Colour Box, our gallery that doubles up as workshop space, has got a fresh coat of paint. It was christened back in November and now has been branded as well. It used to be hard to give landmarks to find it. “Stop opposite Sai Hospital (people would mistakenly end up at Sion Hospital). Do you see Vinayak Stores? We are right next to it ( and of course they drove past it).” While participants and visitors eventually made it, we now have a distinctive look right on the bustling sidewalks of Dharavi’s 90 Feet Road. All you need to do is look out for a facade with a painted mesh of four symbols – a heart, an eye, an infinity symbol and a health cross.
These four symbols make up our brand new logo, courtesy graphic designer Craig Lewisohn from Charlie Delta, who created a dynamic logo that perfectly represents all that we are: health, art, design, recycling, simplicity. The logo components are versatile and can be used in a variety of ways: stencils, block prints and, for die-hard Dharavi Biennale fans, tattoos :)
We painted the front wall just when the monsoon season was set to begin in Mumbai. Despite the rains and the slippery roads, Slumgods artist Siddesh Sapte, who goes by the nom de plume NME Graffiti, did up wall of Colour Box in just four days. Assisted by Rakesh Kunchikorve a.k.a. Martin, he colour-coded the four symbols in pastels that are so commonly found on Dharavi houses. Using just the basics – ladders, paints, brushes, stencils – the two young artists worked away deftly to give us an unmistakable presence in this place that we love. The next time you are on 90 Feet Road, you know where to drop by!
From our latest photography workshop conducted by Nitant Hirlekar. Young photographers ventured into the recycling units in and around Dharavi. Here are some snapshots of the glass recycling workshops in Prem Nagar, as seen by them.
By Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni
By Pooja & Ahmed
By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani
By Ankita, Mehzabeen and Roshni
By Roshni, Sameer & Suhani
By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani
By Ruksar & Nazmeen
By Ruksar & Nazmeen
By Ruksar & Nazmeen
By Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni
And, here is one that shows our young shutterbugs at work!
It is by now common knowledge that cheap leather bags are made and sold in Dharavi. Export quality, the shopkeeper will tell you. As much as the thrifty buyers and the choosy entrepreneurs flock to the line of leather goods shops on the Sion-Bandra Link Road, people are repelled by the stench of leather curing workshops on 60 Feet Road. The air smells of brine, sulphur, decay and human negligence. As vehement as animal rights groups and brand empires are about saving innocent animals from the clutches of fashionistas, something must be said about the manner in which the lower income groups work in these units. No rubber boots, no gloves, no masks, no legal interventions to protect them from the conditions they work in. To stand outside a leather curing workshop in Dharavi is to remember the stench of pukish drunken nights. Meet these brazen curing labourers, and you know that it takes more than just alcohol or drugs to get you through a day. You are driven by a desperate need to survive.
The conclusion is, however, not to close down the units. Especially not when the shutting down of a big manufacturer means the loss of jobs, however unorganized, for these daily wage earners. Especially not in a country which has a history of so called ‘lower’ castes and certain religious groups being the ones who fetch you your leather. The point is to investigate better working conditions that will provide improved health for these workers.
At a recent workshop, some high school students from Dharavi were accompanied by Nitant Hirelakar to photograph some examples of occupational hazards in their localities and make a pixel art installation that highlights the dual nature of these Dharavi businesses. There is lots of money, there is little consideration for human value. However, this is not just a Dharavi thing. It is perhaps how many labourers are hired all across the country. Your body is a piece of equipment that keeps the machinery running. If the equipment is defective, you can always get another here. Labour is the cheaper than water.
One of the sites that Nitant and his photography group visited was Prem Nagar, on the outskirts of Dharavi, near Kurla. This is the mega-hub of glass recycling, where tons of surgical vials, ketchup bottles, jam containers and the likes are dumped here to be sorted, cleaned and re-sent to factories for fresh packaging. That which can’t be resent is turned into shards that shall be melted for renewed purposes. As the young photographers alternated between mesmerized and repulsed, the labourers and the middlemen at these tiny, dark workshops were bemused. A little wary of these photographers, even.
Here again were the lack of basic protection for the cleaners and the sorters. On the banks of a little channel running from the guttery Mithi, a man sorted metal caps of soda beverages using a handy magnet. Hunched and focussed, here was a Gollum of present day Dharavi looking at his precious. Fumes, waste fluids and reminiscences of Katherine Boo’s depiction in Behind the Beautiful Forevers of young disadvantaged Indians inhaling Eraz-ex for their nightly high come to your mind.
