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Dharavi asia's largest puzzle


An eyesore of blue tarpaulin, or a complex warren teeming with promise and enterprise? Describe it how you will but there's no denying its endless fascination for poets and writers.

In Dharavi, there's always time. There's always space, " are Nisar Ahmed Khan's languid words to writer-poet Jerry Pinto. In an earlier chapter of Dharavi - The City Within, edited by American writer Joseph Campana - lies another gem, courtesy Ghulam Walis, proprietor and editor of Sapna Times. "Everything is made here...Legal, illegal, everything, " he tells Rachel Lopez.

Walis and Khan capture the most overused of all clichês that describe Dharavi - that it is all kinds of worlds. Campana's able effort to probe those worlds is scarcely the first and will certainly not be the last.

"For a long time, Dharavi stayed in the news as Asia's largest slum, " says Rashmi Bansal. "That's not true anymore, but it's still a popular subject. Almost every home will house a workshop within. It's like an incubator that takes in new people and trains unskilled labour. People also come to Dharavi to set up business. It's a very unique space. " Bansal, along with management consultant Deepak Gandhi has authored Poor Little Rich Slum - What We Saw in Dharavi and Why it Matters, yet another effort to document Dharavi's unique ecosystem.

While the latter sweeps through the thriving industry within Dharavi and the entrepreneurial success stories of its residents with a soft-focus lens, Campana's effort is a more exhaustive chronicle of the people and problems in this 'city system', to use Jeb Brugmann's evocative coinage. The book also contains an extract from the Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum, the acclaimed work on the area by Kalpana Sharma, published in 2000.

"You immediately get a sense of vibrancy and selfsufficiency there, " is Campana's explanation for Dharavi's tireless documentation. "The problems have been well documented, but the real story is how stable and sturdy the community is. " Stories like Dharavi's Poster Boys by Suhani Singh, which detail the multireligious community's efforts to promote harmony in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, buttress that claim. We learn why Ramachandra 'Bhau' Korde and Waqar Khan's charming Hum Sab Ek Hain poster featuring kids from four communities will never lose context.

Poor Little Rich Slum introduces you to the likes of tailoring centre owner Rani Nadar, who belies every stereotype you may have held about the lazy slum dweller. You also meet Fahim Vora and Tauseef Siddiqui, two Dharavi boys who give back to their community by running Be the Local - a travel agency that aims to dispel the negative image of the locality.

That's not to say Dharavi smells of roses. Its colourful tapestry is frayed with water woes, as Freny Manecksha's Water Wars illustrates;hard labour and hazardous working conditions lurk behind the ubiquitous pottery of Kumbharwada;and myopic redevelopment plans threaten the rhythm of its work life.

"When I wrote the book in 1999, I was surprised that there hadn't been a similar effort, " says Kalpana Sharma. "Ever since, the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan has been the trigger for people's curiousity. Its real estate value has caught the attention of the media. " Dharavi is also unique for the way it came to be, she explains. "Many slums come up because people need a place to live. Tanneries sprung up because of its proximity to the Bandra abbatoir. Kolis made use of the swamp to start brew illicit liquor. The Kumbhars created their own settlement. Gradually, people reclaimed the swamp to extend their settlement. This gives Dharavi its variegated texture. "

Naturally, Dharavi has seen many creative endeavours. Slumdog Millionaire aside, it has been the subject of documentaries by BBC and National Geographic, the site of public art installations like Artefacting Mumbai-a 2011 project helmed by urban planner Alex White Mazzarella and photographer Casey Nolan, and even produced Dharavi Rocks, a joint musical project between blueFROG and NGO Acorn Foundation.

The frenzied attention has also lead to criticism of the endless romanticisation of Dharavi, something Campana was conscious of. "I tried to avoid fetishising Dharavi by making no essential claims. We came up with subjects that avoided making generalisations. No profile was meant to typify the place. Each person was just an individual, " he says. Journalist Sameera Khan, who in her chapter Schooling Dharavi touches upon the English-speaking dreams of its residents, adds, "While I think we still can do stories from Dharavi, we should not forget that there are other poorer areas in the city, and other areas of similar grit and initiative - we need to research/write/explore them as well. "

It is the booming real-estate value of Dharavi, however, that continues to keep it in the news. Having first seen promise in the 1984 Prime Minister's Grant Project, under which the Rajiv Gandhi-led leadership granted Rs 100 crore for its redevelopment, Dharavi's residents have since seen multiple surveys, plans and committees in the name of 'upliftment'. Today, the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, led by builder Mukesh Mehta, is held up by funds and bureaucracy. Sharma rues, "These delays have been the downfall of the slum. Even routine repairs and construction of drainage and toilets has stopped because everyone's waiting for redevelopment. "

And yet, there is dynamism. "It struck me how despite differences, they still work together, " says Sharma. "I met a Muslim chikki maker and all his workers were Hindu, which hadn't even occurred to them. They get no help from the state, and wait for no handouts. I met people there who started out with nothing and have today, made a life for themselves. "

Dharavi isn't just interesting to outsiders, it's also fiercely loved by its residents, who never stray very far. Pinky Santepola Ashappa, 15, who aims to be a chartered accountant, told Khan: "Dharavi has us. We are going to change its image. " Santosh Narayankar, the final year MBBS student and subject of Leo Mirani's study, A Pampered Slum, exemplifies this. Says Campana, "If you're from Dharavi you are always aware that others not from Dharavi have a sense of what it's like there. They have an opinion of it, probably a poor one. That doesn't square with your experience of your home, which is a complicated mix of good and bad. "

As Narayankar says, contemplating whether to take a secure government job over the vagaries of a practice in Dharavi, "If I forget about Dharavi, I will never succeed in life. " Nor will Mumbai, if it attempts to chart a glittering development story while ignoring the needs of its most hard working and most fetishised residents.

Reader's opinion (6)

Vivek ParmarOct 7th, 2015 at 11:16 AM

The frenzied attention has also lead to criticism

Gaurav M RauMay 24th, 2014 at 10:50 AM

Dharavi, originally an island, made into a settlement for the bubonic plagued settlers by the English in 1880, with it came all the ills of illegal colonies scattered without proper infrastructure, in the all important eco systems of coastal environs, where land meets water.
Change it from scratch

Chandan ChoudharyMar 10th, 2014 at 10:16 AM

Well it has become a sort of a fad to write about the so called 'dynamism' of Dharavi. People have to be self employed else they will starve and they have to stay there since they dont have a choice. It is not that they 'like' to stay there .. they just dont have any other choice

Pritam KhowalaJan 27th, 2014 at 14:12 PM

There is no political will to solve the Dharavi issue . A strong political leadership is required to clean up the mess

Sc.redifmail1 Jan 8th, 2014 at 11:04 AM

This is something very interesting.

Vikram Jul 21st, 2013 at 19:09 PM

Well it has become a sort of a fad to write about the so called 'dynamism' of Dharavi. People have to be self employed else they will starve and they have to stay there since they dont have a choice. It is not that they 'like' to stay there .. they just dont have any other choice

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