Guest Post: The Other India: Dharavi, Mumbai (by Matt Faherty)

Mumbai Days 3 and 4 – Slums Below, Death from Above

[We continue, in a manner reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, with Matt’s travels in India prior to the Nepal earthquake.]

In my last post, I walked around the wealthiest part of the wealthiest city in India. Today I explored the poorest part.

According to my guide at Reality Tours and Travel, Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia, with one million individuals packed into 1.75 square kilometers. In comparison, Manhattan’s skyscrapers give the island a population density of a mere 26,000 individuals per square kilometer while these Indians pack more than ten times that amount into two story concrete blocks. Dharavi is in the heart of Delhi and has grown rapidly over the last few decades. Likewise, slum tourism has really taken off over the last decade. In the Indian case, this is largely, though not entirely a product of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The tour guide told my six-person group to call him “Monroe,” and he laid out a few ground rules before entering the slums:

  •             First, no cameras. Apparently the locals don’t take kindly to being treated like wildlife.
  •             Second, don’t hold your nose if something smells or make any other obnoxious indicators of disgust towards the neighborhood.
  •             Third, the primary purpose of the tour was to combat negative steryotypes about the slums. Apparently, after Slumdog Millionaire became a world-wide hit, everyone thought the Indian slums are inhabited solely by beggars, gangs, and drug addicts. In reality Dharavi is basically an industrial region involved primarily with recycling and small scale manufacturing.

Since I couldn’t take pictures, I diligently took notes. The following is based on Monroe’s presentation and my observations.

Dharavi was first inhabited 174 years ago when the British were busy spreading their settlement up Mumbai’s peninsula. At the time it was a swamp and not particularly amenable to habitation. Still, a small native settlement was established, but theregion didn’t really take off until the 1960s and 70s. By the 1980s, Dharavi had exploded into the largest slum in Asia in terms of population and still holds this distinction today.

In India, the term, “slum,” technically refers to any group of buildings built illegally on government land.* Over time, many slums in India gain legitimacy and government recognition, but they are still referred to as slums. This is the case for Dharavi and all other slums in Mumbai built before 1995. Post 1995 slums are largely beggar communities set up in make-shift shacks, while Dharavi consists mostly of two story concrete blocks with metal sheeting for roofs.

“Dharavi Slum in Mumbai” by Kounosu – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

According to Monroe, most Indians think that slums are filled with lazy bums who don’t want to work and are content to live on whatever scrap they can gather from landfills or whatever they can beg from productive citizens. This was the impression I got from at least one Indian I spoke to in my guesthouse in Mumbai. Contrary to these expectations, Dharavi has a GDP of $665 million (though Wikipedia says the figure is closer to $500 million) according to the Indian government’s equivalent to the IRS. Some quick math indicates a GDP per capita of about $665, compared to a national Indian average of $1,500. So while Dharavi isn’t quite a massive Hoover City, it isn’t an economic juggernaut either.

Dharavi’s recycling and manufacturing economy consists of 10,000 businesses run by 8,000 owners. Mumbai produces 10,000 tons of trash per day, and about 70% of it is processed in Dharavi. On the manufacturing end, Monroe told us that we would be shocked how many high end leather products sold in Paris and London were made here. Basically, Dharavi is a strongly entrepreneurial and productive community, which despite its poverty, is an important component of Mumbai.

The tour started on an overpass above the Mumbai railway. After an introduction, our group walked across the overpass and we entered Dharavi. My first impression is that it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. It is dirtier, greyer, and more crowded than the surrounding areas, but not by a huge margin. The buildings are mostly two story concrete blocks without doors or windows. None of them are painted and the vast majority are grey. The street is dirt, and the rapidly disintegrating sidewalks are stone.

Lining the sides of the bigger streets are all of the same stores one finds in the rest of India, only smaller, dirtier, and shittier. There are grocers, small food markets, repair stores, etc. I didn’t buy anything but the prices were shockingly low. Monroe told us we could get a full acupuncture treatment for 290 rupees, or about 30 cents. There was also a shop which sold selfies; even desperately impoverished Indians like pictures of themselves.

After walking along the main road for a bit, we turned into one of hundreds of very similar looking side streets. We were in the commercial district, so this whole area was packed to the brim with tiny businesses. Our first stop was at a plastic recycling operation. Three guys stood outside a bed room-sized room which had some sort of rusty machinery in it. Outside, there were dozens of massive white sacks filled with bits of plastic. In another room, a guy sat on his knees in a pile of plastic which reached a foot high and covered the floor of the entire 20 by 20 foot room.