At one musty workshop were a group of men and women who specialised in the niche job of removing zinc from discarded batteries to be repurposed. They are covered in zinc powder, only their eyes are flashing. Again, no gloves, no masks and definitely no health check-ups either.
The labourers themselves have nothing to complain about. As long as the job gets done. As long as there is yet another day with a job at hand. Life goes on.
Occupational hazards, as mentioned before, are definitely not a Dharavi feature and not merely a symptom of the lower income groups. However, traffic policemen with varicose veins will get sick leave, IT professionals with slip discs can avail a mediclaim policy and teachers with laryngitis can consult school doctors. What will a daily wage earner do?
A busy street in Asia’s largest slumDharavi leads to a quiet lane where Anita Leathers operates its colouring unit. As children play near shops that sell everything from mobile phones and garments to raw meat and sweets, the mood at the leather unit is sombre.
The leather business is one of the biggest contributors to the Mumbai slum’s informal economy, estimated to have an annual turnover of more than $500 million. About 15,000 small-scale industries, spread over an area of 500 acres, deal in businesses such as pottery, plastic recycling and garment manufacturing.
But the leather trade has been hit hard by increasing competition, an influx of cheap Chinese goods, rising raw material costs and labour shortages in recent years, leading to a decline in demand and dimming prospects of the once-flourishing business.
At Anita Leathers, which has been colouring and supplying leather sheets to merchants in Mumbai…
First timers to Laxmi Baug, Dharavi, should have no trouble locating Mahendra Parashuram Vartak’s house. A portrait of Shah Rukh Khan adorns the outer wall and a casual assortment of painting tools and supplies lies nearby. SRK looks like he always does – forever young, clear complexioned, dashing – and in this particular portrait, the colours pop out vividly. It is clearly an SRK from the nineties. Vartak has never met the Bollywood mega-superstar in person but replicated the pose from a magazine photo.
Vartak disappears into his house and emerges with a portrait of Salman Khan. “My first painting was of Kamal Hassan, however. He is my favourite actor and my first choice,” he says, looking fondly at the picture. That was the year 1978 and the now 56 year old Vartak was then a young man wandering around Jehangir at Kala Ghoda or Samarth Arts, of Bollywood poster fame, at Dadar.
Inspiration has been his tutor. Having never formally studied the practice of painting, Vartak’s schooldays were spent next to his bench-partner who had a gift for drawing. He observed his friends drawing skills and started practising on his own. The autodidact today works at the BMC’s tuberculosis centre in Dharavi, where he looks after MDR and XDR TB cases. “A government job was most preferred those days for its stability, pension and the promise of a good standard of living. But, had I gotten other options, I would have learnt shoe manufacturing,” says Vartak. Still, no talk about making a full-time business out of painting portraits.
Vartak’s clients are mainly fans of film stars or grieving relatives of those who have expired. Weddings and newborns rarely request these portraits. Vartak again disappears into his house and this time comes out with a portrait of an old man with greyish blue eyes. “My father,” he points out sentimentally, “who passed away in 1993. He was very proud of what I do.” On his canvases, a relative has the same place as a superstar.
Having made more than 150 paintings on canvas and plywood mainly as a hobby, Vartak’s masterpieces could be easily scorned by distinguished art school graduates. There is a touch of the artisanal in his works and his demand for photographs to mimic in his art. He takes about 2 weeks to make a single portrait. Yes, a true artist might be expected to take longer.
Yet. Vartak’s work is part of the dying tradition of Bollywood poster art that preceded the digital era of sophisticated graphics in India. The colours were flamboyant, detailing was restrictive and the purpose of the poster was to capture an essence, a fleeting feeling. More importantly, these were produced quickly to match the release dates of the movie itself. Vartak’s portraits belong to that era when photographs were a luxury.
As we sip some of the chai under Vartak’s roof, which is splattered with paint to mimic a faded galaxy, he introduces us to his family. There is the wife, the son and the cat. He adopted his son five years ago and, on most days, the son knows the truth about his origins. On other days, he believes that his parents are joking. As he doodles on scraps of paper, you wonder if this boy will grow to be an artist too.
