Motherland Magazine

Trends, issues & ideas that shape contemporary Indian culture

Welcome to Dharavi Inc.

As indian cities swell in density, mumbai's megaslum, dharavi, could prove to be an unconventional model for urban planners.


INSIDE THE GODOWN OF IRFAN MEMON, a plastic scrap merchant.


It’s monsoon time. An oily slick of mud runs down the length of the alleyway, here in the industrial area, home to hundreds, thousands even, of small-scale industries. Passageways at most are a few feet wide, through which dozens of workers march, nimbly navigating the narrow lanes, darting in and out of the small rooms on either side.

Rain drips from a corrugated tin awning – but it won’t be for long, as the sun is back out. Muslim prayers blare from a tinny radio, while a bhel puri wallah with a heavy tub of ingredients balanced on his belly waddles through, calling out to advertise his wares. A dog looks up at us plaintively; he is covered in black paint splatters, thanks to one of the neighbourhood’s many busy industries, paint can recycling. Used drums are cleaned, banged back into shape, and sold back to the companies. In another room, wiry men from Bihar are crouched around a low table, painstakingly appliqueing silver beads onto pink silk, while around the corner, white garments are being dipped in vast vats, the workers with forearms stained fuchsia from the dye. Dupattas and saris are hung out to dry on rooftops, above which drifts smoke from pottery kilns.

Welcome to Dharavi: a megaslum yes, but much, much more. The neighbourhood in central Mumbai is known as a place of mafia and slumdogs, of choleric dhobi ghats and shanties. But the reality is different. Sure, it’s filthy and cramped, with roughly one million people crammed into 1.75 square kilometres. But it’s also a place of great commerce and industry, of soaring land values and roughly Rs 30 billion in annual turnover. And with that many people and that much industry, it has an ecosystem and economy all of its own. Much of what is made here is sold or consumed within the same neighbourhood, or passed on to a nearby factory for the next stage of the manufacturing process.

In fact, it might be apt to describe Dharavi as “post-slum”: a place where people might have to sleep curled up under the kitchen bench, but have water and electricity, good jobs, more than enough to eat and strong community ties. There are worse slums in Mumbai, although these rarely attract anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as Dharavi.


Published: Sep, 2011

Photographs: Sheetal Mallar