Dharavi days

29 11 2010

Those of you who know me (Liz) well – and those who I used to work with will have heard me rant about the eco-slum project, for the rest of you… let me explain!  2 years ago I was a very small cog in a very large project team based in London working up plans to ‘redevelop’ Asia’s largest slum into an eco-community.  My rant was, and still is, that a group of architects (and environmentalists) sitting in London (equally Australia, US or Hong Kong) should not be the ones dreaming up the plans for what will happen to these 1 million (legal) – 2 million (actual) slum dwellers – particularly if it involves organic veg boxes and complex solar panels?!  Anyway thankfully that project stalled… for now.

Dharavi (the slum in question) is the so called ‘heart of Mumbai’ due its geographic heart shape and its location in the centre of the city – bounded on either side by vital rail links. This is a prime rump of land; developers across the country (and world) salivate at its potential.  The place has been written about, debated, analysed and assessed; When the Indian government made moves to rehouse the residents and dismantle the slums NGO’s and humans rights groups the world over were up in arms; Kevin McCloud made a documentary about the place, Prince Charles came for a visit etc etc… being in Mumbai – we could not pass up the opportunity to pop along.

‘There is no caste in Mumbai, there is only money. Poor, rich, or very rich’, Ganesh our guide states, ‘in this city no one will go to bed hungry, someone will always give you work, even if you work 24 hours for 50 rupees, at the end you will be able to eat.’  And this is what continues to draw rural migrants to the city of dreams.  The first house was built 140 years ago, when Dharavi was the swamp at edge of the city and the dump, migrants to the city came to live here as the flat land, above sea level, provided somewhere to build their homes without threat from the monsoon rains.  We joined a tour run by a company that is seeking to change the way people think about slums; that word typically conjures up an image of disease, passivity and depravation. Reality Tours are trying to portray the positive sides of the slum, the hard work, sense of community and sense of opportunity that lives and breathes within Dharavi… granted those things are evident… but surely nothing can take away from the significant health risks endemic to living and working on a landfill site.

Throughout our long cycle ride our perpetual friend in the city, countryside, desert, mountain and seaside has been plastic.  Bags, bottles, cartons, wrappers. .. It is everywhere.  Much of this plastic eventually makes its way to Dharavi – millions of tonnes of plastic are shipped in from the US and China (and probably the UK).  Dharavi is the only slum in Mumbai with a thriving industrial sector, every type of plastic is sorted, ground, pelleted and processed to make into a recycled raw material ready to turn back in to mobile phone cases, buttons, belts etc.  There is plastic everywhere; your yesterdays throwaway water bottle crushed and stacked now lines the alleyways, that TV you threw away for the latest up grade now broken down, nimble (highly skilled) fingers working tirelessness to strip sort and resort it’s every conceivable component; the fridge, the microwave, the hairdryer, the once only used plastic cupsplatesknivesforksspoonsbowls .. everywhere we turn there are people sitting, standing, crouching, sorting plastic; everywhere we look, there it is, pile upon pile next to piles on top of piles…

Plumes of gritty black smoke fill the air as we move into the paint can recycling area – used paint tins are burned in an open fire to remove the remnants of paint.  The tins are then bashed and banged, by hand, back into shape and resold.  So Dulux, DuPont and ICI can earn brownie points for re-using paint tins… but who considers the health cost to the guys sitting for 12 hours a day by an open fire burning acrid chemicals with absolutely NO safety precautions at all.

We are led through the narrow alleys, barely able to stand up, curtains flapping in the doorways to tiny single room dwellings, the stench of raw, stagnant sewage all around.  A film of grime floating on top of the open sewage channels, naked barefoot children running down the alleys, we emerge into an open area.  This is where children play, they play on rubbish, they play with rubbish.  In one corner a child is defecating, in another a small huddle are merrily setting fire to plastic bags, prodding and poking the gooey, melted edges, while others turn a raucous  game of cricket with a plastic-pipe-bat and foraged-plastic-ball.  ‘82% are enrolled in school’, Ganesh tells us, but he also admits that with 50-60 in a class the quality can be somewhat dubious.

I smiled inside as we passed the area where women make pappadams – I recognised them – I’ve seen pappadams like this for sale in Sainsbury’s ready for me to pop in a microwave… rolled by the women and placed out to dry in the sun.  That’ll be on the rubbish dump, next to the open sewer, covered in flies, air thick with industrial fumes, drying in the sun – before being packaged up and exported. Enjoy.


PS – none of these photos are ours – while in Dharavi we were asked not to take any.



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