Dharavi: life, industry coexist amid strange conditions

One's first impression of Dharavi, in Mumbai, is that this is what Apocalypse might look like, with its stench, filthy lanes, and makeshift housing. Yet there is a thriving cottage industry and life goes on amid the squalor, says tourist Paige Noon recounting her Dharavi experience

Dharavi, reputed Asia's largest slum is busy, truly busy as a beehive. They say there are 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi, located in Mumbai. It is also the world's largest recycling ''plant''.  As we drove out of Dharavi we passed through a large area where all the ''shops'' each had their own recycling commodity … tin cans, paper, plastic jugs, cardboard, metal drums.

One million people live here in less than 1 square mile … 18,000 souls per acre. People from all parts of India; tanners from Tamil Nadu, potters from Gujarat and embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh, have come here to make a living and to live.

The Dharavi economy exports more than $650 million worth of goods each year.

At the edge of the tracks where Sandeep, our taxi driver-cum-guide, stopped to give us an overview of Asia's biggest slum, many typical Dharavi ''homes'' could be seen in detail. Most of them are made of corrugated metal that looks patched together because of differences in colouration, mismatched seams between the metal sheets, tilting of walls here and there and a general lack of plumpness. 

Many of the structures are three stories with a foot print of 12 feet by 16 feet or so. Mostly the third story was more of a tower than a complete floor. The windows are simply holes in the side of the tin wall that were cut jaggedly in a shape approximating a square. In most cases the cut out piece was propped up as an awning of sorts over the hole. 

After getting an overview of the slum we retraced our steps circumventing the women and children who made their homes on a bridge. These people had no structure other than perhaps a piece of plastic to provide them shelter. Steam rising from pots balanced on makeshift, small clay fireplaces created the feeling of a kitchen. But little else other than a pile of clothing defined their space as home.

Sandeep started up the Maruti and drove us across the bridge into Dharavi. On the right side of the street stretching ahead were a long line of one-room shops. Each shop had one specialty, such as eggs, live chicken, earthen water pots, bicycle tires, handbags, shoes, or metal containers, to name a few.

On the left ran a canal whose far side was lined with the typical vertical ramshackle metal houses that stood precariously with one tilt counterbalanced by another. Over the canal hung several community 'outhouses' made of brick where human excrement dropped down into the water 10 or 15 feet below. The water in the canal was mostly obscured by floating plastic bottles and bags, chunks of Styrofoam, flip-flops (rubber chappals) beyond repair, and all kinds of unrecognisable debris.

With the thick smog in the air, the smell of sewage and rotting garbage and the canal clogged with trash, it seemed like a scene from the last days of human existence on planet earth.

and parked in front of an egg shop where stacks of eggs in caramel coloured plastic racks stood six feet tall from the ground up. We crossed the street weaving our way through a tangle of traffic and entered a narrow, dark alley that would lead us into the heart of Kumbharwada, the section of Dharavi where the potters live and work. A jumble of wires crossed each other overhead leading to a massive knot of wires that was held aloft by a pole fastened to one of the metal roofs. Sandeep said this was the electrical substation for the neighbourhood.

The alley was formed by solid corrugated metal walls on either side. Within 20 yards we reached a T junction with another more major alley … not wider but more extensive. Just before the corner where these two pathways met there appeared a large window of sorts in one of the metal walls. Inside sat four women and a baby. It was if we had stepped inside someone's home.

The women, dressed in saris whose colours were muted by the years, spanned the generations. The arms and hands of the oldest woman looked like clay. Her skin was thick and grey and cracked. They were all potters. The room was perhaps 12 foot by 12 foot with one door and this large window that inserted us into their lives.

Our driver seemed to know the family and took us around the corner and inside. They all smiled, giggled and offered us the baby to be held. We took pictures and shared shy laughs.

They were making their pots by rolling out slabs of clay and fitting them inside moulds. Once formed, the green pots were sent outside to the kilns that lined the long alleyway. Each family had its own kiln which is fired with fabric scraps from nearby clothing manufacturers. These 8x8 foot smoky structures are made of earthen walls with square holes cut out along the base through which red hot coals can be seen. The top is covered in blackened insulation material. The entire structure radiates a tremendous heat and spews plumes of smoke into the air.

We continued down the two foot wide main street to a second potter family. On the way everyone we saw seemed busy. An older woman carrying a gigantic basket larger than the width of the alley zigzagged her way between the kilns. A bent-over man stacked pots next to a squatting woman who pressed clay into a mould. Dogs here and there moved about rather than snoozed in the warmth of the afternoon. Perhaps there was no room to lie down.

