The Depth of Dharavi

Dharavi is home to nearly one million people. Located in Mumbai, it is one of the largest slums in the world. Second to Pakistan, “But they can keep No. 1.”

An introductory joke from our slum tour guide–Zeeshan Farooqui–he grew up in the Dharavi slums, joined the Indian Navy, went to college, studied nautical engineering, and now feels a social responsibility to show people what actually happens in Dharavi.

Kait, Rika, and I felt sheepish for seeking out a “slum tour.” But knowing is better than not. Even worse, is pretending not to care when the majority of people in Mumbai live in the slums.

A woman breastfeeding under a bridge. 

Another bathing her baby off the freeway.

A man showering with a towel over his waist. His friend hosing him down. 

A naked elderly man urinating and staring blankly ahead.

These are some of the casual images of Mumbai. And they are casual because of their frequency. Commonplace.

In countries with westernized infrastructure, we take for granted the services of trash pickup, recycling, and manufacturing. Our waste disappears without thought as to how it becomes anew.

In Mumbai, that infrastructure is upheld by a dynamic slum economy, where community members manage the chain of trash collection, sorting, and reproduction.

Dharavi, which is an area of 216 hectare, supports a 1 billion dollar industry of scrap repurposing. Perhaps this what we mean by the term, “recycling.” But I’ve never seen recycling supported by a communal economy quite like this before. There is no factory that I know of where trash goes in, and out comes an intricately woven handbag.
It is the hands of the Dharavi people who spend hours picking apart pieces of plastic so that they may sell it by the kilo. 

Hands that organize aluminum cans and crush them into shoebox size squares. Hands that take leather hides, throw them into a giant wooden barrel for washing, hang them out to dry, and feed the hides through a machine to make water buffalo look like glossy burgundy alligator.

Westerners are frustrated by fabrication. But the people of Dharavi see it as fulfilling a need. Distributors who purchase wholesale Dharavi goods win by receiving the cheapest labor possible. Quality of these goods match those manufactured “professionally” in 1st world facilities.

At first glance, nothing in Dharavi is what it seems.

Plastics are melted and woven into suitcases.

Clay is molded by the potter of many years who meditates over the girth of each pot. They bake in the alleyway. Smoke hovers over doorsteps of peoples homes.

Busted televisions are stacked in the back of a truck 12 feet high. Roped together, ready to ship somewhere.

Metal is melted and molded into fixtures that will become kitchen appliances. Blenders. Toasters. Skillets.

I call it the depth of the Dharavi.

The scale of this seemingly makeshift but highly organized economy is mind boggling. People come from all across India to work there. 

Dharavi’s production reach is expansive. Who’s to say where, exactly, the fibers of your Armani suit were woven?

To the wholesale buyer, this detail is irrelevant.

It’s business.

And to the customer, possibly having an espresso along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, would they really care to know?


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