Updated: June 8, 2010 10:40 IST

A chronicle of Dharavi

Meena Menon
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“Another book on Dharavi?” — you wonder as you start browsing this rather large volume. And the editor puts you at ease, when he says it is not a scientific study, nor is it fiction. “To a large extent,” says the introduction, “it contains images of urban poverty, of slums and of colourful people. Yet it does not claim to be either coffee-table fashion or hard hitting journalism.”


The book has short essays starting with ‘The Global City' by Saskia Sassen, which puts Dharavi and its million enterprises in context. The new informal economy is a part of advanced capitalism, even when it does not look like it, she says wryly. Then you have shots of Dharavi and you can zoom in close to the flat corrugated roofs packed tightly, and the squalor.

This should prepare you for the next essay, ‘Who's afraid of the urban poor?' The bottom half of the page shows a mossy wall topped with shanties, clothes hanging out, blue drums — that's the way people live here. Next in line is the famous ‘reality tour' — slums, after all, are ‘profitable' and a taxi driver can make a quick buck — and this is followed by a history of Dharavi: “Dharavi is an informal slum area, one among thousands in the city of Mumbai, where more than 60 per cent of the 19 million population of the city live.” It concludes with an ominous warning that Dharavi may end up as another glitzy business district, like Bandra Kurla South, crushing the spirit of its residents and entrepreneurial skills. As it says, “not very many of Mumbai's formal citizens are likely to notice when the bulldozers enter.”


PV New Chawl is one of the oldest streets in the neighbourhood. A black-and-white sketch of a woman carrying a sack, and then follows an entire page with pictures and a map of the 100 metre-long street dotted with 60 houses. Big double-page spreads take you through the street, a chemist shop, clothes piled up on a stand, shops, workshops, people sitting idle, a bakery, toilets …all part of a typical Dharavi scene. It's a faithful documentation done by people who are earnest as the conversation in ‘Measuring the Life on a street' indicates. So you have a picture of the homes in PV New Chawl, and visuals of the place at night.

Next in focus is Dharavi's sanitation, or the lack of it, followed by its famous recycling industry, leather production, printing industry, pottery, surgical thread, textiles, food and kite manufacturing. Then come the various businesses, the people and the products. There are interviews on the precarious lives people lead. More essays on the present situation in Dharavi where a massive redevelopment plan is stuck. The note at the end of the book is frank, “We did not visit Dharavi to teach but rather to learn.”


And yes, this has been a learning experience. The pictures, the painstaking documentation all point to a sincere attempt to capture and understand Dharavi and its mind-boggling life, its myriad by-lanes, businesses and people before it is turned into a glitzy, upmarket residential and commercial complex. Local people have resisted the government's ambitious plans to redevelop their area. And like anyone who visits Dharavi and spends some time there, the authors of this book have come back impressed. On the back flap of the book there is a prayer: “With this Indian edition we hope that the Government of Maharashtra will see what we have seen, understand what we have learnt: the people of Dharavi are the most capable. Listen to them, engage with them!” — a plea that is likely to fall on deaf ears, if the past is anything to go by.

This volume is a plumpy, colourful tribute in more ways than one to the people of Dharavi. It also testifies to the hard work put in by the team to understand the people and the place in all their nuances. The effort seems well worth it.

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