Global Economics

Beyond Slumdog Millionaire: India's Biggest Slum


This excerpt from a book by author Kalpana Sharma looks at the business "enterprises" in Mumbai's Dharavi slum, where part of the film was shot

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books India from Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum, by Kalpana Sharma

Every square inch of Dharavi is being used for some productive activity. This is "enterprise" personified, an island of free enterprise not assisted or restricted by the State, or any law. It brandishes its illegality. Child labor, hazardous industries, adulteration, recycling, popular products from cold drinks to toothpaste produced in Dharavi—it is all there for anyone to see. Nothing is hidden because people here know that nothing will be done to stop them. Dharavi is an unofficially endorsed enclave of crass illegality that continues to flourish under the tightly shut eyes of the law.

The atmosphere in Dharavi, even on a holiday, is like being on a treadmill. Everyone is busy, doing something. There are few people hanging about. The streets are lined with hawkers selling everything, from safety pins to fruits, and even suitcases. Behind them are a mad array of shops, Satkar jewellers, ration shop, Bhupendra Steel, Husain Hotel, Swastik Electric and Hardware, Shreenath Jewellers and Mumbai Polyclinic—that is a typical collection on 90 Feet Road. Hindu, Muslim, south, north, food, jewelry, hardware, health care, all down one street.

If you want to eat the best gulab jamuns in town, buy the best chiki, acquire an export quality leather handbag, order World Health Organization (WHO) certified sutures for surgery, see the latest design in ready-made garments being manufactured for export, get a new suitcase or an old one repaired, taste food from the north and the south, see traditional south Indian gold jewellery—there are few better places in all of Mumbai than Dharavi. Some of these goods are easy to locate as they are sold in shops on the main streets that criss-cross Dharavi. But much more can be found tucked away in some inner lane that can only be located if you are guided by a Dharavi resident.

Estimates of the daily turnover of Dharavi can only be wild guesses as few people will actually acknowledge how much they earn for fear that some official will descend on them. Much of the production here is illegal. But there is little doubt that it runs into crores of rupees. A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation by Dharavi residents added up to between Rs 1,500 crore* and Rs 2,000 crore per year or at least Rs 5 crore a day! And roughly around Rs 11 crore per hectare per year! No wonder people think of Dharavi as a "gold mine" without even considering property prices.

A 1986 survey of Dharavi by the National Slum Dwellers' Federation (NSDF) confirmed what one can see as one wanders through Dharavi's lanes. At that time, there were 1,044 manufacturing units of all kinds, big and small. A later survey by the Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED) noted 1,700 units. The actual number is likely to be larger as many smaller units, which work out of homes and lofts, would have fallen outside the scope of the surveys.

The NSDF survey estimated that there were 244 small-scale manufacturers employing from five to ten persons. The forty-three big industries recorded in the survey are probably only medium-scale production units. These would include two factories making sutures—one of them a multinational company—one making what is called "duplicate Colgate," a toothpaste which sports an international brand name ("duplicate" everything is a speciality of Dharavi), soapmaking units, a mithai factory and some of the tanneries that did not shift even though on paper all tanneries were supposed to have been moved out of Dharavi to Deonar by the end of the 1980s.

The NSDF survey recorded 152 units making a variety of food items like chiki, papad, channa dal; fifty printing presses; 111 restaurants; 722 scrap and recycling units; eighty-five units working entirely for export; and twenty-five bakeries. These units are spread out all over Dharavi with big concentrations in Transit Camp.

The common point about all these enterprises, including some of the bigger ones, is that they have come up despite the government, and not because of it. Few of them receive the benefits that the government offers small- and medium-scale industries. The majority do not abide by laws that apply to these industries. It is a mutually beneficial situation: the government does not have the headache of having to supervise and tax such a diverse "industrial" sector, and the enterprises can flourish by flouting every law, including that of safe working conditions. Workers have no health insurance, there are constant lay-offs and redundancies as cheaper labor replaces the old, but neither the government, nor the entrepreneurs, nor even the workers, complain because in their own way, everyone gains something from this situation.

It is virtually impossible to capture the diversity of manufacturing activities in Dharavi. But they can roughly be divided into the traditional trades and the more modern ones. The latter include the leather industry—tanneries, finished goods and other leather-related products like sutures, or buckles. Also in this category is the garments industry, most of which sells its products in the local market. Then you have food-sweets, papads and baked products. Dharavi has some of the most hazardous industries, like waste recycling and foundries making brass buckles. In the traditional industries are potters, jewelry makers and gold refiners.

*—A crore is a unit equaling 10 million.


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