Monroe explained that there were businesses which collected plastic in Mumbai for free and sold it to business like this one for 8 to 10 rupees per kilogram. These guys chopped the plastic into tiny pieces, then mixed it with some chemicals and water in barrels, then dried the plastic into solid strips, and then resold the strips to manufacturing companies to be reused as raw plastic. Put another way, these guys used a giant shredding machine, then manually collected billions of tiny shards, then dipped the shards into dangerous emulsifying chemicals, and then laid them out to dry in the glaring sun so they could be sold to big companies for next to nothing, all without any safety equipment.

Next Monroe brought us to an aluminum recycling operation. The process here was similar. They bought aluminum by the kilo, broke it down into shards, then smelted it into ingots to be sold to companies. But the aluminum operation had the extra fun of using a terrifying make shift furnace, which looks exactly like it sounds.

We got a chance to look through all three rooms of the aluminum company. The first toom again had a giant machine and a massive pile of aluminum shards on the floor which one of the workers was diligently sifting through. The second room was the furnace, where a guy was pushing a big stick into a fiery hole coming out of the ground, The third room was the ingot manufacturing, where a few guys were working on at multiple stations on a bewilderingly complex machine. None of these rooms had an artificial light source, so all were completely dark other than whatever sunlight came through the entrance and the glow of the furnace. They were all filthy and smelled awful. However, they did have surprisingly good ventilation assisted by fans.

As with the plastic workers, none of these guys had safety equipment either. I know these slum dwellers are poor, but can they really not afford goggles to protect their eyes or gloves to protect their hands? According to Monroe, they can afford those things but choose not to use them because it slows down work.

Despite the conditions of the slum structures, they did have electricity which is used for the occasional light bulb and fan. Monroe stated that you can always tell the difference between an old, official slum, and a newer unofficial slum by the former’s electricity.

Given that most of Dharavi is dedicated to recycling, the whole neighborhood is covered in garbage. Of course, most Indian cities are covered in garbage, but in Dharavi, you can never tell whether any particular pile of garbage is just waste discarded on the side of the street, or if it’s some business’s excess inventory which can’t fit into storage. There are huge sacks of aluminum, plastic, paper, and electronics all over the place. I saw two guys rummaging through what must have been over a thousand cheap cell phones.

At one point, we went on the rooftop of another plastic recycling operation. Every building in the neighborhood has sheet metal roofs, and nearly every home had a huge pile of garbage on it. Some of these piles were clearly left up here for drying purposes, but others I couldn’t figure out. One roof had fifty or more small plastic chairs, the sort which is sold at a toy store. Others had plastic bags. Some piles seemed to be lodges between multiple buildings and I couldn’t tell who had rightful claim over them, or if anyone would even want to claim them.

From the rooftop, I could also see that every single building had its own small satellite dish. Monroe explained that cell phones and television are fundamental requirements in India that no one goes without. Additionally, just outside the slum borders were numerous high rise apartments which towered over Dharavi. One of these skyscrapers was the private skyscraper of some Indian billionaire.

Despite being coated in garbage, Dharavi doesn’t actually smell that bad. Oh, it still smells, but aside from the streets which have streams of tepid water on the side, it smells no worse than the rest of Mumbai.

The vast majority of the workers in the commercial district of Dharavi, are not from Mumbai. They are migrant workers from other parts of India, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They usually come from dirt poor farming communities where they worked as hired farm hands for 20-80 rupees (30 cents to $1.30) per day. In Dharavi, they get hired by local businessmen or particularly successful migrants to work in these recycling and manufacturing facilities for 150-200 rupees ($2.50-$3.30) per day. The monthly rent for a standard room in the slums is 3,000-4,000 rupees per month, so most workers opt to sleep in the factories instead. The managers allow this because they effectively serve as guards for their capital at night.

The migrant workers rarely plan to stay in Mumbai permanently. Most intend to stay for 8 to 10 years until they can gather some decent savings and move back home to live with their family. Some even return home during the harvest season when they can find more work.

