Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dharavi - The Heart of Mumbai

It’s 38 degrees today, which is a great pity, because there’s not a cat’s chance of aircon, where we’re going. The book says, wear covered shoes, and don’t take a camera. Monu’s clearly uncertain of the touristic value of our planned expedition, and refuses to leave us until our afternoon’s guide, Ravi, appears and introduces himself.

We cross over the railway bridge at Mahim Station, and step into Dharavi, the biggest slum in the slum-capital of the world, Mumbai. I’m almost frightened of what we’re going to see, but it turns out to be as breath-taking as the Taj Mahal. Not for the same reasons, obviously.

In the early days, Dharavi used to be a carbuncle on the very outskirts of Mumbai, but the city’s since spread to meet and encompass it. Dharavi now occupies the central square mile of the City of Dreams. If you’re thinking, real estate – and that’s precisely what the developers are thinking – it’s a gold mine, with open sewers. Location, location, location. The scheme in bud, is to rehouse Dharavi’s inhabitants upwards, thus using only half their current square footage. You may ask, where’s the wisdom in replacing horizontal slums with vertical slums? The other half of the cleared slum-site is then up for grabs for – you guessed – luxury apartments and shopping malls. Just what Mumbai needs, another mall...

Slum’s such a negative word, trailing notions of deprivation, squalor and disease. After half an hour in Dharavi, I go looking for alternatives, but reject polite euphemisms like “social housing” as being condescending. I come full circle, back to the word “slum,” which just needs redefining.

Ravi’s worked for Reality Tours, since the company was conceived two and a half years ago, by Krishna Poojari and Chris Way, who had exactly that redefinition in mind. It was a feat of imagination and daring, since Dharavi’s hardly a classic tourist destination. As you enter its precincts, there are no touts, trying to flog you pictures of it on postcards or mugs or t-shirts. It’s not to make a spectacle out of poverty, that this company was created, but to dispel received opinion, about slum-dwelling. Before crossing the threshold, I expect to feel pity and distaste. With my eyes and ears and – let’s be honest – nose full of Dharavi, I feel nothing but admiration and amazement.

As we swerve along the broad main swag through the district, past the mango-sellers and street barbers, Ravi fires facts and figures at us. Dharavi’s a hub of manufacturing and recycling, accommodating thousands of small businesses, with a combined annual turnover of more than £330M. Not so easy, to brush under the developers’ carpet, then.

We turn off the high street – watching our feet – into the rat-runs of tiny paths behind the shop fronts. Some of the alleyways are so narrow, you have to turn sideways, and walk like a crab, ducking jutting beams and swinging light-bulbs overhead, not to mention spiders of exposed cables, hanging free. A tricky place to come home to, I say, after a night out with the lads....

Ravi puts his head into a doorway. Inside, a man sits at a band-saw, slicing chunks off a block of wood. Ravi leans in, picks up a sliver, and puts it in my hand. Rounded contours are carved into it. “Heel for shoe,” he says. In the little booth, the saw sounds like a dentist’s drill, and the air’s thick with dust. On the floor, oblivious of drill and visitors, a second man stretches asleep, on a thin mattress – he’s the evening shift. The machinists need to sleep, but the machine doesn’t.

Dharavi’s the heart of Mumbai’s re-cycling industry. Nothing’s wasted. On the streets, you see old ladies, poking through the contents of rubbish-bins, with a stick. The waste-bins, in the park near our apartment block, are upturned every night, in the same quest. We put our recycling material in bags, in the stairwell, on the thirty-third floor, and the following morning, it’s gone. Someone’s prepared to collect it and hand it on, for a few rupees. Most of it ends up in Dharavi.

There are whole streets full of recycling factories. “Factory” gives you the wrong grandiose idea. These are buildings the size of a domestic shed, with hot machinery and even hotter operators. The plastic waste – water-bottles, drinking-cups, food packaging – is sorted by colour, then ground to cinder-like granules. At another “factory” the granules are melted, and extruded to make plastic spaghetti, to be cooled and chibbled into uniform chips, for onward sale and a new life. It’s hot, in the waste-strewn alley outside. Inside, with the molten plastic and furnace, it’s almost unbearable. The seven workers are all smiling, though, and happy to tip before and after samples into our curious hands.

Ravi asks, if we want to see the can-recycling street. We do. A swift right-turn, and we’re in Tin-Can Alley. On cue, a man walks by, with twenty or more shining two-gallon cans, balanced on his head. After use, the empties are greasy, rusty and dented. At home, they’d be fit for the tip. Here, they’re collected and painstakingly restored. Inside a steaming shed, men sit on the floor to scour the cans inside and out, with hot water and chemicals. I put my hand inside the hole at the top of a can, to see if it’s possible. It’s possible. With wooden hammers, they scrupulously tap out the dents, and the cans are sold back to the original owners, for reuse. Next-door, even more amazingly, they recondition paint-tins.

Everything, re-use,” says Ravi, emphatically, and takes us to the cardboard-box revitalising suite. He picks up the top one of a stack of flattened boxes, and shows us the inside. Bisleri, it says. They take a used box, remove the staples, turn it inside out, trim it, and restaple it for Round Two. What a waste, I say, all those discarded old staples. “Staples,” Ravi says, “no throw away - collect, melt down, re-use.” Even after two incarnations, the box isn’t finished – there are chemical treatments, to remove industrial ink, making the box blank and available for service yet again. The conservation of particles, in everyday life.

We’re in the industrial quarter of Dharavi, where workers live above their tiny factories. Their wives and families live outside Mumbai, in the villages on the mainland. “You want to see residential area?” Ravi asks. “Here people living, but go outside to work, cab-drivers, factory workers, doctors...” “Doctors?” I say. “No big doctors in government hospitals, small, small doctors,” he says. “This way, come. Be careful, your feet.”

Ravi leads. We follow.