Monday, September 08, 2008

One morning in Dharavi

- by Deepa Krishnan
It was 7:00 a.m. I had dropped my daughter at school, and was driving home past Bandra Kurla Complex, when I saw a tower of thick smoke rising to my right.
"It's coming from Mahim", I said to my driver. "Do you think it's a fire?"
"No, it's from Dharavi", he said. "I've seen it before."
I had seen smoke at Dharavi earlier, but today it was exceptionally thick and dark. I thought we'd take a look. Sometimes early morning disasters don't get reported in time; perhaps I could stop for a quick check.
We drove closer. The smoke seemed to be coming from a residential area of Dharavi. I knew there were thickly populated bastis on the left on the road, where most of the recycling work gets done. We often take tourists to some of those places, and I thought to myself, what if it's one of the recycling compounds? They have enough inflammable things in there to start an inferno.

When we got closer, I realised it was coming from the opposite side of the road, from the marshy land opposite the hutments. It seemed to come from a line of trucks parked on the road. There was none of the panic and shouting associated with a fire.

We stopped for a closer look. Here's what we saw - in a clearing behind a low wall, a big rubbish heap was being burnt. Maybe they were burning the left-overs from the recycling factories - the thick smoke told me it was probably at least partly plastic. A young man was sitting there - he didn't move at all in the 10 minutes that I was there - I got the feeling he was watching over the fire. There were two bullock carts, transporting oil, the bullocks resting in preparation for the day ahead.

I realised it was just another day in Dharavi. Nobody gave a damn about the dense smoke, although my chest burned from just 10 minutes exposure. Just across the road from the burning, the daily routine had begun. The water tanker had arrived and big plastic drums were being filled for the day.

About 100 metres away, the shanties were already abuzz with activity. Little shops were open, and people were walking in the narrow lanes.

And naturally, since this was 7:00 a.m., every available inch of open space had been converted into a toilet. Little kids sat unmindful of passing traffic; while grown men found convenient bushes behind walls. The women, of course, had risen much earlier, while it was still dark, so they could have some desperately sought privacy.

My spirits sank at the sights I'd seen - pollution, dirt, stench...we're talking of Shanghai-like towers and skywalks and bridges, when we can't even get running water and toilets in place?

I was still thinking gloomy thoughts when we drove past a busy central thoroughfare and spotted several bright-eyed children going to school. Some of them were walking with siblings, others were riding pillion on their father's motorbikes. Many, especially the little ones, were walking with their mothers. I saw mothers carrying schoolbags and tiffin boxes and bright plastic water bottles, walking in that determined way that only mothers have, hustling their kids to school in time. After the depressing sights I had seen, the sight of these young kids was like a ray of sunshine. Here were children just like the ones I saw at my daughter's school; here were mothers with the same determination as me.

Still further down, I saw the Lijjat Papad van making its rounds, collecting papads and distributing fresh dough for making more. I thought of all the papad-makers I knew, women who supported their families through papad co-operatives. It lifted my spirits.

It's not all beyond repair, I told myself. There are good things too. Even among squalor and depressing conditions, Dharavi always manages to show a little bit of its bright side to anyone who cares to see it.

I remembered my first meeting with ragpickers from Dharavi a couple of years ago. They were sisters, giggling and collecting trash at Horniman Circle. I chatted with them only briefly; but talking to them changed me, transformed me from an outsider to an insider. As long as we don't turn our faces away from the reality of Dharavi, as long as we see commonality and shared humanity, there is hope yet - for the people of Dharavi, and for all of us in Mumbai who live side-by-side with it.


Smruti said...

Hey Deepa, it was nice to read this article. I used to work at BKC and commute from King Circle. Dharavi was on the way. There are definately some good things about Dharavi. If you go into Dharavi there are a lot of potters who make the most wonderful pottery. Also who can miss shopping for leather goods. I know from USA when we come, we definately purchase a couple of purses and jackets from there.
- Smruti

Ravi Ramakantan said...

What a great piece of "Show and Tell"
For your keen sense of observation and "documentation", you would easily receive Honorary Membership of any radiological Society :-)


Rada said...


Indeed, without hope, there is really no hope.

As a person who first encountered Dharavi in 1978 and passing through it at least once every other month, sometimes Hope and Optimism are so difficult to muster! :-(

Anonymous said...

What a great post Deepa! Kinda bitter-sweet. I have seen Dharavi only about once from the distance on my visit to Mumbai. Reading a well documented articulate post like this is truly an eye -opener.

Unknown said...

the largest basti in the world has the biggest lessons to teach. i have never undermined the people of dharavi.. a determined bunch, just opposite of the surroundings that they live in.

Jayshree Shahde said...

Hey Deepa,
Great write up!! truth, sensitivity, very balanced way to talk about Dharavi.... beyond leather bags!!!

keep writing!!

Roopa Satish said...

You write really nice... the genuineness and depth of your own experience of being touched comes across. Enjoyed reading it.


Anonymous said...

Why India is so poor is research in itself. Look at where we stand compared to the rest of the world.

Well, we managed to beat Pakistan... hurray.

I lived in Mexico for a bit and also Costa Rica, not first world countries if you ask someone in Mumbai. The weakest student of my engineering class in Mumbai was smarter and more business/money oriented than most of the people that I met in their factories. One thing for sure, their people were happy and relaxed, the food was great, the roads were well maintained, the govt worked, the air was clean. Add it all up, they live 15 years longer than average Indians do.. And they aren't all that smarter. They do the basic things right.

Deepa said...

Have you seen the list of countries GDP by PPP (Purchasing Power Parity)? PPP takes into account the relative cost of living and the inflation rates of the countries, rather than using just exchange rates which may distort the real differences in income.

India is 4th highest GDP in the list published by the World Bank, also on the list published by IMF and by the CIA Fact Book. The only countries with higher GDP are the European Union, USA, China and Japan.

When you divide that GDP by the population - that's when India's rankings drop, and countries like Qatar, Brunei, Luxemburg and Norway start to appear as the highest. China drops to Rank 100 and India to 126.

So the data speaks for itself - it is the population. It has always been the population.

LadyTexasLee said...

It's a delight to have stumbled upon this blog.
It never ceases to amaze me how critical some Indians are of their fellow people who happen to be slum dwellers in online blogs/chats. Indeed it's always depressed me.
Many thanks for casting a humble, empathetic eye on your Mumbai and for sharing it with us.