“Pottery unit in Dharavi, Mumbai” by M M from Switzerland – Dharavi_DSC3155Uploaded by Ekabhishek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

According to Monroe, the workers are extremely happy to be in Mumbai. This place is filthy, crowded, cramped, and really just entirely unpleasant, but these guys cannot wait to leave their homes and families in the countryside to come to Dharavi and grind aluminum for twelve to fifteen hours per day in return for enough money to maybe buy a cheap meal at an Indian McDonald’s each day.

The government is awful.

This is not just my opinion, this is the prevailing sentiment of the slums. Every interaction Dharavi has had with the Indian and Mumbai government has lent further credence to the notion that the state is corrupt, ruthless, and most of all, incompetent. Or maybe Monroe is just a stealth libertarian.

The following descriptions may just sound like me raging for my libertarian beliefs, but these are all paraphrases of Monroe.

About a decade ago, either the national government or the city of Mumbai (Monroe didn’t clarify) created the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, or SRA. The SRA’s job was (and still is) to systematically tear down the slums in Mumbai to be replaced by more comfortable and standardized apartment complexes. According to the government, the purpose of this venture was to revitalize the slums, though a cynic like Monroe suggests it was a scheme to make taxation more effective and give crony-based benefits to wealthy developers.**

In conjunction with local landlords, the SRA would ask every inhabitant within a particular geographic area if they would take a buy-out to vacate their apartment. Not only would the buyout recipients receive a lump sum of cash, but they would also get a brand new apartment in the new building. If 70% of the area’s inhabitants took the buy-out, the SRA could legally declare eminent domain on the other thirty percent and clear the buildings to begin a new construction.

For the first few years the SRA was quite successful and acquired considerable swaths of land, but the slum residents soon began to resist. It turned out that the standardized apartment sizes in the new buildings caused a lot of problems. Wealthy slum dwellers who had relatively large apartments found themselves getting downgraded into smaller rooms. Meanwhile, the more plentiful slum-dwellers in small apartments couldn’t pay the upkeep and rent (which was only free for a limited time) in their new, larger apartments. Worst of all, these new buildings prohibited the small manufacturing businesses which proved 95% of the income to these slums, so the inhabitants of these new builds effectively lost their jobs and companies.

On the other hand, I’m sure the well-connected construction companies made out splendidly on the SRA.

The slum’s aversion to the government doesn’t end there.

Monroe estimated that about 95% of children in the slums go to school, and about 45% of them go to private schools. The government schools have free tuition, provide free books, clothes, and bags, and yet the poorest of the poor people in an extremely poor part of a very poor country would rather scrape together a few rupees to send their children to a private school than send their kids to a government school. This is because the government schools are notoriously useless. The class sizes are enormous, the teachers don’t show up half of the time, when they do show up they clearly do not give a shit about their professional responsibility, and as a result, graduating from a government school means almost nothing to potential employers.

According to Monroe, the locals do everything they can to send their kids to a private school, most of which are taught by local professionals and organized by local entrepreneurs, while others are established by NGOs. The only kids who go to public schools are those whose parents are too poor to afford private school tuition.

Monroe’s account of private education in Dharavi closely aligns with the Cato Institute’s findings in a 2005 study on private education in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Finally, there are the hospitals. Unsurprisingly, in a place where people regularly work with toxic chemicals and shards of industrial waste without any safety gear, illness is very common. It also doesn’t help that children literally play on huge piles of garbage. In regard to medicine, all slum-dwellers know that the private hospitals are vastly superior to the government run hospitals.

When slum dwellers get minor illnesses, they go to the local private hospitals. When they catch serious diseases or need surgery, they are forced to go to the government hospitals because they can’t afford to go to the private ones. Monroe’s father was a doctor at one of the nearby government hospitals and Monroe saw these operations first hand. They are utterly filthy and overcrowded, with injured people regularly bleeding all over the hallway. Monroe even claimed that in many instances, going to a public hospital is worse than not going to any hospital because of how often patients got infections from the unsanitary conditions.

Our tour group walked around the commercial sector of Dharavi for about an hour. I could not tell the narrow, winding streets apart, nor could I distinguish between the hundreds of make-shift businesses packed into the tiny structures lining the streets. As I said, there are no doors in this area, so as I walked around I could peek into all of the buildings. Without fail, I always saw a group of young men working on some massive machine which must have been a nightmare to get into the hovel, or sorting some pile of trash, or hunching over an old sewing machine focusing intently on stitching correctly, or stretching a piece of rough leather in the sun.

