Dharavi: Industry, Life and Colour

By Angela Pursey
A staggering 40% of the population of Mumbai live in slums. This is equivalent to half the population of Australia. The biggest slum in India, in fact in the world, is Dharavi. This infamous informal settlement, sometimes called “The Heart of Mumbai” for its shape, location and place in the economy, has a population of more than 700,000 people, and a density of 400,000 per square km. This was where we went today.
Dharavi is a labyrinth of narrow alleys bustling with industry, life, and colour. We walked through dim alleys as narrow as super market isles, doors open on either side to workshops where men sat at sewing machines, or worked as leather tanners. Stagnant ditches of toxic sludge sat beside the buildings, each alley tinted to the colour of its trade – blue for the denim, black for leather, orange for pottery, and red or green or purple where dying was done. By there was also brightness. In adjacent streets, away from the manufacturing, women went about their daily lives in beautiful scarves and saris every colour of the rainbow.
I think we all felt a little uncomfortable, unsure on whether we should enter this area of the city, if we had a right to demand to be shown around the neighbourhoods of people less fortunate than ourselves, and whether we were welcome, or over-stepping some kind of ethical line. As we walked through the settlement the streets were full of children running about and playing, they waved and smiled at us and said hello, which made us feel a bit more comfortable. Factory workers waved and smiled at us too – whether because we were genuinely welcome or because a big group of westerners was a novel distraction from their labour I am still unsure.
I was surprised at the number of schools we passed on our walking tour, and especially the number of children walking around in school uniform. We visited the Sri Sri Ravishankar Vidya Mandir school – a modest looking single story establishment of two buildings, connected by a high canopy of blue tarpaulin and bamboo poles, with a bright mural of Disney’s Aladin, Genie and Jasmin on the walls. In small groups we were invited to go to different classrooms and chat with the students, who were all proudly wearing their immaculate blue uniforms. I was a little shocked by the confidence of the students. As soon as I sat down on the mat with them a group of boys and girls flocked to talk to me and ask me questions: “where are you from?”, “Do you like India?”, “What are your hobbies?” When they told me about their own lives their enthusiasm for school was foremost. The students are mostly first generation school goers who live in Dharavi. Last year 20 students went on to junior college – a fantastic achievement for children coming from such a disadvantaged background.
Three main things about the workings of the school stood out to me. The first was the focus on English. A poster on the outside wall said “I will speak English at all times” and another said “I may not know all of the words, but I will try my best in English”. India has two official languages, Hindi and English, and thousands of other regional languages and dialects are spoken too. This school emphasises fluency in English as a pathway for success and opportunities in the work force. For many of the students at the school English was not their first language but I found them easy to converse with. Their multilingual ability was impressive, and I felt a bit ashamed that I could only speak one language.
The second stand out was the inclusion of meditation in the daily schedule. Each morning before classes begin, both teachers and students would take part in a meditation ritual, to calm their minds and prepare for the day of learning.
The third was the focus on goals. Inside the classrooms were posters of achievements the class had decided were their aims for the year: reading 40 books, grade B2 and above in all subjects. This seems like a great way to give the children something to strive towards, and aspirations soared.
Through corporate partnerships and donations the school is very well equipped, with many books, projectors and a SMART Board. One of the boys told me “I love coming to school because we have everything here – milk, food, love. Our class is like one big loving family.”
Perhaps not all of the schools in Dharavi are equal, but the hub of smiles and energy that is Sri Sri Ravishankar Vidya Mandir is a truly inspirational place, giving opportunity and support to so many children who are in disadvantaged circumstances.

