael Kors and Armani rip-offs, but are now sold under the Dharavi brand, which enjoys a huge demand among foreign tourists.

The older areas of Dharavi are surprisingly huge, with Kumbharwada (literally, the potters’ abode), the oldest area where the pottery business was relocated, being the largest area. It resembles a small town. Contrary to common misconception, people of Dharavi do lead normal lives, and Owais, with his perfect English, is a living example. 

He grew up in these very streets of Dharavi, completed his Master of Commerce last month, and is awaiting his Bachelor of Education results while he volunteers as a student-guide with a local organization from Dharavi which organizes authentic tours in the slum. 

Today, Dharavi has two schools, and two pre-university colleges. Medical facilities and sanitation continue to be problems for this unique metropolis, but more hospitals are coming up. Many people come back to open their clinics in the streets where they grew up, Owais tells me. There are also those who live in Dharavi just to save on rent. But the social ostracism which begins outside Dharavi’s walls is harsh.

Entrepreneurship forms a major part of Dharavi’s economy, with several underlying causes. India might have done away with untouchability in the formal sense, but social exclusion is still rampant in Mumbai. 

“I am well qualified with a Bachelor’s degree in computer applications,” explains Junaid, Owais’s friend. “But when employers see that I am from Dharavi, they assume I am dirty, and tell me to leave.” This resonates very closely with the portrayal in Gully Boy. And it doesn’t end here. 

While the government has made education a basic right for children with the Right to Education Act, children find themselves unable to attend good schools. “Most of the good schools are in the areas surrounding Dharavi, and the moment school authorities learn that we are from Dharavi, they cancel our children’s admissions,” says Safiya, a mother of four, who will soon complete their matriculation. “We work day and night to get our children the best education possible, but the high and mighty of this city just talk about improving the world -- they don’t even give us a chance to improve our situation.”

Walking through Dharavi reminds me of all the locations shown in Gully Boy -- every corner looks the same; ever small playground has children running hither and thither; and every street has the same houses. 

Dharavi is intimidating and welcoming at the same time and cocooned from all the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, but has its own vibe and hullaballoo which is hard to find in any other part of the city that never sleeps; or in any other part of the world. 

It has a lot more to offer than the slums showcased in “poverty porn” movies and TV shows, and Gully Boy probably comes very close to showing the real life in Dharavi, albeit on a very small scale; Dharavi has its very own culture, history, and a rich heritage. Dharavi’s underground pop culture and artistic pursuits have gained a lot of traction in recent years, but a negative perception about the slum prevents people from understanding the nuances of Asia’s second largest slum. 

The denizens are embodiments of perseverance and resilience, and Dharavi has a unique lesson or two for management students as well. And at the heart of it all is the Indian -- and Asian -- spirit of jugaad!

Rishabh Kochhar is a student of Information Management in Mumbai.