Dharavi: Backward and Forward in Time

The first day of my weeklong stay in Mumbai last week, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon in Dharavi, the largest slum in India, and a central part of Mumbai's life. With almost a million people living and working within one square mile, it functions almost as its own city within a city. Through the assistance of our local guide, we were able to spend about three or four hours in the backstreets, workshops and alleys of the district, getting a close up look at the culture that has grown up in this extraordinary area.  

Plenty of people have written at length about this stunning example of both poverty and resilience, so I'll limit this to a few observations made as we walked through:

  • Dharavi acts as a filter, cleaning and recycling an important part of Mumbai's commercial and materials ecosystem. Most people in the West define slums as a place of taking, not making, draining welfare and support, and giving little back. Dharavi is a case of the contrary. From fuel barrels to plastics to paper to textiles to metals and earthenware and just about any material or item that that can be scavenged or collected, there are small workshops that reclaim, reprocess and recycle hundreds of categories of consumables. In just a few hours, we witnessed plastics, fibers, metals and natural materials being sorted, stripped and reworked. Some sources claim the district itself has an export economy of nearly a half billion dollars alone. From what we saw, that is undoubtable. It's both a throw-back to earlier times in the West in manufacturing and small industry, not a million miles from 19th century London or New York, but it is also a glimpse into what may be the future as communities look to become more locally resilient and create end-to-end economies. Clearly the area lacks in many basic services and hygiene, but it has its own internal intelligence and systems not built to rely on modern infrastructure.
  • Along with human knowledge, lightweight technology is a form of glue that keeps modern Dharavi running. The Wi-fi signal finding app on the phone in my pocket frequently alerted me to an open wireless Internet connection nearby, and the most prominent product segments for advertising in the area are communications and media. Dozens of mobile salesmen and repair shops lines the alleys. as did signs and banners for all of India's mobile operators and satellite TV vendors. Satellite dishes were not  in short supply, and many of the street vendors or shopkeepers openly sport mobiles. Like the area's light industry, its lightweight communications infrastructure, while not clean lined with all bells and whistles, is clearly in place and functioning despite the infrastructure difficulties, and expenditure on communications and media are seen as important parts of living and doing business within Dharavi, as well as staying connected to the city and nation without.
  • Aspiration to upward mobility is signalled everywhere. The frequency of posters and ads offering English lessons were hard to ignore. Many forms of vocational training are offered, most prominently for IT jobs such as network management, reinforcing the previous point. Alongside Bollywood and cricket, technology is a lure to the young looking to move beyond Dharavi. With IT having brought so much wealth to the country in the past decade, it's an obvious aspirational target, but one that, outside the dot com bubblespace in the US, doesn't have the same allure here. I look forward to watching the rise of Dharavi geek culture over time. 

My feeling on leaving is that Dharavi's future is India's future is the global future. How this area is improved and integrated into the city and nation will be an indicator of if and how India grows and what sort of power it will wield globally in the next century. The ingenuity required to solve these problems, both by the area's citizens and the country at large is something the West, in its stagnation, should pay careful attention to.

More pictures can be found here.