Industrious India: Going behind the beautiful forevers

After receiving the royal treatment in Rajasthan, we decided to spend a morning in Mumbai touring Dharavi, a slum near Mahim Station. Most Americans will know Dharavi as the slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire. Home to about 1 million people, Dharavi once had the dubious reputation of being the largest slum in Asia, but has lost that distinction to another Mumbai slum.

View of Dharavi

View of Dharavi from the road

I can hear it now. “What? You toured a slum? Are you crazy?” No, we are not crazy. Slums are a fact of life in Mumbai. Certainly not the nicest fact, but one that is obvious the moment you leave the airport. Even in Powai, I can see shanties from my balcony. Driven largely by curiosity about Slumdog settings, tourists come to Dharavi to see what all the fuss is about. Some companies even specialize in slum tours. Rather than using an unknown company with unknown motives, we used our trusted Mumbai tour guide, Manasi at The Indian Perspective. She donates a portion of her income to an NGO school located in Dharavi and does not take tourists into the residential section out of respect for residents’ wishes and privacy. We toured only the industrial area, and this area is amazing. The annual economic output is estimated between USD 500 million and 1 billion. Without the raw materials produced at Dharavi, factories in Gujarat would shut down within days.

Dharavi is located in central Mumbai, not too far from the international airport. If you fly into Mumbai during the day, Dharavi is visible as the plane lands.

Dharavi marshlands

These marshlands are opposite the Dharavi slum. The pipes bring water to the slum twice a day. In the distance is Bandra Kurla Complex, where many businesses have offices.

Because of its prime location, a typical space in Dharavi costs 25 lakh or about 2.5 million rupees (USD 50,000).

Typical hut in Dharavi

This is what $50,000 buys you in a Mumbai slum. This home serves as both house and sewing shop.

At 9:30 am, the day is already in full swing for Dharavi workers, and it will continue until almost midnight. The workers are mostly men who come from all over India in search of the promise of prosperity that Dharavi offers. For their efforts, these men will earn between Rs. 300 and 500 a day. Their earnings are based on volume and piece work. Someone stitching jeans is paid by the garment, while someone sorting plastic is paid by the kilo.

Recycled plastic is big business in Dharavi and represents the cycle of life here. Every day, people like me throw away plastic bottles. Those bottles are collected by garbage men on their daily rounds. Many water bottles are brought to Dharavi. The plastic is sorted by type and color. Then, it is shredded, melted, and sometimes woven.

Plastic shards

These guys were happy to show off their collection of shredded plastic. The volume is mind-boggling.

Unlike in the US, where a single plant might perform several of these steps, in Dharavi, different people specialize in each stage of the process. From the driver who delivers the plastic to the sorter who sorts clear from colored plastic to the shredder who creates tiny plastic pieces ready for melting, each person has a single job to do. Eventually, the plastic makes its way back to the bottling plant where it becomes a plastic bottle yet again and ends up in my fridge.

Plastic melting

Workers place plastic fiber into a machine for melting.

The working conditions are deplorable. In a single, small room, we saw as many as six workers at sewing machines, and we visited on a holiday.

Sewing shop

Shop where jeans are sown to make a final product. This shop receives pieces from a single supplier.

To maximize space, the working and sleeping quarters are often combined. The machines are dangerous and without proper guards.

Leather press

This machine is used to press the leather into sheets. The leather is rolled between two large drums and controlled by a foot pedal.

While sanitation is the biggest health challenge for residents (1 toilet for every 1500 people), respiratory illness is the biggest overall health hazard for workers. The particulates in the air are visible and toxic: chemicals for tanning, dust from shredded cardboard; plastic shards from water bottles; and smoke from smelting metals.

Aluminum smelter

This smelter melts aluminum shards into bricks for shipment to factories. The heat was tremendous, and we were not there on a particularly hot day.

Only once did I see someone with a rag covering his face to protect his lungs from contamination. Not once did I see even a basic face mask. We were told that even when proper protection is available, the men refuse to wear it. The life expectancy in Dharavi is 45 years, significantly lower than elsewhere in India. These conditions contribute to that short life span.

But, all is not misery and danger. There is genuine joy and happiness here, too. When we passed one house, three women rushed from their home and greeted us with an excited, “Happy Diwali!” They were dressed in their finest, brightest saris for the festival. Although their lives have many challenges, they did not look miserable. They had huge smiles on their faces and were glad to see visitors.

As we were in the industrial areas, we saw few children. What children we did see were just like so many others. One enterprising girl had set up a small table to sell Diwali crackers to other kids; two boys were obviously deep in negotiations about who would get which half of a prized cracker. The hope for these children is that one day they will not live here, but that day is not today. Their only thoughts today are about the ongoing festivities and break from school lessons.The children do attend school in Dharavi, but the challenge is often getting them to focus. To mitigate this problem, one NGO school offers milk, breakfast, and lunch to the children free of charge.

The government-sponsored tourism slogan is “Incredible India!” To that, I would add “Industrious India!” Nowhere else in the world will you find an entire substrata of the economy devoted to recycling and repurposing the trash that another part of the economy produces. That is Incredible, Industrious India.

5 thoughts on “Industrious India: Going behind the beautiful forevers

    • Thanks, James! If you have not read Katherine Boo’s book, from which I stole part of my title, it is worth the read. She highlights the story of a Muslim youth who sorts plastic. The conditions are heartbreaking, but the production capacity is impressive.


  1. Pingback: Magnolia2Mumbai! | Crossing borders, breaking down barriers

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