Dharavi is a story of ingenuity and enterprise; it is a story of survival without subsidies or welfare; it is a story that illustrates how limited is the term ‘slum’ to describe a place that produces everything from suitcases to leather goods, plastic recycling to pottery, Indian sweets, papads and gold jewellery.
What marks Dharavi from other slums is its productivity. It is more like an industrial estate than a slum, except that people live and work in the same place. These are far from ideal conditions. All the worst sins of production in unregulated developing countries can be found here—sweatshops, hazardous industries, insanitary work conditions, and exploitatively low wages. But at the same time, almost everyone seems to be employed in some kind of work. And many thousands have prospered through a mixture of hard work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity.
This ‘pull’ factor sets Dharavi apart from other slums. This was one of the areas which early on in its existence was recognized as a manufacturing centre. It was home to the tanneries because of its proximity to the abattoir in Bandra. Later, during the prohibition years, illicit liquor distillation became big business. The tanneries were asked to move out in the 1980s when the abattoir was moved to Deonar. Although the bigger ones did move out, the smaller ones continue until a few years ago. The illicit liquor business continued right up to the mid-1980s. The leather tanning business was replaced by a flourishing leather finished goods industry, garments and literally hundreds of other manufacturing units of all sizes. Dharavi was one area where any new migrant could find work.
Every square inch of Dharavi is being used for some productive activity. This is ‘enterprise’ personified, an island of free enterprise not assisted or restricted by the State, or any law. It brandishes its illegality. Cheap labour, hazardous industries, adulteration, recycling, popular products from cold drinks to toothpaste produced in Dharavi—it is all there for anyone to see. Nothing is hidden because people here know that nothing will be done to stop them. The atmosphere in Dharavi, even on a holiday, is like being on a treadmill. Everyone is busy, doing something. There are few people hanging about. The streets are lined with hawkers selling everything, from safety pins to fruits, and even suitcases. Behind them are a mad array of shops.
If you want to eat Indian sweets, buy the best chiki, acquire an export quality leather handbag, order World Health Organization (WHO) certified sutures for surgery, see the latest design in ready-made garments being manufactured for export, get a new suitcase or an old one repaired, taste food from the north and the south, see traditional south Indian gold jewellery—there are few better places in all of Mumbai than Dharavi. Some of these goods are easy to locate as they are sold in shops on the main streets that criss-cross Dharavi. But much more can be found tucked away in some inner lane that can only be located if you are guided by a Dharavi resident.
Estimates of the daily turnover of Dharavi can only be wild guesses as few people will actually acknowledge how much they earn for fear that some official will descend on them. Much of the production here is unaccounted. But there is little doubt that it runs into crores of rupees. A rough back-of the envelope calculation by Dharavi residents added up to between Rs 1,500 crore and Rs 2,000 crore per year or at least Rs 5 crore a day! And roughly around Rs 11 crore per hectare per year! No wonder people think of Dharavi as a ‘gold mine’ without even considering property prices.
It is virtually impossible to capture the diversity of manufacturing activities in Dharavi. But they can roughly be divided into the traditional trades and the more modern ones. The latter include the leather industry—tanneries, finished goods and other leather-related products like sutures, or buckles. Also in this category is the garments industry, most of which sells its products in the local market. Then you have food—sweets, papads and baked products. Dharavi also has industries, like waste recycling and foundries making brass buckles. In the traditional industries are potters, jewellery makers and gold refiners.
(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000))