Heart of darkness

Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum

by Kalpana Sharma; Penguin Books India, 2000, New Delhi, paperback, pp xxxviii + 209, INR 200. ISBN: 014 1000 236

Asia's largest slum is a testament of the state's failure to address the …of Bombay city's expansive …elly. It is also a grim reminded the gracious people of how the underclass survives.

In the Introduction to her book, Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum, Kalpana Sharma makes a brave admission: "Like many others in Mumbai, I too did not know precisely what and where was this 'slum' called Dharavi. I discovered it, so to speak, during the 1992-93 communal riots… As a journalist, I had to visit Dharavi frequently to report on the riots…" The rest of the book is a testament to just how precisely and thoroughly she then set about discovering what and where Dharavi is, and more importantly—if one may be permitted a little grammatical licence—why it is.

The 'where' of Dharavi can be established easily enough. Newcomers to Mumbai will probably have the place—'Asia's largest slum—pointed out to them with a nudge and an uncomfortable chuckle as they drive out from the airport to the commercial centres of the 'island city', or make their first trip south on a 'local' commuter train. The 'what' and the 'why' are harder to locate and understand, and Sharma devotes the bulk of her work to these questions.

One of the strongest features of the book is its clarity about the many whys of Dharavi: why does such a place exist? Why does it exist in the precise location that it does (sandwiched between Bombay's two major north-south railway axes, more or less in the centre of Greater Bombay as the city is now developing)? Why does Bombay's middle-class—which includes the metro's planning and supervisory echelons—view Dharavi with a strange and almost schizophrenic mixture of interest, exasperation, fear, revulsion and curiosity, but almost never with understanding? And most of all, why does and must Dharavi matter to us all? Sharma responds to these questions with answers that are informed by painstaking research, passion, warmth and a stern reminder that while enterprise in the midst of deprivation is to be admired, there is absolutely "nothing to celebrate about living in a cramped 150 sq. ft. house with no natural light or ventilation, without running water or sanitation".

Semantic 'recognition' Ultimately, as Sharma lucidly argues, the growth of places like Dharavi is the direct and simple result of the state's refusal to acknowledge that urban centres like Bombay are, and in the foreseeable future will continue to be, magnets for those seeking employment. She writes that it always was the responsibility of the state to ensure that decent and affordable housing was made available to the job-seekers, and that at several points, especially in the early post-Independence years, such housing could easily have been initiated by the government on the large tracts of vacant land that were then readily available.

At least during the early boom years, industrial houses could have been required by law to provide housing for permanent employees. The government as well as a few industrial units did indeed build some workers' housing (there was even a feeble effort to get textile-mill owners to contribute towards a fund that the government would then use to build chawls or residential settlements, for their workers), but in the absence of any compelling policy or legislation these initiatives soon petered out.

In sum, in Bombay, the state comprehensively abdicated its responsibilities in providing for the poor. Sharma says that what little urban planning and implementation get carried out in Bombay happen mainly by default and negligence. The "history and growth" of places like Dharavi, packing in a million people in a 175-hectare triangle of swampy, ill-serviced urban wasteland, illustrate the resulting problems graphically.

After many decades of sustained disregard of the common-sense conclusion that even the thinnest hope of urban employment is enough to impel the rural poor to the city, the government in Bombay took cognisance of the consequences of this inflow and it set about making its early development plans. In these plans, it explained what it would do with the city's burgeoning slums: remove them. Accordingly, the period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s was devoted to the tragic and wasteful act of tearing down 'illegal' housing and ordering the occupants to simply leave. No thinking middle-class citizen of Bombay can recall of the 1970s or 1980s without discomfort, the demolitions of the Emergency years, or those miserable monsoon days in mid-1981 when an entire settlement was destroyed, the occupants packed into buses and deposited on the outskirts of the city with the injunction to "go home".

As Sharma reminds us, demolition and eviction are still the most visible instruments the city government deploys whenever it needs to demonstrate that it can actually run the show. But at least at the policy making level, the futility of demolitions has been understood and replaced, serially, by programmes for slum 'improvement', 'upgradation' and most recently, 'redevelopment'. All these programmes follow a bizarre and semantically loaded ritual that is called 'recognition', i.e., the government 'recognises' that a particular slum and its inhabitants have been around so long that they are unlikely to vanish altogether, and so they might as well be offered rudimentary forms of civic services like sanitation and water. 'Recognition' is granted on the basis of a 'cut-off' date, which is a powerful political tool that is always available for negotiation and accommodation. Over the years, I have watched this 'cut-off' date lurch steadily forward, from 1976, to 1980, then 1985 and finally (for now), to 1995.

