Why people of Dharavi are unhappy

Dharavi in Mumbai is one of the world's biggest slums

46-Maharashtra-government-has-plans State of flux: Maharashtra government has plans to redevelop Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

It is 9pm on a weekday. Around 10 women in their 50s and 60s, all seated cross-legged in a single row on the floor, are still at work, going through plastic waste inside a recycling unit in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums. They are immersed in the task; they don’t even smile much or make small talk.

“We are here from 9am to 10pm daily,” says 53-year old Laxmi Rahulkar, who takes a short break to talk to us. Most women who work in Dharavi live there, but a few like Rahulkar commute long distances. Rahulkar comes from Diva, travelling 40km one way, to earn Rs300 for a 12-hour shift.

“We pay Rs500,” contests the owner, Farid Khan, who sits outside the unit on a plastic chair. The 30-year-old belongs to the third generation of the family that owns the unit. “We do business worth crores a year,” says Khan. “These old women who are past their prime are willing to do this type of job. They need it to survive. It helps us, too.”

47-women-working-at-a-plastic-recycling-factory-in-Dharavi Women working at a plastic recycling factory in Dharavi.

Nothing is wasted in Dharavi; 60 per cent of Mumbai’s waste is recycled here. From car batteries to computer parts, from fluorescent lights to ballpoint pens, Dharavi processes everything. Many of its shacks are busy sorting, sifting, melting and recycling thousands of tonnes of waste generated every day.

Going deeper into Dharavi’s innermost bylanes might feel like getting pulled into a black hole. A walk through Dharavi is a humbling experience―a stark reminder of the juxtaposition of poverty and industriousness coexisting in a limited space of a little over 2.3 square kilometres, shared by over a million inhabitants.

The sheer scale of the number of people living in Dharavi has created a market which runs on the entrepreneurial spirit of its people. It drives diverse manufacturing industries such as leather, pottery, garments, food production and printing.

48-A-schoolgirl-walks-past-a-workshop-in-Dharavi Moulding life: A schoolgirl walks past a workshop in Dharavi.

Dharavi, however, is in a state of flux. After Adani Properties has been awarded the right to redevelop the slum, many residents are worried about their future. On December 16, several thousand protesters marched to the Adani group offices in Mumbai, raising questions about the Rs23,000 crore redevelopment project.

People are concerned that they could be thrown out of the prime property. “Whatever plans you have for us, please let us remain here where we have spent our entire lives. We do not want to go anywhere even if it is within a 10km radius of Dharavi,” says Raj Nadar, who owns a small leather shop on the 90 Feet Road inside Dharavi. He says he will rather compromise on the space that will be allotted to him, than move out of Dharavi altogether. “This shop was started in 1994 and continues to this day. We have a dedicated clientele and we earn handsomely,” says Nadar.

Khan says Dharavi will continue to flourish only if the residents are allowed to stay. “Otherwise, the slum will die a silent death. All our workers are from here. We are a self-sufficient community. While we do not mind redevelopment, it should not be at the cost of our livelihood,” he says.

48-a-leather-goods-manufacturing-unit A leather goods manufacturing unit.

The workers are unhappy. “Where else will we get the convenience of being able to work and stay at the same place?” asks Rajul Bhai, who operates a printing press in his one-room shack which doubles up as his home. “We are not greedy, we are not asking for thousand-square-foot space. Our only demand is not to evict us from this place,” he says.

In a paper titled ‘Dharavi Redevelopment Plan: Contested Architecture and Urbanism’, Vandana Baweja from the University of Florida says that the redevelopment project reduces slum rehabilitation to a simplistic problem of numbers. “There is no safety net in the Dharavi Redevelopment Project that ensures the residents that they will be able to continue their vocation in the same way as they have in Dharavi for several generations.”

At a recent news conference organised by the Dharavi Redevelopment Committee, the one sentiment that was expressed widely was to allow the existing tenants to keep their holdings. Many attendees, meanwhile, felt that the project would remain on paper as of now and could take several years to be finalised. “There is no point thinking about it now,” says the owner of a leather manufacturing unit.

Former Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, who heads a faction of the Shiv Sena, plans to lead a protest march against the alleged favouritism shown towards the Adani group. “In the middle of all these, it is us, the residents, who will suffer. The redevelopment project will never take off and we will continue to live in misery. We need clean water, a good house and a decent place to work,” says Nadar.

Rahulkar agrees with him. “If we are plucked out of here, I do not know how to survive. Because here, inside the community, people know us and give us some work so that we can fend for ourselves,” she says. “Will this be possible otherwise? I don’t think so.”