Rediscovering Dharavi

Stories from Asia's Largest Slum

Posted: 15 July 2002

Author: Kalpana Sharma
2000, Penguin Books, New Delhi, Rs200
ISBN: 0141000236

Dharavi, known as Asia's largest slum, covers 175 hectares in Mumbai and is home to almost a million people. Kalpana Sharma's account of this city-within-a-city traces its history from the time when it was one of Bombay's original fishing communities, through the period when large parts of this swampy area were reclaimed for construction through the dumping of garbage, to its present incarnation as a vast and productive settlement in the heart of the city.

Dharavi's history is closely linked to the migratory patterns that have shaped the larger city and to the policies of demolition and relocation that the city followed for many years. The first migrants to join the village's fisherfolk were people from Maharashtra, who settled in south Bombay and were later pushed out to Dharavi as the city grew. Later settlers from further afield moved directly to Dharavi - chiefly tanners from Tamil Nadu and garment workers from Uttar Pradesh but also people from Gujarat, from Andra Pradesh, from Karnataka and Kerala.

Dharavi is a mix of neighbourhoods - some consisting solely of people from one area and reproducing the distinct look and life of that area, but others mixing northerners and southerners, Muslims, Hindus and Christians. The author points out that, while many slums are mixtures of communities and religious groups, few places contain the extraordinary mix of Dharavi.

What also distinguishes Dharavi is its amazing productivity. The place is like a vast unregulated industrial estate and almost everyone there has work - in leather factories, foundries, bakeries, garment factories and soap factories among other enterprises, many of which have grown from small home-based livelihoods into major ventures. Although working conditions can be hazardous, unsanitary and exploitative, many thousands have prospered here.

Dharavi is typical of many informal settlements in the gradual evolution of its housing and infrastructure over time. Mud and thatch huts have gradually been replaced by concrete low-rise dwellings and high-rise buildings constructed by government and private enterprises. Where infrastructure once was non-existent, many households now have electricity and indoor taps. But there is also much that has not changed and thousands of people live in untenable conditions in areas that are extremely difficult to upgrade because of their density. One of the central issues tackled here is the challenge of creating adequate living conditions for the urban poor, and the book tracks some of the many schemes that have been undertaken by a range of groups to redevelop various parts of Dharavi.

Sharma reminds us that solutions to the complex issues in a slum like Dharavi are best arrived at by stopping, looking and listening. Her account is much enriched by the many stories of individual residents of Dharavi, which enable us to do just that.