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Rediscovering Dharavi

Spread over 175 hectares and swarming with one million people, Dharavi is often called 'Asia's largest slum'. But it is much more than cold statistic. What makes it special are the people who live there, many of whom have defied fate and an unhelpful state to prosper through a mix of hard work, luck and ingenuity. In Rediscovering Dharavi - to be launched on September 20 - KALPANA SHARMA gives an account of the triumph of the human spirit over poverty and want. An exclusive extract.

THROUGH the light from a door leading to a dimly-lit narrow room, you see a white-haired man intently turning a potter's wheel, fashioning a garden pot from a lump of clay. Ramjibhai Pithabhai Patel, a 65-year-old Kumbhar, lives in Dharavi, Mumbai. From early morning he is at work, pausing rarely for a break. Beyond the room, whose walls are covered with calendars and pictures of a pantheon of Hindu gods, are the kilns in which pots will soon be placed. A pall of smoke hangs over the courtyard as a worker stamps on a mound of clay, preparing it for Ramjibhai and other potters.

"When I was growing up, this was an open space. We could see Mahim station from here. People used to be afraid to come to Dharavi. They thought of it as a jungle," recalls Ramjibhai. He lives in Kumbharwada, a settlement where Kumbhars who fled from the drought and famine in Saurashtra, Gujarat, many decades ago live and work today.

The men and women of Ramjibhai's generation, who remember what Dharavi was like 50 years ago, are few. Once Dharavi was a swamp, a fishing village. Today, it is a slum, or rather, a collection of slums. Once it was open marshy land with tall grass. Today, there is barely any open space in this seething, compacted spread of energy, enterprise, deprivation and desperation which epitomises the crisis of all fast-growing Indian cities, not just Mumbai. It draws attention to the urgent need to find space and solutions for the growing numbers of the urban poor.

This heart-shaped spread of settlements, which today has the dubious reputation of being "Asia's largest slum", is located between Mumbai's two main suburban railway lines, Western and Central Railway. These are the virtual lifelines of Mumbai, transporting thousands of people from one end of the metropolis to the other. Dharavi is literally sandwiched between the two sets of tracks. To its west are Mahim and Bandra, to its north lies the Mithi river which empties out into the Arabian Sea through the Mahim creek, and to its east and south are Sion and Matunga. Mahim, Matunga and Sion stations mark its three corners.

When people in Mumbai ask me, why a book on Dharavi, on a slum, I tell them that I am writing about their city, about Mumbai, about a reality which many would prefer to ignore. This is the reality of half of our city, of people who have been forced by chance and circumstances to live for generations in subhuman conditions. It is the story of men and women who have survived despite our indifference, despite the hostility of the State, people who are also citizens of Mumbai.

I set out to write about Dharavi from several perspectives. First, from that of a journalist interested in people. Too often places are known as geographical dots on a map; as historical landmarks or as politically significant areas. Dharavi is all these but above all it is an extraordinary mix of the most unusual people. Their lives are the story of Dharavi; their lives are Dharavi. This is what I wanted to record.

Second, Dharavi's history and growth illustrate graphically the problems with urban planning by default. Governments first ignore the existence of slums and try and get rid of them through demolitions. When this does not succeed, and slums emerge as settled areas through the efforts of their "illegal" occupants, they are "recognised". After this, selectively, some services are offered, such as water and sanitation and even "redevelopment". But slum-dwellers are never allowed to forget that they have no legal status. Thus, when the land on which slums are located becomes valuable property, people are pushed out yet again, to another uninhabitable piece of land, to another slum.

The consequence of such an ad hoc and short-sighted approach towards the housing needs of the urban poor is evident in every Indian city where, roughly, between half and three quarters of the population lives in slums or in sub-standard houses.

Despite these policies, poor people survive. They have found ways to get water, even if water is not supplied, to build houses even when there is no security of tenure and no financial help, and to find work.

Many times they do not survive, specially when nature also turns against them. Every year, the poor in Mumbai suffer incredible hardships during the monsoons. Their settlements - usually located in low-lying areas - are awash in rivers of sewage and rainwater that gush through their congested lanes. For days on end, the muck does not clear.

The worst off are those who have perched precariously on hillsides or along water pipes. As we saw in the monsoon of 2000, they are the first victims of a heavy monsoon. Their homes collapse, their children fall into the rising water, they are cut off for days as all the land around their settlements gets inundated.

On July 12, 2000, when Mumbai saw 251 mm (25.1 cm) of rain in just nine hours, the city came to a standstill. Trains stopped. Streets were submerged. And an entire hillside in the north- eastern suburb of Ghatkopar came tumbling down, crushing below it scores of hutments that had perched on it for several decades. Within minutes, the lives of over 70 men, women and children were obliterated.

This ghastly tragedy illustrated the desperation of poor people in the city who have nowhere to live. When those who survived were asked why they had not moved, despite warnings, every person said, "Where could we go?" Yet, the central message from the tragedy escaped the politicians - that if the State has no policy to house its poor, they have no option but to occupy any vacant space that is available, no matter how dangerous.

Despite their precarious existence, however, in many slums, enterprises and industries flourish even though they are deemed "illegal" because they do not conform either to industrial location norms, or to working conditions required of such units. The State does not move against them - turning a blind eye to their apparent illegality because it must know that they provide gainful employment to millions of people.