Dharavi: A city within a city

By Sarah Larsson
Set aside all preconceptions of what a ‘slum’ is. Dharavi is a labyrinth of organised chaos, a thriving community of productive and diverse people. Order in Dharavi, and Indian society in general, is hierarchical. The overarching caste system is constructed and reproduced through ethnic, religious, gender, linguistic and class divides. Hostility and conflict are often byproducts of such complex identity politics. Dharavi ‘slum-dwellers’ are therefore not a homogenous mass. They are mix of distinct groups that manage to survive in the closest of conditions. They are savvy, social and strong.
The day began with a visit to a school. The school was endowed with decent teaching facilities, qualified teachers and an enlightened education philosophy: “to convert information into knowledge into wisdom”. As we travelled deeper into Dharavi, we came across an area dense with industrial activity. Leather, pottery and textiles workshops were tucked within open-sewer laneways. The area had an overwhelming stench of carcinogenic leather treating chemicals. Here, I witnessed the very bottom of international and domestic supply chains that provide a growing global middle class with cheap consumer goods. Handbags, jeans, belts, sari’s and dresses emerged as final products before our eyes. The industrial area was packed full of informal workers, despite its ramshackle infrastructure and non-existent safety regulation. I observed one recycling workshop that turned plastic water bottles into soft-toy stuffing. A loud machine churned out the bottles into a blizzard of fine plastic particles. For the mask-less man bagging the stuffing, long-term respiratory disease seems inevitable. As an informal labourer at the bottom of the social ladder however, no compensation or protection is available. Outside the workshop, I continued to dodge transport workers who carried back-breaking amounts of materials from one place to the next.
After passing through a dense maze of private homes – none of which appeared particularly private – we entered into Dharavi’s commercial district. This was exhilarating, fast paced, vibrant and various. Streets were lined with food stalls, clothing retailers, Hindu shrines, Christian churches and Islamic mosques. In front of these conglomerate structures sat female vendors behind small piles of vegetables that lay on tarpaulin. The gender divide was stark.
Throughout the day it became more apparent that physical space in Dharavi is organised in such a way that allows its diverse peoples to coexist in a functional and orderly way. Over generations, Dharavi has adapted to suit industrial and social changes – much like any other society. However, because Dharavi ‘slum dwellers’ have no land tenure rights and are technically illegal inhabitants, the space essentially functions outside the law. For this reason, order is organic, fluid, unspoken and often symbolic. The marginalised Muslim population form tight communities. Family homes in wealthier areas are situated away from large open sewers and rubbish heaps and enjoy the luxury of front doors. For the most part, people are happy and energetic because in Dharavi, they can derive a sense of belonging around a network of friends and family.
In recent years, Dharavi has received attention as a major hot spot for redevelopment. It is conveniently nestled between two major train stations and sits in close proximity to rising financial and business districts. One development proposal suggests resettling the one million residents onto 43% of the existing land and commercially developing the other 57%. Without any property rights, this mass of people have no formal power or agency to stop this from going ahead. Yet after seeing how Dharavi functions today, the political, social and economic implications of uprooting such a productive and culturally rich community would be immense. The destruction of Dharavi will not only disrupt the livelihoods of its residents, it will fundamentally undermine the development of Mumbai as an emerging ‘global city’. Who will provide necessary services for the surrounding elite? Who will recycle 80% of the cities rubbish? Dislocating Dharavi will also have significant implications for global production and consumption patterns.
Today, I began to understand that Dharavi is a place of contradictions. It is chaotic, but ordered; internally divided, yet filled with community spirit; a semi-permanent settlement that appears immoveable; a place of refuge and for those society has rejected, but without whom society would fall to pieces.

City Workers: Bubbles and Raj


By Cameron Young
B. Arts (Languages) (Political Economy, Government, and International Relations, Italian) 2014-2017

Indian urbanisation has been a saving grace for millions of Indian citizens. Employment opportunities, access to education, and better health and sanitation facilities provide a stark contrast to the inadequate social and economic opportunities available in many rural and remote communities. In parts of rural India high infant and maternal mortality rates, low life expectancy, poor literacy, and volatile food security drive households to migrate to the cities. We have learned that approximately 750 families migrate from rural communities to Mumbai alone, each day. However, life is not easy for new migrants and finding decent employment is a major obstacle.
The vast majority of employment in India is informal, insecure and small scale. Labour-intensive methods of production and unregulated markets dominate and workers are unprotected with no access to social security benefits. Nevertheless informal work is a valuable means of subsistence for millions of Indians who do not have the skills and qualifications to acquire employment in the formal sector. In addition, cheap, unregulated labour is indispensable for multinational corporations who rebrand products produced by informal workers in home-based operations and sell them on the global market. Survival and the search for profit drive and reproduce the informal economy.
During our brief tour of Mumbai city I met a young boy called Bubbles and his sister who were integrated at a young age into the informal economy. After school finished at 3pm, Bubbles and his sister would walk up and down the street with a box of bangles and handful of colourful pouches to sell to visitors outside the Gandhi Museum. It is not uncommon for children from low socio-economic backgrounds like Bubbles to work at a young age in order to contribute financially to their family unit. Unfortunately, for Bubbles and many other Indian workers, the informal system is manipulated to benefit those higher up in the global supply chain. Unregulated and cheap labour allow multinational firms to extract surplus value for profit through the payment of miniscule piece rate wages. While stable employment in Australia gives me the resources to buy a shirt suitable for the sultry Mumbai weather, the Indian informal labourers who made the shirt do not share the same kind of security.
I met another man called Raj, aged twenty, who had been selling small wooden drums near the Gateway to India for five years. He told me that the working conditions of a street vendor were not ideal. Long days of plying his wares without the assurance of making a sale was a constant worry. His wage was entirely dependent on variables such as his bargaining skills, the weather, tourist density, and personal health. No laws protect his rights as a worker. In addition, he spoke of how his need to work for his survival meant that he did not go to school. Thus his ability to move out of informal work was compromised. Whilst Bubbles and Raj provide a peak into the informal economy, they by no means represent the full diversity of informal labour which includes workers in the industrial, agricultural and service sector.
The complex and diverse nature of the informal economy in India makes it difficult to find any single cause. Our lecturers have pointed out several interlocking reasons for the pervasive nature of the informal economy: the weakening bargaining power of labour and neoliberal economic policies. But I am left wondering how can Indians in the informal employment sector overcome issues of social insecurity, lack of employment rights, and degraded working conditions? I hope that our upcoming trip to the famous Dharavi slum will help me understand more about the dynamics of the informal economy and ways to improve the life and working conditions of these workers.