But, as Sharma knows, 'recognition' does not mean legality of tenure, and the state is free to demolish slums that it has itself set up whenever it feels it can make 'better' use of the land, typically by offering it to private builders. Thus, Dharavi and other Bombay slums are full of groups that have been evicted and relocated several times in the course of one lifetime. And, it is worth remembering, in every instance after the first dislocation, they have been summarily uprooted from land on which the government had itself located them. The landscape of Bombay bears witness to these successive evictions in its informal place names.

There are several Kumbharwadas (potters' colonies) in Bombay, though the most identifiable settlement of traditional Kumbhars in Mumbai is today to be found only in Dharavi. Most of the other so called 'Kumbharwadas' simply designate those locations where migrant potters from Gujarat were once allowed to exist. This fundamental illegality of residence that slum-dwellers in Mumbai have to live with, even in old and supposedly well-settled slums like Dharavi, does deface their entire being, their very existence, as far as the city's more fortunately located residents are concerned. It is true, to some extent, that illegality of residential tenure reproduces other illegalities of transaction—for every time someone wants a piece of land to build a shack, get a water connection or a job in Dharavi, he or she must perforce employ means that are often necessarily extra-legal. But, as Sharma points out, on the flip side it is easier for crimes like murder and theft to be committed in isolated middle-class living areas than it is in a densely packed settlement like Dharavi. Up to 90 per cent of the residents often work close to where they live.

The slum economy

It is in the description of this crowded living that the author displays her impressive fieldwork. Sharma has clearly spent much time walking through Dharavi's bewildering (to the outsider) network of roads, lanes and alleys, separating out distinct groups of residents, putting together complex oral histories about their places of origin, their arrival in Mumbai, their dreams about the city of gold and their toils to get a piece of that gold. Migrants from all over the country jostle with each other for their own little inches of space in Dharavi, and many of them continue to pursue in Dharavi their calling of the past. And as Sharma points out with such understanding, their preoccupation with finding employment and improving their lives restrains Dharavi residents from being easily provoked into clashes with each other, contrary to anything that the uninformed outsider might believe.

"If you want to eat the best gulab jamuns in town, buy the best chiki, acquire an export-quality leather handbag, order World Health Organization (WHO) certified sutures for surgery, see the latest design in ready-made garments being manufactured for export, get a new suitcase or an old one repaired, taste food from the north and the south, see traditional South Indian gold jewellery—there are few better places in all of Bombay than Dharavi, "writes Sharma. The book explains in painstaking detail just how and where each of these activities are pursued in Dharavi's dark lofts and crowded sweatshops. In the process, she charts the course of many fascinating rags-to-riches stories— the kind that constantly inspire Hindi cinema plotlines and filter back to barren hinterlands, enticing yet more waves of migrants to Bombay's teeming slums.

The figures are not to be taken lightly. Cautioning that "estimates of the daily turnover of Dharavi can only be wild guesses as… much of the production here is illegal", Sharma puts forward a "back-of-the-envelope calculation" that adds up to between INR 1,500 crore and INR 2,000 crore a year. This amounts to around INR 11 crore per hectare per year. Even allowing for some exaggeration by Dharavi's residents, these figures are something that the city government must bear in mind when it next decides to tell these resident migrants to "go home". Many of Dharavi's younger residents have never seen a part of the world other than Greater Bombay.

The details about Dharavi's residents, their caste and regional profiles, their jobs, failures and success stories, are fascinating. But this is also the one section of the book where, perhaps, the editors have not served the author well enough. The mass of material was clearly so overwhelming that it was difficult to avoid making repetitive statements or offer sustained cross-referencing. Dharavi's 25 bakeries are discussed in at least four different places in the book. And each time, the information is presented as if for the first time. Similarly, the regional composition of Dharavi's residents is explained repeatedly, without the usual indicative phrases of prior or reiterative reference. But this in no way affects the fundamental rigour of analysis.

This is a book that professionals who grapple with the problems of Third World metros need to take seriously. But more importantly, it is a work that everyone who has ever driven past Dharavi and looked at it with a mixture of interest, revulsion and incomprehension needs to read and think about.

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