Down and Out in Dharavi

By Julian Sheldon
Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Political Economy and Philosophy
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Photo: Dharavi main street vendors
When you try to imagine one of Asia’s largest slums, chances are you don’t think of a bustling productive hub with an annual turnover of close to a billion dollars. Nonetheless, this is the reality of Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum.
We tend to have certain images that spring to mind when we think ‘slum’: images of starving children, beggars, and shacks made of corrugated iron and tarpaulin. Slums are imagined as the ultimate embodiment of poverty, a place where our presence could only ever be an intrusion. In other words, they’re not exactly tourist destinations. Nonetheless, after deciding to completely ignore all of this, I found myself spending a fine Sunday morning hopelessly lost in the heart of Dharavi.
Is it wrong to say that Dharavi was actually quite nice? There’s a bustling main road, bursting with shops selling fresh fruit, local handicrafts and electronics. Delve into the labyrinthine side-streets, and you find that instead of run-down shacks held together by equal parts tape and willpower, there’s actually sturdy concrete homes, decorated with flowers and colourful curtains. Children play soccer in the street or men pause for a chai; in short, Dharavi has its own vibrant community.
It’s through this that you can begin to see that slum-dwellers are not just passive victims of poverty, but rather create their own livelihoods within the slum. There’s a vast economic ecosystem in Dharavi; recycling businesses process the waste from central Mumbai, whilst approximately 15,000 small informal factories produce anything ranging from leather goods to luggage, exporting them across the world.
Now, please don’t get the wrong idea; slums are objectively terrible places. The problems are too numerous to cover, but include the rapid spread of communicable diseases, the prevalence of dangerous illegal electricity connections, and high rates of crime and mortality. Not only that, but Dharavi’s prosperity is an exception amongst slums; each slum is its own wholly unique community. What ties them together is that they present a serious development problem that ought to be addressed.
There has been an endless procession of proposals to redevelop Dharavi, however they’re not necessarily proposed for humanitarian reasons. Dharavi is situated on incredibly valuable land in the heart of Mumbai, meaning that redevelopment proposals begin with developers and their visions of expensive apartment blocks and commercial zones, and then treat the rehabilitation of slum-dwellers as an obstacle to these goals. As such, the free formal housing that slum-dwellers are sometimes rehabilitated can be worse than the slums themselves – often overcrowded and far from employment locate on the outskirts of cities.
What any solution to the problem of slums needs to include is an understanding that slums are much more than just a space of poverty: they’re equally a market, a workplace, and a vibrant community. Solutions must start from the bottom-up and include those who live there. This isn’t an easy solution, but for the people of Dharavi, it might just be a necessary one.