There is nothing Dharavi about Dharavi | india | Hindustan Times
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There is nothing Dharavi about Dharavi

The shanties of Mumbai’s iconic slum will soon be replaced by luxury homes, office spaces and buildings for the slumdwellers. Ahead of the elections, residents want something else to go too — the tag of ‘Asia’s largest slum.’

india Updated: Apr 06, 2009 21:32 IST
Swera Ramanujan

It's lunchtime at a Tamil wedding in a local Ganesh temple and you expect to hear strains of the nadaswaram.

Instead, you hear Shakira insisting that her “hips don’t lie”, followed by Sean Paul claiming he’s “got the right temperature to shelter you from the storm”.

This is Dharavi. “And please don’t call it Asia's largest slum,” says 24-year-old Sudarshan Sukumar, a stocky leather goods trader who grew up here.

Home to more than 7 lakh people, including Tamils, Maharashtrians, migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Muslims, Dharavi is on the brink of a transformation.

A multi-crore project hopes to erase the thousands of 8 foot by 10 foot shanties spread over 550 acres and replace them with towering luxury commercial and residential spaces.

In one corner, buildings constructed by the government will house the original residents, who will each get a small, 225-square-foot flat as compensation for the loss of their shanties.

“But this is not just a slum,” says Vishwanath Nikam, a local activist. “Dharavi is a way of life. Each group of shanties is home to a little community and those communities will be destroyed if they are transferred to vertical matchboxes of
living space.”

Where will the Kumbhars make their earthen pots, Nikam asks. Where will the women dry the chillies and dal for their famous pickles and papads?

For the 11 lakh voters registered here, the acknowledgment that Dharavi has grown beyond a den of counterfeit goods and small-time thugs is a key demand ahead of the general election.

After all, it could mean the difference between unemployment and a good job.

“Today, if we say we are from Dharavi, our job applications get turned down. We don’t get loans,” says Palraj Balasingh a 25-year-old Tamilian who has grown up here and now works at an education trust.

“What people outside don’t realise is that things have changed,” Balasingh adds, in fluent if accented English.

Dharavi has its own local economy, disorganised but thriving. And there’s more to the tiny units now than the knockoff Prada and Gucci tags that look astonishingly like the originals.

Efficient units produce bags, clothes and shoes that are exported around the world, netting a total of $650 million a year. Walk through the narrow, sunshine-deprived bylanes and you'll see tannery workers washing animal skins. Further down is the kumbharwada, where potters are readying earthen pots in time to meet the summer demand.

Next are garment manufacturers, beyond that a plastic recycling unit.

The outer periphery is more presentable. Small, glass-fronted shops sell the city’s most popular — and most economical — leather goods.

The slum is the supply chain, the brand and the marketing strategy.

The families who have move into the government-built apartments already cannot afford to pay the monthly maintenance dues. Many are selling the flats and moving to the outer reaches of the city, where space is easier to find and living is more affordable.

In Dharavi, they are hoping their leaders who will ensure that the benefits of development reach them. And, for now, they are focussing on shedding the tag of Asia’s biggest slum.

“The only thing that is not manufactured here is currency,” grins 49-year-old K. Thangapandi, a resident of 30 years.