An innovation lab by kids, in the middle of a slum

Dharavi Diary is incubating ideas for — and by — the children of Naya Nagar, and soon, in other low-income areas too

April 11, 2017 12:06 am | Updated 07:33 am IST - Mumbai

Problem-solvers:  The Dharavi Diary offices are no longer geared toward a specific project: it is now a space for ideas to take shape.

Problem-solvers: The Dharavi Diary offices are no longer geared toward a specific project: it is now a space for ideas to take shape.

Next to the northern tip of Tulsi Pipe Road, where it loops around itself to cross the Western Railway suburban line and turn into the Mahim-Sion link road, you step down a narrow staircase into the bustle of Naya Nagar, an off-shoot of Dharavi. You navigate the narrow lanes to an unpromising structure, a slightly dilapidated two storey building with a small paan shop in front, and climb up a flight of stairs.

Immediately, the noise of the city recedes. The long, spacious room you enter has books, maps and a few other computers, desktops and laptops, and it exudes an atmosphere of learning and creativity. Three girls in their mid-teens sit around a small table, poring over textbooks and discussing math problems. At another small table, a 12-year-old boy sits in front of a wall-mounted computer screen, using a mouse to click on various images.

About a year ago, The Hindu reported on an initiative called Dharavi Diary, a project that taught young girls from Dharavi the use of an open-source tool called MIT App Inventor with which they could develop mobile apps to tackle everyday problems they faced. Back then, the Tech Girls of Dharavi (as they had come to be known) worked out of a tiny room at ground level; in groups of three sharing a laptop, the sat on the floor as they were instructed by Nawneet Ranjan, a filmmaker who had started the project. Mr. Ranjan had moved to India from San Francisco in 2014 and was inspired to start a community development project after making a film about Dharavi.

In the year since then, the Dharavi Diary (to give the project it’s more formal name) got funding from Nvidia, a California-based company, and also won the Google Rise Award, which is given to organisations that increase access to computer science education by groups currently underrepresented in the field. These infusions of cash have helped the project grow manifold, so much so that that Dharavi Diary is now just the Bombay chapter of the Slum and Rural Innovation project.

A growing experience

“We now have three levels of classrooms,” he says. “The junior students we teach in our original room, the middle school students are here” — he gestures around the long room, which he says they have been renting for just a couple of months — “and we are looking at renting the floor above this to engage some of the parents of these kids who never had a chance to go to school themselves.” Most importantly, from starting with a group of 45 girls, Mr. Ranjan says in this neighbourhood alone now over 200 kids who come to attend sessions and just work in the office; there are now boys in the group too, though 60% are still girls.

The first priority for Dharavi Diary was in pushing through the content they had already created: a safety app called Women Fightback was already on Google Playstore, and they managed to get funding thereafter to put up other apps on saving water and maintaining a clean and green Dharavi past the prototype stage and on to the store. Since then, however, the Dharavi Diary offices are no longer geared toward a specific project: it is now a space for ideas to take shape, something that’s driven by the kids themselves. Mr. Ranjan describes it as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, maths) laboratory where students can think of a problem and then go online to try and come up with a solution.

A recent example: a video the students made, Period of Change , that addresses myths and taboos around menstruation. The girls wanted to show it to their mothers, who in turn could show it to others, as a way of promoting the use of eco-friendly sanitary napkins. The project turned into an initiative supported by CSR funds from a financial analytics company CRISIL, which may now turn into helping the community set up a unit to manufacture eco-friendly sanitary pads. Another theme the are working on is called ‘Who Am I?’ It is an attempt to both understand themselves as well as engage with the world outside Dharavi.

Recently, as part of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Dharavi Diary put up a huge installation that was an attempt by the kids to understand how the world was before they were born and how it's changing.

Reaching out to the world

Part of the outreach is literally about getting others to come in: the group has invited students from colleges around the city to visit and share knowledge. For instance, a group of students from the aeronautics club of VJTI college recently visited and showcased a remote-controlled aero model, inspiring some of the kids to try and make something similar. Then a group from the UK visited to teach the students about 3-D printing, which has got some of the girls interested in designing things with the technology, like jewellery. “So we’ve applied for a grant to get a 3-D printer in this centre,” Mr Ranjan said.

The grant from NVidia has meant that Mr. Ranjan is now exploring the possibility of startling similar centres in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune, aside from a centre in the slum areas around Andheri and Ghatkopar. “We are running it as a pilot project now, and we’re looking for a space to rent and then perhaps we’ll reach out to corporates for furniture or for computers as we have done here.”

The Google Rise prize gives Dharavi Diary a year’s mentoring and guidance from Google as they expand. Besides opening other centres, Mr. Ranjan hopes to start a slum and rural fellowship programme, where young students who have worked with Dharavi Diary or other centres can go out to villages and do something similar with computers and technology.

“I see this eventually as becoming a melting pot of ideas,” Mr. Ranjan says. “My dream is that for people at the bottom of the pyramid to start making products and build enterprise that benefit their own community rather than it having to come from outside.”

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.