Dharavi gets a lot of attention as Asia's largest slum. But against all odds, it's also a thriving hub of small enterprise – an activity that reflects the spirit of Mumbai. Text & Photographs PAUL NORONHA

It may disdainfully be called Asia's largest slum but it continues to attract tourists. Dharavi is, however, much more than all that. It reflects the core of Mumbai with an extraordinary mix of people from across India trying to make a living, though And work conditions here are nothing short of horrendous. Crammed sheds, which double up as homes, open toilets with virtually no garbage disposal facilities pretty much epitomise Dharavi. People live in subhuman conditions but have no way out as it is their ticket for survival in a city which promises everyone a dream of making it big someday.

The recyclers: There are a couple of ‘small factories', spots where plastic is recycled into long circular strips and then attached to handbags. There is another spot where plastic is separated from waste, not the most pleasant of tasks as people have to sink their hands in waste.

The leather trade: The insides of Dharavi reveal sordid realities like the processing of cows' nerves and the inner lining of their stomachs. These are exported in huge quantities to China and are big revenue streams for local businessmen. The work place is not exactly a pretty picture. With the end-product stored for months before being dispatched, the stench here is overwhelming. Business is profitable and workers are paid peanuts. There is a leather tanning unit close by, which exists despite this activity being shifted to another part of the city. Rules are broken in Dharavi but who can pin anyone down when survival is the top priority?

The foundries: The iron and steel foundries of Dharavi are like living gas chambers. Workers end up inhaling carbon and sulphur dioxide day in and day out. They are cramped in small rooms with very little ventilation. Their skins turn dark from working here but they face more serious problems in the form of lung and kidney disorders.

The snack factories: Anil, 18 years old, is from Uttar Pradesh and has been working here for six years. The only option back home is farming, which does not assure a regular income. Sometimes, he spends entire day frying Moong Dal in a pan of hot oil. The ladle is heavy and almost impossible to handle, thanks to the heat.