Dispatch

Dharavi: Once Upon a Slum

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Dharavi lies between myth and memory. Lhendup G Bhutia discovers one of India’s biggest social transformations

A HEAD APPEARS ON the floor. “Are you still here?” it asks. The hair on this head is close-cropped. And its neck is stout. But its eyes are its most distinctive feature, bloodshot red, overtired. It has a dreamy liquid quality to it. It is the thirty-something Jameel Shah, the owner of this place. The rest of his body, hidden from my view, is on the metal staircase that connects this floor to his office below.

“Yes, are you still here?” Another head appears, this one inverted, through an opening in the ceiling above. I gather this is an employee of his.

“Yes yes,” I mutter. “Just wanted to take a peek up above.” And I tiptoe through the place filled with the overpowering smell of tanned leather, chasing a scent that doesn’t quite belong here. I walk over large lengths of brown tanned rawhides stretched across the length of the floor, through plastic bags of the most striking shoes, deep coruscating purples, fiery red plimsols, sparkling metallic blue salsa shoes with pointy heels, moving through sweaty men in undershirts hunched over their tools, measuring, cutting, gluing leather soles—this is a shoe-production unit—across a windowless room too tiny to hold these five men bunched up over here, when in fact on other days, seven of them work and sleep here, on two levels in a single floor (for there is a loft built into it), crawling on their fours to get anywhere. I walk up the steep metal staircase too small for adult feet, and push aside the inverted head to see what I had suspected. Among the stockpile of shoes on this floor above is a tiny pressure-cooker on a small gas stove. The man with the inverted head has been cooking lentils, adding its comforting smell to the odour of leather and unaired sweat of this rickety three-storied sweatshop.

I move back down and find Shah waiting for me. I follow him down to the ground floor of his building, into his office, where a TV set mounted on a wall displays visuals of every part of his small factory.

“Actually I knew you were still here,” he says, and taps on the TV set. “I could see you.”

Outside, the winter sun is making its way through to narrow lanes. Children are jumping over water that has spilt from jerry cans and accumulated in the road’s pockmarks. The rusted corrugated roofs and blue tarpaulin sheets are glistening in sunlight. And the workshops are thrumming with life, filling the neighbourhood with a mix of smells. It is a day just like another in Dharavi.

Everything you hear about Dharavi is both true and false. It stands at the centre of Mumbai and its narrative. It is both an eyesore and the pride of the city as an industrial hub. It is, as some estimates go, a million people crammed into an area about 520 acres, a population density more than 10 times the rest of the city. It is the cliché of Indian misery and poverty, a Dickensian world of squalid despair, of child labourers and poor sanitation. In recent years, as the rhetoric of myth-makers go, it has come to be fetishised as a place of boundless determination and enterprise. The residents of Dharavi are now recast, not as poor slum dwellers, but enviable entrepreneurs. And Dharavi itself has been transformed from a shameful zone of exploitation into a model perhaps even worth emulating in other developing world cities. A place, as this narrative goes, which produces goods worth $600 million to $1 billion annually. But if you were to break it down, say $1 billion to its one million residents, once you were to carve out the amount that would go to business owners and middlemen, what pitiable sum would trickle down into the weary hands of the average slum dweller?

Dharavi rests somewhere between these two views. It is both a symbol of stark inequality that shows the city’s failure to accommodate its poor half. Yet, it is also a place, despite the neglect of the government and society, that has grown on its own. Dharavi is a city within a city filled with unique characters and stories.

There is a hip-hop and b-boy dancing subculture here. There are people who play what they call slum golf, with iron rods and plastic balls. There are migrant labourers, child labourers, businessmen, bag and wallet makers, plastic recyclers, tailors, slum tour guides, pappad makers, fixers whose profession is to aid international journalists, filmmakers working on Dharavi stories, hustlers and hucksters, people constantly on their way up, or at least attempting to. All of them, a million people on a 500-acre patch of land, equally trapped and liberated in its narrow lanes.

