Dharavi is an extraordinary mix of the most unusual people.  

Their lives are the story of Dharavi,

Their lives are Dharavi.

Once, Dharavi was a swamp, a fishing village. Today it is a slum, rather a collection of slums. Once it was open marshy land with tall grass. Today  it is a compact, bereft open spaces centre which unleashes energy  and enterprise,  demonstrates deprivation and desperation which epitomizes the crisis of all fast growing Indian cities, not just Mumbai. 

Dharavi is the reality of half of our people who have been forced by chance and circumstances to live for generations in subhuman conditions. It is the story of men and women who have survived despite our indifference, despite the hostility of the state, people who are also citizens of Mumbai. It draws attention to the urgent need to find space and solutions for the growing numbers of the urban poor.

Dharavi lies right in the centre of the city, between Mumbai’s two main railway lines Western and Central railway. These are the virtual lifelines of Mumbai transporting thousands of people from one end of the metropolis to the other. Dharavi is literally sandwiched between the two sets of the tracks. Mahim, Matunga and Sion stations mark its three corners.

Dharavi’s history and growth illustrate graphically the problems with urban planning by default. Governments first ignore the existence of slums and try to get rid of them through demolitions. When this does not succeed and slums emerge as settled areas through the efforts of their ‘illegal’ occupants, they are ‘recognised.’ After this, selectively, some services are offered such as water and sanitation and even ‘redevelopment.’ But slum dwellers are never allowed to forget that they have no legal status. Thus, when the land on which slums are located becomes valuable property, people are pushed out yet again, to another uninhabitable piece of land, to another slum.

‘Why don't they move?’… ‘Where could we go?’ 

Yet the central message from the tragedy escaped the politicians- that if the state has no policy to house its poor, they have no option but to occupy any vacant space that is available, no matter how dangerous. 

Despite the precarious existence, however, in many slums in Mumbai, enterprises and industries flourish even though some of them are deemed ‘illegal’ because they do not conform either to industrial location norms or to working conditions required of such units. The state does not move against them-turning a blind eye to their apparent illegality because it must know that they provide gainful employment to millions of people. 

You see all this in Dharavi. No one complains about the kind of enterprises that operate there day and night because they give jobs to successive waves of rural migrants till they can move on to something else. Many begin as workers and end up as ‘owners’ of small factories. Dharavi illustrates how the state in fact endorses illegality with one hand while trying to curb it with the other. 

Oddly enough it is this deemed illegal status of informal settlements like Dharavi that makes people presume that they are breeding grounds for criminals and other ‘antisocial’ elements. It is also assumed that the spatial layout of such settlements where people have no place to breathe and live literally on top of each other exacerbates tensions-communal, class or caste. 

Dharavi explodes these myths. It demonstrates that crime is the consequence of the states policies and not inherent in the nature of people who are forced to live in the slums. It also reveals that despite an explosive mix of different communities that live in impossibly crowded surroundings, there have been relatively few incidents of violence between the different groups. 

(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000)