A Day in the Classroom

By Elen Welch
B Science (Geography & Environmental Studies) 2013-2015

A difficult night’s sleep punctuated by howling street dogs and too-friendly mosquitoes was remedied by breakfast of a chilli spiced omelette and extra sugary coffee. I was ready to start my third day of study here at TISS, Mumbai. While I was initially overwhelmed, I think I am finally piecing together a cohesive understanding of what seems to be an incredibly complex history of government, economic and social dynamics. The theme of today was The Indian Economy and so the morning started with two lectures from local academics. Dr Rohit Mutatkar spoke about the extent of poverty and multi-dimensional inequality which, to the surprised of many of us, is actually increasing despite rapid national development.
I was surprised to learn that less than 30% of India’s population live in regular housing – that is, a dwelling made of permanent materials with a roof, walls, floor, kitchen, toilet and electricity connection at a bare minimum. Driving through Mumbai there are plenty of slum settlements located along major roads. I am curious about the status of housing and slum communities in particular. From the comfort of our bus many homes appear makeshift, but perhaps they meet basic requirements? It is absolutely crazy to think that one of the biggest slums in Mumbai is located just a ten minute drive from the TISS campus where we enjoy comfortable accommodation. Most importantly we have infinite access to potable water!
It was shocking to learn today that most Indian girls only complete five years of schooling, rarely reaching secondary school. Unlike their brothers, they often leave school – not because they don’t have the motivation to continue, but because they are not allowed to travel alone to their local high school which is typically located come distance from the family home. Learning from local academics, many of whom are originally from villages and do much of their research in rural India has been extremely engaging as they present the positive progress that is being made alongside the imperative for greater investment and policy attention.
We ended the day hearing about the recent dynamics of the Australia-India relationship from the Australian Deputy Consul General here in Mumbai. Australia is excited about recent developments in the bilateral relationship, but two things really stood out for me.
First, Indian students have long been traveling to Australia to pursue their tertiary studies – 35,000 enrolled in our universities last year. However only a few Australian students come to India to study. Our group of 15 make up part of only around 550 Australian students who visit India each year. And this small number is double the number of only a few years back! This is such a one-way movement. Yet there is so much energy, a vibrant culture and great tertiary institutions to experience here – not to mention the extremely warm reception by locals. Specialising in social sciences, I have found TISS a very modern and progressive environment where serious innovation is occurring. It is like a whole institute that teaches material directly related to my major!
Secondly, Punjabi – a regional Indian language – is actually the fastest growing language in Australia and similarly, Hinduism has emerged as the fastest growing religion in Australia. I think this is very exciting and shows the value of student exchanges that provide opportunities for students to become more involved in India and learn from others.
Continuing my studies – accompanied by regular chai and curry – over the next two weeks will not be difficult at all!