Shah first heard of Dharavi as a 13-year-old who had just moved to Delhi to work as a wallet and bag maker as this mysterious place in Mumbai of many lanes. “They used to say it is a place where whichever gully you came out from, you always reached the same main road,” he says. “Now I realise they meant 90 Feet Road.” He refers to a road named for its width that cuts through one end of the slum, although encroachments and shops that jut out make it much narrower.

Born to a family of extremely poor landless farmers in Bihar, Shah arrived in Dharavi when he was about 14. Like several other children here, he worked and lived in one of the many leather wallet and bag manufacturing units. Over the years, he moved to other cities, pursuing a variety of professions, from that of a watchman to a mobile phone cover vendor, but he kept returning to the place of many lanes of his childhood. At one point when he returned, he brought along with him what must have appeared a strange passion in this world of hard work and grime. He wanted to dance. A tenant in a Bengaluru building he had worked in used to take him to a dance class. Now in Dharavi, even as he toiled in a leather sweatshop, he began to find time to pursue dancing as a hobby, taking free lessons from the dancer and Bollywood choreographer Sandeep Soparkar. “My co-workers laughed at me when they found out. They used to ask if I would become a nachaniya, a mujra dancer,” he says.

But the dance classes introduced him to a new business idea: dancing shoes. “I would take the shoes and tear them apart. I would do post-mortems on them. I wanted to know what was special about them,” he says.

Most dancing shoes used in India are expensive and often imported. Shah managed to secure a loan and purchased a small hutment in Dharavi to manufacture such shoes. This hutment, as his business progressed, he later built into a three-storied unit with lofts to cram in seven labourers and an office space. His early shoes were no good, he says. “They were so heavy and tough I could kill somebody with them,” he says. But his shoes are incredibly light now. He catches hold of a finished sole and rolling it up between his fingertips, he says, “See, I can roll them like a cigarette now.”

Today, Shah is the go-to man for Bollywood and TV actors and production hands. His shoes regularly appear on the feet of contestants in dance reality shows on TV. Moreover, he also sells over 100 pairs of dancing shoes every month, each worth anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 6,000, to dancers in India, either from a shoe store he runs in upmarket Bandra or through orders on his website.

“I didn’t have anything, no money or skill, when I first started out. I was just a kid,” Shah says. “But now I have skill and some money. When I think of it, I feel it must be Dharavi that gave me this. Where else could I have managed this?”

“I didn’t have anything when I started out. I was just a kid. But now I have skill and money. I feel it must be Dharavi that gave me this. Where else could I have managed this?” - Jameel Shah, a shoe manufacturer

“EVERY PERSON IN Dharavi is also an architect,” Raju Korde says and laughs. We are seated in a plush air-conditioned office, the shades of his window pulled down. After a lifetime of moving about through a variety of careers, he is now finally out of Dharavi, living in a two-bedroom apartment in Sion with an office in the western suburb of Mahim. Behind him in his office, rows of large untouched law tomes weigh down heavily on the bookshelves.

He sits with a calculator and a blank sheet, always ready to reach out to them to emphasise a point. “I had a 10 by 12 house [in Dharavi]. So I took in the six feet outside my house,” Korde reaches for his calculator, “it was 18 by 12 feet now, a nice 200 square foot house. So now I build above,” he presses some more digits on his calculator. “But who will build just 200 square foot? So I take in more space and I build a 250-300 square foot floor above. And now I have a proper big house with also a room for workers,” he shows the figure he has arrived at on his calculator. “You see, every person in Dharavi is also an architect.”

Korde is the kind of enterprising character you find in Dharavi, a restless figure constantly on the move, always looking for an opportunity, a better deal.

