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Poverty. Riches. The world's largest democracy. An ancient caste system. Bollywood. India is a land of contrasts, a booming new power that remains baffling to outsiders and insiders alike. The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost series that decodes the many mysteries of India's uneven rise in the 21st century.


The Shiva Rules: Lessons from India's largest slum

In many ways, Dharavi is a self-sustaining ecosystem that serves needs not being met elsewhere.

Homes double as workspaces

Another signature aspect of Dharavi that enables residents to make money off small margins — and could be jeopardized by the redevelopment plans — is that many homes double as workspaces.

In the Kumbharwada pottery community, Dhansukh Bhimji Rathod finishes his lunch in his 200-square-foot room and then sits on a wooden bench spinning a clay pot on a wheel. As his hands wrap around the clay, crafting the material into the perfect shape, his brother squats on the floor in the back, pounding away at hardened pieces. Rathod’s aunt sleeps on a makeshift bed nearby, and his children play outside.

After Rathod spins each pot, he steps outside his home and places it to dry in the sun. He will then cook the pots in the large kilns outside his door.

Rathod, 33, wearing a clay-splattered T-shirt and shorts, says his father and grandfather were born in this same house and also worked as potters. If his neighborhood is redeveloped, Rathod and his family would likely be moved into a 300- to 400-square-foot high-rise apartment.

“This is where I live. This is my grandfather's land, I'm not ready to leave it,” he said through a translator.

He also says he has been working as a potter since he was 14 and has no other skills. If he is moved to a high-rise, he won’t be able to continue his work, which requires both indoor and outdoor space.

“If we get a building, how will we eat?” he said. “We can't work; we can't get money. Then how will we eat? There won't be work, so only sleeping in the building.”

Other residents earn income by renting out their bottom floor. This extra money would also be lost by the redevelopment plans.

Only giving someone a free apartment in a high rise will not be enough to address their needs and will in effect destroy the system they have created to survive, said Sharma. The redevelopment plan must take into consideration the fact that housing and livelihood in Dharavi is interlinked, she said.

Diversity of jobs

Another aspect of Dharavi’s economy that works well is the great diversity in industries and the kind of jobs available. This enables people with varying education levels and skill sets to find employment, gain training and work up the ladder.

Razing Dharavi and replacing it with a few large companies would not be as socially sustainable because it would eliminate the rich diversity of jobs and only provide employment for a certain type of person, said Paul, who has worked on a book that provides an alternative possibility for redeveloping Dharavi.

The current system also enables many to be entrepreneurs, which leads to a higher level of security, satisfaction and stability than working for someone else, Paul said.

“In a city where the government has not fulfilled the responsibility of giving people jobs, [entrepreneurialism] is a very important aspect to maintaining that stability,” he said.

And while many of the jobs done in Dharavi may entail dangerous and unsanitary working conditions, the very nature of them means they could not be done in other parts of the city.

Wealthy suburbs of Mumbai, for example, would not permit the smoke and air pollution that comes with the potters’ kilns.

“The work which can be done in a slum cannot be done anywhere else,” said Mobin the recycler.


Dharavi and slums like it can be quite environmentally sound.

Slum residents tend to have a low carbon footprint because they live, work, shop and socialize in one area rather than spending hours in cars or on trains like other Mumbaikars.

Dharavi has also become a market for second-hand goods like mobile phones. A phone discarded in one area of Mumbai makes its way to Dharavi where it is bought and reused or broken down into parts, Shetty said.

Furthermore, residents of Dharavi and other slums organize their services such as garbage collection collectively in order to cut costs. This becomes more sustainable as people manage the service themselves and often participate in its maintenance.

“The moment you organize things collectively,” Paul said, “it’s more sustainable.”

Problems with the informal economy

While Dharavi’s informal nature can help speed along business and enables migrants and other newcomers to the city to quickly get a job or set up shop, there are also significant drawbacks to working in the black market.

In addition to the psychological toll living and working without proper paperwork can take on an individual who may face the constant threat of eviction, the informal sector can also hamper business.

Entrepreneurs are not eligible for government subsidies or bank loans to grow their business if they do not have proper paperwork. Individuals who face abusive or unjust employers have no ability to demand compensation or settle their disputes in court. Children may be forced to work, and employees of all ages may face unhealthy working conditions.

The poor living and working informally also face what is called a poverty premium, whereby they must bribes and other fees to get basic services.

And yet, more than half of Mumbai lives in slums and for now, until there are better alternatives, that may not be the worst thing.

The innovativeness and importance of the informal sector cannot be destroyed, says Sharma, without putting something better in its place.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India