On a hot Saturday afternoon, Queen, Elvis Presley, Scarlet Johansson, Wonderwoman, Bubble, Free, Love, Kind, Lavanya, among others got together in an Artisans, an art gallery in Kala Ghoda. Women seemingly from disparate backgrounds and ages got together, assumed names they loved, and discussed the issues that concern them.
About 15 women gathered for a workshop — Negotiating Safe Spaces : Non Violent Communication- a workshop for women organised by SNEHA. Dr Nayreen Daruwalla, programme director, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children and her associate, Gauri Ambavkar, programme coordinator facilitated the workshop. The gallery was showcasing the installations of old saris with slogans of rape. The installations were worn by women from Dharavi who made them for a photo shoot and a fashion show.
The definition of violence, Dr Daruwalla said, has changed over a period of time for women. Earlier women come to SNEHA with bleeding noses and…
It is summer holidays for the children and you find loud bunches of boys playing cricket on roadsides. Game paraphernalia is seen about them. Their passionate cries rise above the noise of cars and trucks. And when the batsmen is bowled out, all the boys blow whistles.
Where did you get these fluorescent whistles?
From the seeti-walla uncle, replies the adolescent bowler.
Don’t know. Some party man.
Election fever is spreading fast in Dharavi and politicians are doing their very best to buy their prime cut from the area. You sell Dharavi soil and it is gold. The Election Commission currently states that Dharavi has more than 2.3 lakh registered voters. A website that has been tracking constituency candidates states that the top 5 election issues this time are: corruption, terrorism, environmental protection, public transport and disaster management. What are Dharavi sentiments about the elections that are just a couple of days away?
A woman from Transit Camp says that ration shops are now fully operational. This wasn’t the case some 5 months ago, when you couldn’t get essential grains such as wheat and rice from the ration shops. You could get .kerosene, perhaps. The public is fully aware that once voting day comes to an end, the grains shall evacuate the ration shops and things will return to their former strained existence.
Then there is the forever deferred Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), which has been a major point of debate, with political parties pulling opposite ends of the rope. Some Dharaviites have found the middle path out of this in the form of indifference masquerading as patience. One lady from Naik Nagar says, “This is just a carrot dangling in front of us. Just before the elections, Sector 5 of the DRP saw the rise of some new buildings. But, this is just a token gesture, we know. It will be stalled again when the elections are finished.”
Politics is not a private matter of the heart here in Dharavi. Election sentiment is totally polarised on religious and caste basis and people are pretty vocal about whom they want to vote for. Their vote is not. Opposing religious factions offer each other a secular smile but a steely stare. You know who is going to vote for whom in a couple of days.
Despite this hard sentiment, rooted in religion rather than just politics, the party of hopelessness reigns supreme when you ask people about what’s going to change post-election. Nothing, they reply. So much corruption all around – is a ritual answer you will have to get used to. Major concerns heard on the streets are: water supply, 24/7 electricity supply, better infrastructure, more employment opportunities for the youth, acceptance of migrant communities, ending corruption and increased safety for women. And lastly, Dharavi being an industrial hub, everyone wants to see an end to inflation. Of course, every party has vowed to take care of this.
It was Ambedkar Jayanthi yesterday and a lady from Transit Camp says, “My neighbours, who are Dalits, wanted to make food for the community. But they couldn’t do so on the streets as the gutter that runs by our house has been overflowing for a month. This is how it will be even after elections, no matter who comes to power.” Another man from Kumbharwada says, “There are so many defunct public bathrooms all around but none that are close to your home. As a person suffering from diabetes, I have to use a bathroom frequently but I am unable to walk so far every time.”
Political parties feed on your hunger. If you participate in a rally, you are paid about Rs. 300 and get a free meal. Most Dharaviites are quick to add that this is what their neighbour has done but not they themselves. It’s a matter of pride to participate in a rally out of conviction rather than for money. And sometimes the public can be cleverer than the ploys of politicians. A man on 90 Feet Road confesses, “People wait for an hour before the polling booths close. They wait to see which politician offers the most money and then cast the vote.” But these are just momentary wins, are they not?
“If your name does not feature among those who voted,” says a Tamil shopkeeper, “then they will cancel your ration card. They check to see who has voted. That is how they have threatened us. Some people leave for their hometown, so that they can make an excuse that they were not around to vote.” The public is only partially misinformed. They all know that politicians will only look after those who are vote loyalists. The vote in our hands can work with a twisted logic – you vote not out of power but out of fear.