He was born in Dharavi to a father who had moved here from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra as a young child. His father sold small items and later worked in a factory. He would sleep on a ledge outside a shop when he first arrived in Mumbai and then later in a chawl in central Mumbai, giving him the two habits, Korde says with some amusement, that would stick with him for the rest of his life. He would watch a lot of late night films between 9 pm and midnight, since he had to kill time before the shop closed for the day and its ledge would become available. And he would always bathe, right up to the time of his death, at 4 am every morning, a habit forged in the chawl where he lived, where he had to complete his ablutions at the communal bathroom before the women showed up. “My only inheritance from him was a trunk filled with cinema books,” he says. These small booklets containing the titles of songs and their lyrics, the names of the actors and the producers and the plot of the film, used to be issued by film studios in the past as promotional material.

When Korde was 19-years-old, he established his first business. He rented 15 sewing machines and hired labourers to sew shirts in his house. He probably started working even earlier, although he does not disclose the details to me. “In Dharavi, you have to understand, even if you are a child going to school, you have to begin work early. If there is a liquor shop near your house, you sell peanuts outside it,” he says. After his sewing business, he started a tiny telephone booth, which he later converted into a mobile repair shop. Then came a co-operative bank, a printing business, stints as a freelancer for Marathi language newspapers, a local four-page weekly paper of his own in three languages (Marathi, Urdu and Hindi), where he says he was its ‘reporter, editor and porter’, Marathi theatre plays that he produced, an organisation called Dharavi Bachao Andolan Samiti that he founded to ensure that Dharavi’s redevelopment, whenever it happens, is done in favour of its residents, and a long stint as a member and secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party of India. “Sometimes even I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.

Korde shows me a picture of himself that appeared several years ago in a newspaper, where a much-younger Korde is featured under portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. “I’m a Marxist but also an entrepreneur,” he reads the caption and his hacking laughter fills the room. “A communist and a business entrepreneur you see.”

But a lot more was to follow. Korde became a lawyer next. But are you really a lawyer, I ask? “Yes, yes,” he says with apparent glee. “I became a lawyer.” Turns out he realised he could complete his law degree, which he had abandoned after studying it for only a year almost two decades ago. He dug up the mark-sheet of an exam paper from his first year as a law student with the help of a municipal corporator, sought admission into a new college, and completed his degree in 2010.

“Dharavi is not just people squatting. People come from all over the country because it is a business hub. You cannot just raze it and build high-rises” - Mohammed Mustaqueem, a garment manufacturer

Korde has now switched his allegiance to the Peasants and Workers Party of India. He is contesting the upcoming elections from the graduate constituency for the Maharashtra State Council and is also developing a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) building in a nearby vicinity.

Korde has managed to escape Dharavi. But he retains his touch with his old neighbourhood. He has sold his hutment, but he continues to hold on to his phone booth, which is now a sweetshop. In a way, he remains as fascinated with the slum as a wandering tourist.

THE LANDSCAPE OF Mumbai is always changing. As its businesses have moved from its southern tips to its suburbs and satellite towns, the geography of its slums too have changed. There are vast stretches of new slums emerging everywhere, in the western suburbs of Andheri and Malad, in Kurla and Mulund in the east, and in the stretch between Govandi and Mankhurd towards the city’s harbour line. According to a survey released by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority in Mumbai last week, in terms of slum clusters—defined as a place that has two or three slum pockets, each spread across an area of one hectare and holding over 500 hutments— the vast patch of Andheri East has replaced Dharavi as the city’s largest slum. Andheri has 281 slum clusters housing a population close to 800,000 in comparison to Dharavi’s 79 clusters.

But Dharavi remains Dharavi. In terms of a single contiguous landmass, it is still the city’s largest slum. And compared to the others, it is also the city’s most enterprising.

