Little Waste in Shantytown

Within 48 hours, I would be in a different world. I would be taxiing up the verdant Ukay Heights suburb off Kuala Lumpur to plonk on my bed.

With such a guarantee — printed on a Malaysia Airlines e-ticket no less — a man can thread where few natives dare venture in Mumbai. I was going to Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum.

Think of a shantytown that may host up to 1 million inhabitants in one tiny square mile, and you will understand the anywhere-but-Dharavi hesitations I had encountered during my previous two trips to Mumbai.

“This is not the real India,” I was frequently told…

I desperately needed an Indiana Jones, an adventurer, or anyone who can be piqued by the prospect of re-discovering Dharavi first-hand.

That timely quality was found in 25-year-old budding film director Geoffrey Mathews, who stayed just across the street. He had only peripheral encounters with Dharavi until that morning, despite it being a 50-minute bus or train ride away from our abodes in Belapur, Navi Mumbai.

The gateway to Dharavi begins at a suburb called Sion, and that was where we alighted for our first-hand encounter.

I remarked to Geoffrey that it meant “Zion” in French, and he corrected me that it was a corruption of Sheev in the native Marathi. Did the famed Baghdadi Sassoons or some colonial-era bureaucrat decide on the ingenious English diptych? I would never know.

In any case, it was a fitting tribute to India’s unparalleled hospitality, spanning 2,500 years for exiled Jews, and 2,000 years for Christians.

However, we were not walking up the mystical Mt Zion that day, not to the City of God where no pain hunger, tears and death existed.

We were going to a place so mortal that unrelenting misery and squalor was the residential promise. I was reminded of the reams written on Kolkata’s Anand Nagar, which, translates to the “City of Joy” in English and as a tutorial on the word “oxymoron.”

From Sion, an ancient taxi dropped us off at the requested location that was not unusual in its scale of decrepitude. Run-down neighborhoods in India take a turn for the worse before they are reincarnated as an avatar of redevelopment.

“So, where are the slums? Where is Dharavi?”

We were, in fact, already in the midst of it when that the question was posed. Periodic signboard checks served as a confirmation.

However, this was not the slum we expected. Instead of rows upon rows of makeshift plastic hovels straddling construction sites in India, this place was a labyrinth of grocery shops, tailors, pharmacies, private medical practices, metal works, leather tanneries and so on.

Men were scurrying about from tiny alleys to conduct business for the day. Ungulates, dazed by the daily grind and scorching heat, were leaving an unsolicited pungent trail wherever they trod. Not to be outdone, the women and children reversed this bovine intrusion with a fresh breeze of banter, and humanity.

There was, roughly, a sanitation facility for every 1,000 residents here. The acidic air constantly wafts over to nearby Bandra, where, they tend to twitch uppity noses and blur cognitive functions. When this happens, geriatric men dart off to foreign jaunts, becoming “college students” who prance around things more green, refreshing and nubile, year after year!

This is the world of Bollywood! A tinsel reality diametrically opposed to the rag realism of Dharavi.

Living in impossible conditions, and making life possible is an art perfected in Dharavi. They could have chosen the life of sleaze and ease, but preferred the narrow, winding and putrid alleys instead.

While we walked, no one accosted us for money, drugs or women. Not even for the export-quality leather products manufactured here. They all knew I was a foreigner — such is the uncanny Indian discernment — and had no objections to my camera snooping into their one-room shacks and shops.

They had nothing to hide except their industry. This was not Mexico, I reminded myself; this is was the India of initiatives.

Geoffrey was sure that the despite the squalor, the governments of India and the state of Maharasthra, had done “something” for this place. A public toilet built courtesy of a local Rotary Club bears testament to some external intervention.

Children did not look malnourished and seemed a world away from their earlier counterparts under British rule. According to author Kalpana Sharma, a railway line existed here once that ferried British troops from one cantonment to another. The children of Dharavi looked forward to such transits and more so the food tossed out by the praetorian guards of alien rule.

Dharavi, however, possessed a steely, vintage resolve to ride out the wave of the future rather than to wait on the stasis of handouts.

Due to time-space constraints, there was little room for false pride. When not tending to their small-scale industries, Dharavi’s offspring pursue surprising professional and educational dreams. Superhuman odds get bigger when doors open for a respectable exit to the outside world. Here pragmatism called for the use of a proxy address in case the addressee was a Bandra native returning for arthritic treatment or cosmetic overdose.

My camera revealed a few other things. If this place were crime-ridden, the local mob would not have tolerated snapshots. In such cramped conditions, crime can cascade into a communal disaster, bringing life and industry to a halt.

For this sandwich of humanity came from a Babel of Tamil, Gujarati, Utter Pradeshi, Muslim and Hindu.

I deduced that the crime rate in Dharavi could not be much higher than the rest of Mumbai. The faces here revealed no anger, fatalism, or despair. Kismet was not eternal toil, but every opportunity that rose from the sales of incense sticks, poppadams and toys.

