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Building Block

The slum of all parts


WORK FROM HOME: Slums are a collective of industrial units and housing. They complement each other

Dharavi once had a flourishing sub-economy but its old businesses are fast disappearing thanks to the ambitious redevelopment plan. The tanneries have vanished, and next in line is the plastic recycling industry.

Mubarak Shah, a 70-year-old scrap dealer, is a regular visitor at Dharavi. There is not a single plastic recycling unit owner in the 13 compounds of sector 1 of Dharavi who does not know him. Almost daily, Shah comes to Dharavi with truckload of scrap, which gets recycled in over 50 waste processing units of Dharavi. Plastics, aluminium, copper, sheesha (lead) - Shah deals in all kind of waste materials. And, Dharavi is the best place to do business, as almost 70 per cent of India's plastic waste and scrap gets recycled in this notorious slum that rose to fame post the 2008 British film, Slumdog Millionaire.

Sipping his cutting-chai, Shah, who has been doing business in Dharavi since 1966, says, "There is a great chain of scrap dealers across India that ensures waste reaches Dharavi for processing and recycling. And, I have links with most of these dealers. I buy waste from and sell it to Dharavi's recycling units. They reprocess it and further sell to companies who manufacture goods using recycled plastic. "

Apart from scrap dealers, Shah also looks up scrap tenders floated by various companies from time to time. For instance, just recently he brought power cables to Dharavi for recycling, which he purchased through a company's scrap tender in Goa. "We are considered kachrawala (garbage-man ), and hence looked down upon. But, let me tell you, the day we stop functioning, Mumbai, or as a matter of fact any Indian city, will drown in its own filth, " warns Shah.


"We are sitting on a plastic time bomb, " the Supreme Court said on April 3 this year, when the Central Pollution Control Board revealed that India generates 15, 342. 46 tonnes of plastic waste per day, of which only 60 per cent gets collected and recycled, mostly through the unorganised sector. A large chunk of this collected waste ends up getting recycled in Dharavi.

However, if Maharashtra government has its way, these recyclers will soon be wiped off Dharavi's map. From being an eyesore, Dharavi is poised to transform into a 'world class city'. A plan to this effect, 'Draft Planning Proposals for Dharavi Notified Area', was released in March by Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA). As per the plan, more than half of Dharavi's land is set aside for free sale, whereas only a small portion will rehabilitate industries.

The plan ignores the fact that Dharavi is not only a slum;it is a mini industrial city. With its current population of about one million, almost every household in Dharavi is an industrial unit, manufacturing belts, jeans, buckles, papad, farsan, pottery, jewellery. The annual turnover of Dharavi is pegged at $650 million. And the annual turnover of the plastic recycling industry is about Rs 24 crore. But, all this may soon change.

"Post-redevelopment, polluting industries will not be allowed. And, this includes plastic recycling. We are trying to get it included in the list of allowed activities, but so far government has not relented, " says Farid Siddiqui, general secretary of Dharavi Business Men's Welfare Association. Siddiqui is also a member of chief minister's committee on Dharavi's redevelopment.

At a recent meeting of this committee, the state government decided to allow industrial activities that consume up to 10 horsepower electricity, says Siddiqui. Plastic recycling units require 55 horsepower;and hence, would automatically get banned.


The history of Dharavi is closely associated with the rise of tanneries within it. In late 19th century, Tamil migrants started coming to Dharavi and started working in tanneries. The first leather tannery in Dharavi started operating in 1887. Till early 1980s, Dharavi's semi-finished leather was both exported and sold across India. "However, in 1986 the Central government changed norms for leather export, allowing only finished leather to be exported. This forced many tanneries to shut down, " says Aspi D Pader, executive director of Veera Tanneries Pvt Ltd in Dharavi.

The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board also cracked its whip on tanneries but the last blow came from redevelopment plans. "The 2004 plan was to give 225 sq ft free tenement against the existing structures. Tanneries occupy huge space and fearing takeover by the government, tannery owners sold them off, " says Ahmed Patel of Sufiyan Exports. Now, only four small-time tanneries operate from Dharavi.


Carrying tea glasses in one hand and a kettle in the other, 60-year-old Hamid Hussain runs from one recycling unit to the other. He owns a small tea shop, above which is a one room tenement, in which he lives with his family. "I manage to save Rs 5, 000 per month and send money to my old parents in the village (in Uttar Pradesh). Once these units are gone, I will be on the road, " says Hussain.

Dharavi's plastic recycling business started around 35 years ago, when Hussain came to this slum. In Sector 1 of Dharavi, there are 13 compounds which house over 50 plastic reprocessing units, employing about 600 workers. The monthly turnover of one reprocessing unit is Rs 2 crore. "We are cleaning 70 per cent of India's plastic waste, " proudly declares Siddiqui.

Recycling of plastic waste involves sorting, shredding, washing and reprocessing. End product is plastic dana (small pellets), which is supplied to various plastic goods manufacturers. Daily wage workers, mostly women, earn Rs 150 a day;whereas regular employees, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, earn up to Rs 6, 000 a month.

Reprocessing units are already facing a double whammy. "A few years ago, there were more than 500 dana-making machines running in Dharavi. Now, barely 40 such units are left. And, the Dharavi redevelopment plan will ensure even these shut shop soon, " says an angry Iliaz Ahmed, who owns a danamaking unit in Jalil Compound.

At the heart of problem is the high cost of electricity, which is burning a hole into unit owners' pockets (see box "Power Play" ). "Dana-making machines run 24x7 on power supplied by BEST, which is very costly compared to the other two power suppliers - Reliance and Tata Power. This forced some factory owners to shift to suburbs such as Vasai, Nalasopara, etc, " says Siddiqui.


According to Anirudh Paul, director of Mumbai-based Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, there is a basic flaw with the redevelopment project. "It does not recognise informalities that exist in Indian cities. It fails to acknowledge that the urban poor live and work from the same area. Slums are a collective of industrial units and housing and complement each other. If we try to do away with this informality, it will come back with vengeance. "
MHADA's plan looks at Dharavi only in terms of housing, ignoring the livelihood of lakhs. The 13 compounds of plastic recycling industry are not merely workplaces. They also provide free housing to the workers. And this is exactly what makes Dharavi a 'successful' industrial mini-city.


Abdul Rehman Khan's day is spent shunting between Dharavi and Kurla in Mumbai. A regular monthly electricity bill of a whopping Rs 2. 25 lakh forced Khan to bi-furcate his business and shift plastic reprocessing (dana-making ) unit to Kurla. "In Dharavi, the electricity supplied by BEST costs Rs 15 per unit;whereas Tata Power in Kurla supplies it for Rs 7. 50 per unit. It is unviable to do business from Dharavi, even though I own the galla (godown) there, " says Khan, owner of Baba Plastics and vice-president of Dharavi Business Men's Welfare Association.

According to him, unit owners have approached various authorities for concession in electricity consumption, or permission to shift to some other power supplier (like those suburban Mumbai can); but have yet to get a response.

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