Dharavi emerged as an unregulated uncared-for space on the back of then Bombay’s boom. As the city and its industries grew, labourers came here from all over the country, escaping poverty and drought in their home states. Before the 1980s, Dharavi mostly consisted of tanneries. These later shut down and moved elsewhere. But Dharavi had a skilled and cheap labour force, and a vast informal network between workers, middlemen and suppliers. Textile businesses boomed. Small garment units emerged, often operating out of a single closet-like room. Pottery became better established. Plants came up to make leather handbags and wallets, plastic recyclers, embroiderers and food items, as did many other businesses. The result is what is perhaps the most diverse neighbourhood in all of Mumbai. Walking through it, you feel you are entering another world. It smells different here, not just the odour of sweat and labour, but of something older, ancient nooks and pockets; yet, there is also the odour of the new, new shacks and hutments, new businesses and new people.

As you walk deeper into the maze, the passages become narrower, the languages in your ear become more varied, changing every few minutes from Hindi into Marathi, into Tamil, into Telugu, even as the shanties press themselves tighter, and you reach stretches where wooden-frame homes line themselves on an incline like a single wooden staircase. Below, daylight barely reaches the footpaths, and above only a sky of smoke and metal sheets is visible.

Dharavi defies uniformity. There is a vast array of people here, not all of them miserable, and some happy to never move out of the neighbourhood, even when the opportunity arises.

“Why should I move out of here?” Mohammed Mustaqueem asks as he folds and places his hands on the table. “This place has given me everything I have.”

Mustaqueem is among the wealthier people here. He has over 500 employees working in 12 large garment factories spread across Dharavi. He does not mention the scale of his operations, but according to an old article in a newspaper, his units have a combined annual turnover of above Rs 10 crore. He also owns around four acres of land within the slum, and he earns rent from various businesses operating on it.

Mustaqueem lives in a large apartment in a building within Dharavi. He arrived as a 13-year-old, travelling on a half-ticket, he says, from his hometown of Rae Bareli. He slept on the footpath and worked as a tea-server at a tailor shop. Some four years later, he rented two sewing machines, one for himself and another for a tailor he hired, and began to work in a rented corner. “I was a kid still, but I was a faster and better tailor than anyone else here,” he says. “People would say don’t work so fast. You will catch TB. I used to be so scared, but I continued.” This business grew later into a children and women’s garment factory, whose goods he now exports on his own to several countries from the US to Mexico and Brazil, and domestically to retail outlets and shopping markets like D-Mart.

“I recently charged a tour group of South Koreans Rs 1 lakh, which includes a 25 per cent commission for their guide, for a day-long class” - Baburao Ladsaheb, a dance and acting workshop owner

The likes of Mustaqueem are also sitting on a goldmine. It may have been a distant location when it first emerged, but today Dharavi, served by two railway stations and at the heart of the city, is one of Mumbai’s most valuable pieces of real estate. Since the early 2000s, the land has been eyed by governments and real estate developers for development, but the project has failed to go beyond the drawing board. According to recent media reports, bidding for the first phase of the redevelopment project, estimated to be worth Rs 25,000 crore, is to begin soon.

But Mustaqueem is unsure how beneficial such a project would be for residents. “Everybody is always talking about redevelopment here. But if the development simply means luxurious houses and offices and malls for the rich instead of helping the people of Dharavi, I am not so much in favour,” he says. Shah has a similar opinion. “I have been hearing this for so long. But Dharavi is not just people squatting here. People come from all over the country because it is a business hub. There are so many businesses like mine. You cannot just raze down this place and build high-rises. What about the businesses and workshops?” he says. “Otherwise, you don’t solve anything. Such slums will come up elsewhere in the city.”

Through his Dharavi Bachao Andolan Samiti, Korde has been demanding that the informed consent of affected slum dwellers be taken for any redevelopment. He has also been asking that free houses allotted to local residents be at least 405 sq ft large.

What about the question of what will happen to Dharavi’s businesses? “This is the type of questions these do-gooders are always asking,” Korde says. “Live in Dharavi and you will know. See the exploitation here, the lack of water and toilets. And tell me if anyone living there will not want it improved.”