Space in a Mega City

Traffic in front of museum.JPG
By Nadine Wagstaff
B Science (Environmental Science and Geography), 2012-2015

The second you enter Mumbai you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people living in this diverse city. Space is a rare commodity.
The battle for space – physical space – in a mega-city of 20 million is what strikes me most. But I can also see there is a struggle for people to find space for privacy, visibility, unity and identity. The battle for ‘space’ in Mumbai is representative of many of India’s wider battles. Globally, India strives to be an influential nation, an economic superpower. Within India, the battle for economic and social space is pervasive. The North contests the South, lower castes battle for equal rights with the privileged, women struggle against the patriarchy, rural communities seek access to resources enjoyed by urban dwellers, the informal strive for formality and the poor struggle for the wealth of the rich. Immediate, clashing comparisons between the use of space can be seen in the location of informal dwellings or slums tucked in between and around areas of wealth and privilege.
In these first two days I’ve learnt that India is a nation of diverse peoples and realities, each trying to carve out a place in the promised new nation; a free, united and equal India. So how can I best describe how we have seen this battle for unity, equality and place after a few classes on caste, religion, gender, nationalism and governance and a half-day city tour? For me, the Mumbai traffic and the advertising billboards that plaster the city are metaphors for Mumbaikars’ struggle for space.
Mumbai’s roads are packed with cars, taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, scooters, dogs, monkeys and everything in-between. Each asserts a claim to the cramped and limited road, each with varying degrees of success. Lanes, dividers and signals are often missing, seemingly creating an ‘every man for himself’ style of survival. But is it? Are social differences actually played out in the traffic scenario? The newer, more expensive cars of the well-heeled traverse the city largely unscathed, while older, cheaper cars bear the dents and bruises of many a lost battle for space on the road. Larger trucks and buses use sheer size and force to navigate the roads, demonstrating a raw style of governance and power. Motorbikes and scooters represent the smaller stakeholders in society – sometimes able to skirt around the periphery of the traffic, yet vulnerable to the flux and power of the larger vehicles tearing past. Everything else on the road could represent India’s treasured individualism. These individual players in the battle for space hold a different power- the ability to sometimes travel adjacent to the larger movements of the city – swept along by forces larger than themselves.
The struggle for cultural space and identity is evident in the advertising splashed across valuable public spaces in Mumbai. As a citizen of a consumer society I can use these billboards to gain insights into some aspects of the local culture. Western-style ads dominate public spaces, clashing with the surrounding society. Many are located on the walls and roofs of slum huts. The ads display Western consumerism, materialism and ‘modern’ gender roles to a society that has different values. Women in ads often wear Western clothing, pose provocatively and appear to move around unrestricted. This notion stands in stark contrast to the few conservatively or traditionally dressed women seen on Mumbai’s streets. Such advertisements encroaches into their limited and contested space, sitting uneasily in a society struggling with stark inequalities of gender and wealth.
But, despite the daily struggle for space and apparent chaos, Mumbai appears to function well, with signs of community, sustainability and opportunity. Each player in this city seems to have found some space, providing hope for a future and more inclusive democracy.

Sydney’s Inaugural Indian Field school

In the first week of February The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Faculty of Science will kick off the inaugural 3 week intensive Indian field school: Political Economy of Development and Environment in India (GEOS 3055).
The University of Sydney operates this field school in collaboration with two prestigious Indian universities, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Institute for Social and Economic Change. It is an intensive, integrated three-week program of classes and field visits to address the political economy of development and environmental management in India.
Fifteen students majoring in Political Economy or Geogrpahy are participating. They will be introduced to Indian scholars and civil society groups working on issues of geopolitical, economic and environmental importance, and contextualise these issues in the rich tradition of social science that has arisen in India during the past century.
Students will gain unique insights into the vast challenges faced by one of the most important nations in the 21st century global economy, and gain research and analytical skills through observation and analysis of India’s development and environmental complexity.
Week one

Held in Mumbai, we will stay at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences campus and participate in tailored classes and city tours developed by local academic staff in collaboration with University of Sydney convenors. Students will take classes in the history of India’s development experience and the political, economic, class, caste, religious and cultural underpinnings of resource distribution and patterns of inequality.
Week two
We will travel by train to the remote rural community of Tuljapur and stay at the Tata Institute’s campus where we will see rural India firsthand. Day trips to local villages and discussions with local farmers and government authorities complement classes examining economic and social change in rural India.
Week three
We will first focus on the environment and sustainability as we travel to the Western Ghats, an extensive mountainous area in southwest India recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage site because of its unique biosphere. We will learn from local environmental researchers about the challenges of maintaining the region’s biological diversity while accommodating the pressures of agriculture and tourism. The field school concludes in the booming city of Bangalore where we will have classes on urban growth and transformation and the effects of globalisation; we will also visit the technology parks that makes this city a vital cog in the global economy.