A makeshift game of cricket was happening in the side alley to the left. Bricks were used for wickets. The players dodged the pedestrians and vice versa, adding to the challenge of the game.

The second potter family we visited had a wheel as well as moulds to make their pots. The work space was long and narrow with a small door at each end. An old man in a white T-shirt sat at the wheel with his back to us. He got up as we entered and smiled with barely visible grey teeth.

My friend and fellow-adventurer into Dharavi Cathy, a hobby potter herself, asked if she could make a pot for him. He obliged happily and the family looked on as she bent over the wheel and gradually pressed and released the wet brown clay into a small vase. After trimming the vase she presented it to the old man proudly. He immediately sat down at the wheel and threw a perfectly symmetrical large pot as quickly as a cup of tea could be poured.  If it had been a contest he would have won impressively. 

On the opposite side of the narrow room a toddler slept on a cot woven of jute. Stacks of pots lined the walls along with framed images of Shiva, Krishna, Ram and Sita hanging above. A set of narrow metal stairs led up to a living space. The living space consisted of three areas; a small living room probably eight feet square where a woman lay fast asleep on the bare floor.

To the right was a 2x4 feet kitchen area with a two-burner propane stove and a small shelf with pots. At the far corner of the living room a metal ladder led to a crawl space loft. There seemed to be eight people in this family all living in the space above the pottery shop. The system is quite efficient with the living space upstairs, the pots being made below, fired outside the back door, and sold outside the front door. No transportation costs other than the movement of feet.

The guide led us back to the vehicle and we set off for the leather processing section of Dharavi. Here again the streets were narrow paths and inside the maze of alleyways were a myriad of small, dark, one room manufacturing plants. We looked into one room containing an 8x8 foot tumbler of sorts that was used to soften leather. Turning around without moving our feet we gazed into a room where a slight man was brushing liquid dye onto a large piece of leather. There were no windows in any of these work rooms and the only light to be had came from the smoky sky above, falling onto path between the open doorways.

This was a Muslim area where Urdu symbols written on bright green, black and white flags hung like Tibetan prayer flags between the buildings. Just a few steps down the path on the right was a doorway leading into a room where fancy Indian camises - long tunic-like blouses - were being embroidered with gold. Six or eight men sat hunched over machines that extruded thick and intricate gold appliqués on bright turquoise polyester.

Further on was a manufacturing room where men's shirts were being sewn. Piles of scrap cluttered the floor and columns of neatly folded finished shirts were stacked against the wall. In the middle sat rows of barefooted men sewing under fluorescent lights. They looked up and smiled, some urging us to take photos of their friends.

We continued on the path, carefully avoiding excrement, spittle and ankle-spraining holes until we stopped at a jeans making area. On one side was a room overflowing with white jean fabric piled high upon itself. Here and there the bowed heads of black haired men and boys focused on their sewing. The room gave the illusion of an ocean of white dotted with the dark heads of seals bouncing in the surf.

The picture was starkly different when we turned 180 degrees to look across the way. Here was a one-room factory where only jeans of dark blue were being sewn. Again the space was filled reams of blue fabric and piles of scraps. Lined up under it all were the brown bare feet of the stitchers. That room felt like the colour of night coming just before the real blackness arrives in the sky.

As we made our way back to the Maruti we noticed a group of middle-aged men on the right of the path sitting together in a circle. Most wore white tee shirts. Their faces spoke with animation. Sandeep said they were deep in the process of arranging a marriage. As we passed by and looked back we noticed on the left a room full of women dressed beautifully in saris. They were drinking tea and chatting. They too were part of the ritual of arranging a marriage. Right here in the middle of all this enterprise the real business of life was taking place.  

We had at least gotten a sense of Dharavi. There is only one toilet for more than 300 people. The economy works but life seems precarious. I asked if all the children here went to school. ''Oh yes of course,'' Sandeep said, ''good schools.'' When we passed by the families on the bridge I asked if those children went to school, ''no'', was the reply.

He pointed out a hospital for the poor. ''This hospital is for poor peoples only, very good hospital, all peoples have good doctors.'' We learned later that this hospital did not provide adequate care and that the poor often had to pay bribes to be seen and waited for months to be treated. So some things like the polluted air and the filthy canals, the lack of sanitation, the truly homeless and lack of healthcare seemed to be minimized at best and ignored at worst by fellow Indians.

Despite it all life in Dharavi continues as best it can. On our way back to Napean Sea Road Sandeep asked if we had children. Cathy said no she didn't. He said ''why no childrens? You must have childrens, it is a gift for the people before you. It is your duty to them.'' Our duty.