You see all this in Dharavi. No one complains about the kind of enterprises that operate there day and night because they give jobs to successive waves of rural migrants till they can move on to something else. Many begin as workers and end up "owners" of small factories. Dharavi illustrates how the State, in fact, endorses and encourages illegality with one hand, while trying to curb it with the other.

Oddly enough, it is this deemed illegal status of informal settlements like Dharavi that makes people presume that they are breeding grounds for criminals and other "antisocial" elements. It is also assumed that the spatial layout of such settlements, where people have no place to breathe and live literally on top of each other, exacerbates tensions - communal, class or caste.

Dharavi explodes these myths. It demonstrates that crime is the consequence of the State's policies and not inherent in the nature of people who are forced to live in slums. It also reveals that despite an explosive mix of different communities that live in impossibly crowded surroundings, there have been relatively few incidents of violence between the different groups. There are tensions but people have worked out ways of resolving them which do not involve the police or the State. Until 1992, Dharavi was one of the places in Mumbai to have witnessed hardly any communal clashes despite almost an equal number of Muslims and Hindus living in close proximity to one another. Things changed after December 6, 1992 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Thus, a closer look at a place like Dharavi is essential because it provides an insight into issues that relate generally to the place of the poor in the rapidly expanding Indian cities.

Dharavi's birth

In popular imagination, Dharavi is a dirty, pest-ridden locality without basic services where thousands of people live in subhuman conditions. It is partly this - but it is much more. For the truth of the matter is that Dharavi, a settlement with almost one million people (there is a considerable gap between "official" and "unofficial" population figures because of a large, unregistered, floating population), spread over 175 hectares, is a bustling collection of contiguous settlements, each with its own distinct identity. The dividing line between these settlements is sometimes a nallah, sometimes a small road, sometimes a wall - constructed hastily at times of conflict.

The real dividing lines are based on the history of migration patterns in the city of Mumbai, on the State's policies of dealing with the urban poor, of village industries that have translocated in an urban setting and of language, religion and region.

Dharavi was not born yesterday. It is not a "slum" in the sense that one refers to the so-called "illegal" or informal settlements of the urban poor found in every Indian city. It existed when Mumbai was still Bombay, when the city comprised seven islands separated by the Mahim creek from the hinterland.

In the Gazetteer Of Bombay City And Island (1909), Dharavi is mentioned as one of the "six great Koliwadas of Bombay," that is, of the fishing communities. The original inhabitants of Dharavi were the Kolis, the fisherfolk, who lived at the edge of the creek that came in from the Arabian Sea.

From the beginning of the 18th Century, by accident and design, some of the swamps and the salt pan lands separating the islands that formed Bombay were reclaimed. A dam at Sion, which was adjacent to Dharavi, also hastened the process of joining separate islands into one long, tapered land mass. Thus begun the transformation of the island city of Bombay. In the process, the creek dried up, Dharavi's fisherfolk were deprived of their traditional source of sustenance, and the newly emerged land from the marshes provided space for new communities to move in.

The history of Dharavi's development is also closely entwined with the migratory pattern which has marked the city of Mumbai. The migrants could be roughly divided into two broad categories. The first were people from Maharashtra, and in particular from the Konkan coast, as well as some groups from Gujarat. These communities first settled in south Bombay, on vacant plots of land. As the city grew, the authorities could not tolerate the existence of these informal settlements. Entire communities were pushed out of south Bombay to what was then the edge of the city - Dharavi. Thus, the potters from Saurashtra settled in south Bombay had to relocate twice before they were allocated land in Dharavi to establish what is till today called Kumbharwada. As a result, a part of the history of Dharavi is closely linked to the State's policy of demolitions - a policy that it continues to pursue even today, albeit in a modified form.

The other settlers were direct migrants to the city, many of them trained in a trade or a craft. Muslim tanners from Tamil Nadu migrated and set up the leather tanning industry. It was located in Dharavi because the abattoir was closeby, in Bandra. Other artisans, like the embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh, started the ready-made garments trade. From Tamil Nadu, workers joined the flourishing business of making savouries and sweets like chakli, chiki and Mysore pak.

As a result, Dharavi today is an amazing mosaic of villages and townships from all over India. As the Kolis and the new migrants reclaimed and developed the land on which they lived, their kin would join them. The tanning industry grew into a thriving leather trade. Today, only a handful of the old tanneries exist, but the public face of the leather trade can be seen in air- conditioned leather showrooms on the main road which display every conceivable designer label. Small-time garments manufacturers, working out of their homes with a couple of machines, expanded their units into export-oriented garment "factories".

As long as Dharavi was at the edge of what constituted the city of Bombay, the city authorities could ignore its existence. It was a suitable site to send communities of "illegals" from other parts of the city as the land on which they squatted was required for other purposes. As Bombay expanded in the 19th Century and its population grew with new industries, such as textiles, coming up in the island city, the pressure on land increased. The city began to expand into the hinterland. As a result, Dharavi became much more central; it was not at the edge of the city as in the past. Ironically, this heart-shaped settlement is now located literally in the heart of Mumbai ....

Rediscovering Dharavi, Stories From Asia's Largest Slum, Kalpana Sharma, Penguin Books India, Penguin, Rs. 200.

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