Asia’s Biggest Slum, Or A Billion Dollar Industry?

Mumbai, one of the largest metropolitan cities of India, is a quaint little place. For all its concrete pride and beach-facing skyscrapers, the heart of the city still belongs to a strip of land quite humble and bare. Or so it seems.

Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia. A sprawling settlement that houses a population nearing one million, all crammed into a .81 square mile, it lies at odds with the rest of  Mumbai’s budding metropolis. Between glistening towers of glass, Dharavi is a living patchwork quilt—of tiny shanties set against each other like bricks, narrow alleys that exist like a fatal maze to anyone unacquainted. And trash. Piles of it, in heaps almost like a landmass of its own, and then in open sewers and on the streets. On the surface, Dharavi is a public health disaster, a degraded nation where only the most pitiable of human life resides.

But among this poverty and lack of hygiene, there lies on of the most vital economies of the world. With an annual turnover of more than a billion US dollars, Dharavi thwarts any of the ugly fates that would come of a slum like itself.

The industrial sector of Dharavi houses what can be best described as an informal economy— a myriad of jobs that aren’t taxed, but are no less essential to the Indian economy.  From sunrise to hours that creep towards midnight, the fragile, paper thin shanties are alive with workers who involve themselves in a slew of small scale manufacturing. From the teeming garment industry that dyes, block paints and tailors textiles, to recycling units specializing in paper, metals and plastic wastes from all over the city and from other states as well. The pottery and textiles, along with leather goods, jewelry and accessories, are exported and sold in stories in the USA, the Middle East, and Europe. Over 15,000 single room factories exist in this area, largely due to the low cost rent (about 3 US dollars per month). Workers who move to Mumbai from all around the country often find residence and work in Dharavi.

Not only is this settlement a small and medium scale industrial hub, it is also, in its bare bones, a community. It is one of the most literate slums in the world, with a literacy rate of 69 %. A large number of schools are set up by Indian and international non-government organizations. Projects like the Dharavi Art Room, an initiative that uses art to empower the poor kids and women of the slum, reflect the self sufficiency of Dharavi. It may technically be a “slum”, but the people in it ooze hope and productivity that is often not found even in the prosperous regions of the western world. This spirit of Dharavi has attracted thousands of writers and filmmakers to explore and unearth the quaint nature of the slum, producing movies like “Slum Dog Millionaire” and  books like “Poor Little Rich Slum.”

The people of Dharavi have no government to help them out. There is no social security to come to their aid. Projects of redevelopment and public health exist, but the work is slow and the outcomes negligible. The people live largely on the merits of their own devices. But despite this reality, the hardships, the depravity, and the disease, Dharavi has managed to not only survive, but to thrive. The people of this little world have sculpted a life for themselves and their children— a majority of its residents have families who have lived in the town for 70 years. It is a culture of growth, harmony, handwork, and determination, and it is something that every country can learn from.

 

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