The only time I saw women working was in the pottery and food operations. Dharavi imports clay which is then soaked for days before being dried, hardened, and fired in a kiln. On the food end, women bake and arrange whatever that tortilla-like bread thing that Indian eat. According to Monroe, the food operation was entirely created by NGOs attempting to provide women with a means of earning money. Even still, women are treated largely as second class citizens in the slums, and are a tiny minority under the flood of male migrants.

Our group left the commercial district and made our way through the residential district. The residencies are divided between Muslims and Hindus. They used to be united, but were separated during the 1993 riots, when over a thousand Mumbai residents were killed in religious conflict (most of the victims were Muslim). Monroe noted that you can always tell when you’re in the Hindu region because it literally smells like shit due to their squat toilets.

Monroe also related to us a personal anecdote of how he fell in love with, and proposed marriage to, a Muslim girl. She asked him to convert to Islam and he refused, so they broke up. He said that today Muslims and Hindus basically get along in India, but interfaith marriage is still almost unheard of.***

“An embroidery unit in Dharavi, Mumbai” by M M from Switzerland – Dharavi_DSC2981Uploaded by Ekabhishek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

The residential district looked like the commercial district except the rooms were smaller and the streets were more narrow. Monroe lead us down some… I guess they could be called alleys, but that’s kind of a stretch. These passages were 2-3 feet wide and sometimes less than 5.5 feet tall (because random things jutted out of the sides of buildings). They looked like random gaps between adjacent buildings, but I could see dozens of entrances into tiny homes barely lit by single lightbulbs. Mothers and children stood outside their homes and watched us pass by, even though it meant congesting the already claustrophobic alleys. Lots of sections were flooded by streams of water flowing between the buildings.

At some parts the alleys were so narrow that I could barely see the blazing Indian sun. Though these homes were built into dark, uncomfortably tight alleys filled with rancid streams, they must have been remarkably cool for a sub-tropical location in India.

When we finally exited the alleys, we entered a clearing and waited for our eyes to adjust to see about a dozen young children playing on a massive pile of garbage, just like in Slumdog Millionaire. Then we made our way to a nearby leather processing facility which recycled old leather and built shockingly high quality bags to be sold to European and American companies which would never admit where they built their wares. I suspect that most of these bags would be sold as knock off on the street, but I have to admit, they felt extremely real, at least according to my nearly non-existent sense of leather fashion accessory authenticity.

After a short break in the mercifully air conditioned office of the leather company manager, we went to a “semi-private” school run by the NGO which operates these tours. The school focuses on teaching slum-dwellers over the age of 18 how to write and read in English, learn basic computer skills, and develop “soft skills,” like how to conduct oneself in an interview.

At the school were two twenty-something women, both volunteers from Italy. One had worked here for a few months last year and had returned for another tour of duty, while the other was on her first week out of a six month stay. These girls are absolutely insane. I suppose they at least get to live in Mumbai, which is a decent city with plenty to do (unlike my podunk farming community in Nepal), but I simply cannot imagine working in this Indian slum for months on end. These girls are tougher and/or more deranged than I will ever be.

The tour ended at the NGO’s base of operations within Dharavi. Monroe gave us a pitch about how awesome the NGO is and told us that 80% of the tours profits are donated to the NGO’s efforts in Dharavi. Then he asked us to fill out tour reviews; I gave the tour and Monroe high marks.

For the rest of Day 3 I just wrote and walked around another chunk of the scenic city center of Mumbai. The next day I did much the same and there is little to say about either day with the exception of one event I must briefly recount.

Crazy things happen while traveling. When you’re in a foreign country, you don’t understand the culture or how things operate, so you never know when you are going to accidentally do something really stupid or cause a huge problem. Other times, bizare things just happen around you and you have no idea why. For instance, I was drinking a cup of coffee in McDonald’s this morning, and despite every other table in the entire restaurant being empty, a 20ish year old Indian guy sat directly across from me at my two person table. I assumed he wanted to talk to a random white guy, but after asking if the seat was taken, he didn’t say a word and just ate his entire meal.

That was a strange situation, and I can’t explain it. What happened to me later in the day I can probably explain, but was far crazier. It wasn’t a byproduct of some cultural mores I don’t understand, though it was probably the result of some unexpected error on my part.

I got attacked by a hawk.