I could not help remarking to Geoffrey that the children of Dharavi needed only specialized English tuitions to go places. Surely, some NGO had already thought that up? In such a uniquely-Indian cauldron, Dharavi sons and daughters would have a faster learning curve, ahead of counterparts in a more sanitized city. Personally, this seemed slam-dunk.

The people of India, after all, are the most culturally adaptable in the world. When in Rome, they not only do as the Romans do, they can compete on half-chances. There is no need of an affirmative action or “cultural diversity” policy to state their case, top their class, or build their careers. Think of an impossibly young Piyush “Bobby” Jindal as an equally impossible vice president of the United States?

When discriminated, as they are in much of Asia, there are no nationally debilitating backlashes, no suicide bombings, and no insurgencies to alleviate grievances. If “culture” is defined by particular reactions to “struggle,” then its cornerstone must be industry.

If such “culture” can be maintained, the arterial lifelines of any hellhole can produce exports worth more than US$1 billion per annum, as they do in Dharavi.

Actually, they do more. This dumping ground of humanity even ploughs back its cesspool of wastes. Many thriving industries exist here to recycle discarded plastics, car batteries and electronic components back to the commercial process. They are hazardous undertakings but they do more for resource management — and the environment — than what 10,000 talking heads can achieve at the Bali Conference for Climate Change.

This is what defines “culture.” Up north, in another slum in Delhi, an army of rag pickers routinely strip, mold and stitch up scavenged material into colorful bags that fetch up to 70 euros at fancy European boutiques.

This initiative of Shalabh and Anita Ahuja is matched only by the industrial efficiency of Mumbai’s dabbawallas, whose daily transportation of lunch boxes could not accommodate a curious peek from Prince Charles during a visit in 2003 (it was the other way around).

Some skills will remain evergreen in a world of financial meltdowns and resources crunches.

If affluent markets shut down, Indians will buy slum-manufactured products for much less than 70 euros. (Most already do, unknowingly). Skilled hands may work in deplorable conditions, but they are needed for all worlds, for all times. For an extreme analogy, think of Nazi or Communist death camps. The ones spared were usually smiths, tailors and shoemakers!

This history lesson is often lost. During the Great Depression, a burgeoning consumer culture regressed into a “mender culture.” Fewer things were sold for profit as industry tilted to fixing and patching items already possessed.

If such trying times repeated itself today, would our metropolises cope with the new demand-dictated realities?

Mumbai, or in any other Indian city, can achieve that. In Navi Mumbai, it cost me just $1 to re-patch my cargo shorts and replace the zipper for a Calvin Klein bag. In Kuala Lumpur, I would get the odd stare for a similar enquiry, while I would probably get brand new replicas stitched up for $2 in Dharavi, if the materials are supplied.

Anywhere else, you just dumped items that could otherwise be prolonged — through good stitching — by a few years.

In the “new fuel order,” cities that had supplanted their patch-and-mend industries with spanking new malls will be bereft of an umbilical, economic lifeline. Or else, they can re-pack these emptying malls with the menders of consumer items, which, is not as easy as it sounds.

High rentals and manpower shortage preclude such a possibility. This is where underground sweatshops might proliferate to meet the value-for-money demand and supply, in turn, organized crime.

The contention that skyrocketing fuel costs might realign the global trading structure in favor of regional and local economies discount one rudimentary factor: some basic skills are on the endangered list in affluent societies.

I know one tailor in the United Kingdom whose order books have been increasing of late. Specializing in curtains and cushions, her embroidery work is now on the native endangered list, and she can proudly boast of a rare — and certified — qualification.

Just what do they teach in schools these days? Have our Ivory Tower dreams displace skills deemed plebeian? Just how does an “advanced society” plug such gaping holes in its skills bank? The choice one day might boil down to either skilled immigration or organized crime.

That is why Dharavi did not look so hopeless that day. Whatever the future holds, the people here will continue to manufacture kitchen utensils and furniture, stitch garments, repair shoes, mould pottery, and meet basic household needs. They might even assemble computers from recycled components in an inflationary world.

They are poised to undercut the profits of larger industries that manufacture these products, and this inevitably raises the specter of existential threats to the likes of Dharavi.

Thankfully, the state and central government here have approved an ambitious US$2.3 billion Dharavi Redevelopment Project to transform the area into a self-sustaining township. Close to 4,500 small-scale industries are slated to be rehabilitated under the plan, and most importantly, they will fix and patch any hole in a resource-challenged society.

Just how many metropolises have that capability, I wonder?

For an outsider facing another one of life’s crossroads that day, the experience was a sobering reminder that the first might be last, and the last — first.

There was something mystical after all when we alighted from Sion station that day.

Dr Mathew Maavak is a regular commentator on risk-related geostrategic issues. Read other articles by Mathew.