For Mumbai’s privileged, the Dharavi slum is nothing more but an embarrassing eyesore in the middle of India’s thriving financial capital. For Bollywood, it seems to be rather a blind spot on the screen than a source of inspiration. For more than half of the megacity’s population of 20 million people, life under the harsh conditions of a slum like Dharavi, however, is every day reality – and it could get even worse.

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Biggest slum in Asia: Dharavi. Picture: theriskyshif (July 2012) CC BY 2.0

Populated at the middle of the 19th century by workers from polluting industries such as tanneries and potteries (members of the lowest Hindu castes and Indian Muslims), Dharavi soon became the biggest and most notorious slum in Asia. Propelled by the rapid growth of urban economy under the East India Company, this informal settlement absorbed more than one million farmers who followed the rural exodus and were looking for a better life in the city.

Wit and determination

Density, air pollution, water contamination and a catastrophic sanitation system had imposed harsh living conditions on Dharavi that left their marks on its residents. Over the course of the last 150 years, the community has regularly been afflicted with epidemics such as typhoid, cholera, leprosy, amoebiasis, polio, and tuberculosis which resulted in a high above-average mortality rate. And today, although water supply and sanitation improved a drop, Dharavi is still just considered as Mumbai’s waste dump by many. Yet, this assessment is too short-sighted:

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Hustle every day: Recycling worker. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

From pretty much nothing the residents of Dharavi built an informal billion dollars industry that recycles around 60% of the megacity’s waste and exports goods all around the world. The slum is furthermore home to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community that is able to function without much friction and provides a viable alternative to the competitive and leery lifestyle in modern Mumbai.

Increasingly expensive square meters

Many of Dharavi’s residents are proud of their unique social micro cosmos where each acre is populated with 15’000 people. Yet, their way of life is endangered more than ever. Not by a lack of hygiene and clean water, but by the development plans of the government and big businesses that now – as Dharavi is located at the heart of the ever expanding city – have turned their dollar-sign-eyes on the increasingly expensive square meters on which Dharavi was built.

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Hidden wealth: Once redeveloped, each square meter in Dharavi would be worth a fortune. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

I wanted to find out more about the destiny of this underdog community and decided to enter this informal housing maze – after overcoming initial doubts about the presumptuous and voyeuristic aspect that a visit by an outsider to Dharavi inevitably entails.

Especially inconvenient for women

Foul and humid odors invaded my respiratory tract as we got off the cool AC-car on a bridge in front of Dharavi’s southern entrance. “Watch out the shit on the ground,” our guide, Yash, told me when I walked over to the handrail in order to take a picture of the two gigantic water pipelines that underpass the bridge and which I recognized as original scenery from Slumdog Millionaire.

Scenery from Slumdog Millionaire: Mumbai's water supply. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)
Scenery from Slumdog Millionaire: Mumbai’s water supply. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

Apparently, only one percent of Dharavi residents own private toilets; 71 percent rely on communal toilets, 7 percent use pay toilets, and 21 percent rely on open spaces – such as the sidewalk of a bridge. “Open space urination and defecation is especially inconvenient for women, since they are supposed to go early in the morning or after dark,” explained Yash who grew up in Dharavi himself.

A Billion Dollar parallel economy

After the initial shock had worn off I regained the capacity to observe and process what was happening around me as we maneuvered deeper into Dharavi’s maze of narrow alleys. Chaiwallas were delivering tea, three girls were transporting a washing machine on a bicycle, two roosters were fighting over their turf next to a goat which was looking for food in rubbish sacks and a group of men were debating at the local barber shop. But more than anything I saw people working hard. This place is a churning hive of colorful workshops, stores, food stands, barber shops, potteries, and small factories. Dharavi is home to a parallel economy whose annual economic output is estimated to be 1 billion US dollars.

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Part of a parallel economy: Textile store in Dharavi. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

“We are now entering the recycling district where about 60% of Mumbai’s waste is sorted, cleaned and recycled into something usable again,” Yash announced as we turned around a narrow corner. He led us into a house where men and women were sorting plastic waste by color.

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Recycling a megacity’s waste: Dharavi residents sort plastic waste by color. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

In the room next door a chipper machine was cutting the waste into small pellets. The noise was deafening. One of the boys, Bablu, showed me the rooftop of the house from where you had a nice overview of the slum and the skyscrapers of the business district in the background. “Welcome to beautiful Dharavi,” Bablu told me with a mischievous grin on his face.

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“I got everything that I need here”: Bablu. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

I asked him what he wanted to become as a kid and if he’s happy with his current situation.

“No one here dreams about becoming a doctor,”

Bablu told me in a disillusioned tone, “Dharavi is not a place where big dreams die – it’s a place where they never even rise.” However, Bablu didn’t seem to be unhappy with his situation: “This is my world. I got everything that I need here.”

Good social vibe

As we continued the tour I started to understand Bablu’s words. Dharavi might be a dirty place for Western standards. However, it is full of life. Contrary to Mumbai’s anonymous megacity life, people here are interacting with each other at every corner, families are helping each other out, the religious communities are coexisting peacefully and the people are authentic.

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Intact religious community: Muslim prayer. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

Everyone here is poor so there is no need to pretend to be anybody else. I really started to appreciate the good social vibe in this slum. And I felt sorry for my initial pity that I had for its inhabitants since I realized that there is nothing more pitiful about them than there is about any person living in the human condition.

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Authenticity: haircut at the barber corner. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

This is also one of the reasons why most residents oppose the government’s plan to redevelop this area. They fear that the cost of losing social qualities outweighs the benefits of improved material qualities. The government presents its development plans as a three party deal where each party is supposed to profit; the construction companies can buy the land from the government for cheap money, the residents get a right to live in an apartment built by the companies and the government can clean up its “dirty” neighborhood.

25 square meters per family

Each family who was registered before the year 2000 will get a 25 square meter apartment for free. But thousands of residents would have to resettle since they didn’t register at all or moved in after 2000. However, even many of the residents who registered before 2000 fear that the social life will change for the worse once all the families move into isolated block apartments and that the informal businesses might not be relocated with them. As Yash told me, most of them would already be happy if the government would simply invest into better sanitation and water supply.

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Limited water supply: Residents taking a bucket shower. Picture: Philippe Stalder (March 2016)

However, the government’s development plans are profit driven. And since Dharavi is located in the middle of Mumbai’s heated housing market, the margins are expected to be quite high for both the government and the construction companies. They plan to give away the apartments in the bottom of the new blocks to the former residents and sell luxury apartments in the top of the blocks to new residents. This could partly replace the informal economy since Mumbai’s rich employ a lot of domestic staff, however, it would also lead to new social tensions around a new class division.

Enormous financial interests

What remains is the hope that Dharavi’s sanitary condition can be improved while its unique social features can be maintained. However, given the enormous financial interests of both the government and the companies, this century old informal housing project may soon come to an end.