I was walking around some swanky neighborhood in West Mumbai consisting of a lot of really nice streets covered by beautiful leafy canopies and lined by well-maintained high rise apartments. Eventually I made my way to the nearby water, where, unlike the beaches near the city center, was no a recreational area, but primarily used for fishing. I decided to walk along the water on some flat rocks sticking out of the ground. Ten minutes later, I saw them.

There were probably ten brown hawks congregating in a small area of the beach. They were quite large, maybe 1-1.5 feet tall. Half of them were on the ground while the other half were circling in the air above. I thought they looked really cool, so I took out my camera and snapped a few pictures.

It didn’t actually occur to me that wild hawks might be dangerous, though I did remember seeing warnings about the dangers of these predators on a beach in Japan. On the other hand, I don’t typically like disturbing wild animals, so I decided to keep walking along the water and I figured I would disturb their sandy spot closer to the road.

Thirty seconds after I put my camera away and started walking, I distinctly felt something smash into my head and two claws dig into my scalp. The impact hurt worse than the claws since the later mostly grabbed hair and mercifully didn’t rip any out. I didn’t actually see the hawk who attacked me, but I saw lots of hawk shadows at my feet and could see them circling the air around me. Like the millions of rodents attacked by hawks before me, I was simply stunned for a moment. Did that really just happen?

I’ll admit, I was a little scared. These things weren’t that big, and I’m sure I could easily kill one if I actually got my arms around it, but obviously that was easier said than done.**** I estimated that the odds of one these hawks successfully dive-bombing me to rip out my throat or eyes was significantly higher than the odds of me catching one to break its neck. I specifically recalled the movie, Hidalgo, where an Arabian hawk plucks a guy’s eyes out on command. Could you imagine the headline: “American Tourist Blinded by Wild Hawks in Mumbai.”

I had to get out of there, and for some reason I just assumed the hawks would keep attacking me on the beach, so I had to get to the road and perhaps the buildings along its far side.. However, I was concerned that literally running for the road would cause the hawks to dive-bomb me more, kind of like how running away from bears supposedly causes them to attack. Maybe if I ran, my blond hair would look even more like some delicious rodent which needed to be eaten.

Look at that delicious rodent that needs to be eaten, bobbing up and down on that idiot’s head. 

The shortest distance to the road was through hawk territory, so I cautiously made my way to the road at a diagonal angle between the parallel road and water. The first attack came from behind, so as my lacrosse coach would say, I “kept my head on swivel” to spot the next attack. But apparently these hawks wanted a challenge. I saw one in the air in front of me line up so that he was flying directly at me. He dived down from the sky and I took evasive maneuvers by juking my body back and forth and moving my head accordingly like a running back trying to fake out a linebacker, or alternatively, like an idiot.

Regardless of how I looked, it worked. The hawk changed its flight pattern at the last moment and sharply turned upwards about five feet away from me. At that point I took off my back pack and was prepared to use it as a melee weapon, regardless of what risks this posed to its contents (which included my cell phone and keyboard. Fortunately I endured no more attacks and successfully made it to the road. I had survived an attack by a hawk or hawks and lived to tell the tale with both of my eyes.

Those were a lot of sentences I never thought I would write in my life.

*Irfan: This raises the question of what exactly is involved, practically speaking, in legal registration of housing. I suspect that Hernando de Soto’s work is relevant here.

**Irfan: Martin Anderson’s work on urban renewal provides an interesting point of comparison on this.

***Irfan: For whatever it’s worth, that’s the account my own relatives give of life in British India (they were from Amritsar) before the India-Pakistan division (1947).

****Irfan: Um. You wouldn’t get your arms around it, and even if you did, you wouldn’t kill it. Animals don’t die easily, trust me.

Irfan: Ted Hughes’s poem “Hawk Roosting” seems an appropriate postscript. My second choice was Rush’s By Tor and the Snow/SlumDog, but of course, By Tor is an owl.

“Direct through the bones of the living…” 

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Other India: Dharavi, Mumbai (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Fascinating about the recycling industry in this neighbourhood. And an interesting note about schooling! I worked in Margao, Goa for a while and the tendency there was to not send children to school at all. A lot of families were unaware or unconcerned that the government would pay for public schooling (better than nothing) and most could never afford (or maybe didn’t prioritiese) private schooling. I visited Mumbai but as I have friends there I spent most of my time with them – I didn’t visit Dharavi! Next time. I am interested!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Saudi-Israeli Double Standard | Policy of Truth

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