Mustaqueem is a well-liked figure in the slum. He moves through the day, wearing a crisp white kurta and cap, shuffling between his various factories and house, and everywhere he goes, he attracts the attention of passersby who walk along with him to pay their respects or chat with him.

For all its poverty, Dharavi is a relatively safe area. Crime and violence are not particularly common. But Mustaqueem, after all his years in the slum, is more wary now. He has applied for a gun licence. And he never travels alone. He is usually accompanied by one of his sons.

Earlier this year, during a walk in the neighbourhood one early morning, a man pointed a revolver at him. The gun jammed, but in the ensuing commotion, the assailant hit his face with the revolver’s butt. Mustaqueem holds a lot of clout in his neighbourhood of Ward Number 188. According to him, no one can win an election here without his blessings. In the recent polls, he supported the winning NCP candidate, and he guesses that an order to kill him could have been ordered by a defeated politician.

“I have always known Dharavi to be a safe place. Right from my childhood. I refuse to believe it is unsafe even now,” he says. “But now I am a little more careful.”

Several years ago, Narayan Pundharik Lad, who goes by the name Baburao Ladsaheb, discovered something unusual in a basket of tomatoes at his home in Dharavi. This tomato had a strange protuberance. And for the next few days, as he watched, he claims that particular part of it began to grow longer and longer until it resembled a snout. A friend spread the news. And soon his house was thronged by devotees, certain that this was no ordinary tomato.

“It was Ganapati in a tomato,” Ladsaheb says. Using photographs of this miraculous shape, and smaller tomato-shaped stones with the image of the god drawn over it, a municipal corporator helped Ladsaheb build a temple, now called Tamatar Mandir, right outside his home. It also saved him from losing his house, he claims. Before that, his house had been demolished three times already. Every time he put his house back, it would be razed. But after the miracle, with the corporator’s help, his house was spared.

Ladsaheb’s stories have to be taken with a pinch of salt. According to another version of the story, someone else discovered the miraculous tomato.

Ladsaheb is a colourful figure in Dharavi. A former sign-painter and film and television actor, once his house was spared, he built a large single room above his ground floor home. But unlike other slum residents, he built a dance and acting workshop here. This workshop, 5 Star Acting Dancing Modelling Fighting Singing, is Dharavi’s only acting and dancing workshop.

Ladsaheb has worked as an actor in several shows in a variety of languages. There are photographs and cheques laminated and pasted in several corners of his studio to prove this. But other stories of his, like taking to Danny Boyle in a high-rise near Dharavi on a recce before Slumdog Millionaire, have no evidence.

What is certain is this. He conducts weekend acting and dancing classes, often free, for several youths in the neighbourhood. And he also works as an informal casting agent, the official agents of entertainment shows tapping him every time they need people to play roles of beggars and drunks or just extras for scenes set in slums or rough backgrounds. He has supplied actors this way for several Marathi and Bhojpuri films and also for such popular films, he claims, as the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Paa, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, Rohit Shetty’s Sunday, and Slumdog Millionaire.

Over time, the popularity of his acting and dancing classes has increased. Ladsaheb now charges fees from enthusiastic foreign tourists and documentary filmmakers who show up here, brought by tour operators for a large cut, to shoot or become part of his acting workshop. He speaks of charging a group of South Korean tourists Rs 1 lakh, with a 25 per cent commission for the tour guide who brought them here, for participating in a day-long class.

It is night by the time I head out of Dharavi. A small thin boy, a student of Ladsaheb no older than 10, is leading me to the main street through the many lanes. It is hot over here. The doors of windowless houses have been left open. Inside, bulbs burn like fires at the backs of caves. Television sets are switched on to a Sri Lanka-India cricket match at full volume. The slum and its shacks are casting their brightness upward.

“Do you know what happened to the Ganapati tomato?” I ask the boy.

“Yes,” he says. “Sir threw it into the sea. Just like Ganapati visarjan.”

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