Settlements like Dharavi emerge from the life stories of people who inhabit them. They are not planned townships much desired as a solution to urban blight. The way they grow merges with the lives of the men and women who imbue them with a personality.
Dharavi is a bustling, busy, chaotic settlement where nothing stands still. Almost anyone is willing to talk and talk at length. Dharavi is the intermingling of the stories of its residents-ordinary and extraordinary-of their lives, their histories and the history of the city of Mumbai. For men, Dharavi provides work and sustenance. For women, it means living in cramped surroundings, lack of privacy, difficulties of water and sanitation, and often carrying a triple burden of work. They work in their homes and also have to take up not just one but often two jobs.
As people lived where they worked, inevitably Dharavi developed with enclaves that were exclusively inhabited by people from a particular region. Over time, the select nature of these settlements has altered. Yet there are still several settlements where almost everyone comes from a particular district. As a result, you have a ‘duplicate’ Tirunelvelli district (very clean just like the original) in one part, where only Tamil is spoken, or a ‘duplicate’ Jaunpur district, or Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh in another part.
Even within larger mixed settlements, there are sections which are dominated by a particular community. Thus, you find in one section of Transit Camp, built to accommodate those displaced when Dharavi’s 90 Feet Road was widened, a community of the Konchikoris, a group of itinerant magicians and performers, who came originally from Solapur. Today, apart from moneylending, they make brooms.
What is common to all these groups is that they came to Bombay because of dire economic need. They were economic and environmental refugees. Under the grave circumstances like draught or debt, the communities tend to stick together, to help their own kind.Thus, when people from Tirunelvelli set up tanneries, they went back to their district to find workers. The Uttar Pradesh Muslims did the same. Over time it is these two communities that grew in numbers as leather was the main business in Dharavi.
(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000))