Everything you’ve heard about Dharavi is true … and false. Dharavi spans more than 500 acres, is in the heart of Mumbai and has a population density more than 10 times the rest of the city. There are anywhere between 300,000 and a million people, with 750,000 being the most common estimate. There are businesses of every kind: it is something of an informal economic powerhouse. People in Dharavi live and labour, but they need better living conditions, infrastructure and sanitation. You tend to feel that Dharavi remains one of the biggest informal urban settlements in the world because it has been neglected for so long.
The western edge of Dharavi is where its original inhabitants, the Kolis, reside. A fishing community spread throughout Mumbai, the particular group here used to practise freshwater fishing in the Mithi river. However, over the last 30 years they have stopped fishing and switched to more profitable professions.
What used to be an area with thatched houses and gutter streets has now become one of the cleanest, best-maintained spots in Dharavi. The residents have signed themselves off from the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, which plans new housing and businesses in the area and offers Dharavi residents houses that are less than 400 sq ft. The Kolis have homes twice this size: hence the resistance. The neighbourhood is also well known for its community feeling, and festivals are celebrated collectively.
Public bathrooms and toilets are some of the most poorly maintained structures, so Dharaviites take pride in having a good bathroom in their locality. You will find three types of public toilets: free, paid and those maintained by housing societies. The free toilets are the ones that do not have water facilities (how strange is that?). Locals will tell you that you have to get your own water and dabba (a makeshift tin box that works as a bucket or mug).
Most houses in Dharavi do not have attached toilets, so some housing colonies get a common one built with water facilities for which residents pay about 30 rupees a month. No matter which kind of bathroom you use, there are long queues every morning. Even if you have the runs, you have to wait your turn in the tedious line. What’s worse, women find it unsafe to use these public bathrooms in the middle of the night.
How clean is Dharavi?
Perhaps the first thing you have heard about Dharavi (maybe in films) is that it is one of the least clean places in Mumbai. This is a stereotype, as some parts of Dharavi are thought to have cleaner water supply than older areas of the city. However, waste management is a problem and although there are dustbins everywhere, you will often find a circle of garbage around them. While most houses are not ventilated, there is a good flow of fresh air on the streets as there are no highrise buildings blocking its path.
What’s the best way to get around?
Dharavi roads are clogged with traffic on most days and at most hours! You may cycle at your own risk (though you will see men nimbly navigating the unpredictable flow of traffic on cycles with bulging loads on their carriers). The best way to experience Dharavi is to walk, and bypass the vehicles and crowds at a relaxed pace. There is so much to gain from the sights and sounds of Dharavi that you shouldn’t shield yourself inside a vehicle.
What does Dharavi sound like?
You could almost make a sound map of Dharavi! It is an orchestra out there on the streets. As you walk the lanes, it is delightful to hear languages change. Hindi blends into Marathi. Marathi turns into Tamil which gives way to Telugu. And there are so many businesses here! The crackling of fried food, the shredding of plastic at the recycling units, the honking of cars, the whirring of sewing machines, the tinkering of pots – what can you not hear here!
Best place for a conversation
Dharavi is fuelled by chai. The best place to have a conversation would be over a cup of tea (the brand called Nagori, perhaps). There are no posh hangouts here, so if you want to take a break from your hectic routine you need to find a chai stall. Groups of men sit around, chitchat, have a smoke, discuss politics or business and then get going. This sounds bucolic, but the chai stalls are generally a male preserve. You won’t find Dharavi women hanging out in the same way.
What one thing is indispensable for life in Dharavi?
If you live in Dharavi, you can’t live without a big blue plastic drum! Your house may be 250 sq ft, but you will make space for this stout, almost-family member. One drum is big enough for a couple of children to play hide-and-seek in. Water supply is irregular here, so many houses store enough water to serve a family of five for up to three days.
A 4ft drum can hold about 200 litres of water. Some Dharaviites believe this is better than a regular water supply as it controls the amount of water you consume. I’m not so sure: these are conclusions people can maybe make better when resources are equally distributed.
Are you optimistic about Dharavi’s future?
I think it depends on what we mean by optimism. For most redevelopment projects, it is crucial to understand what communities require. Rather than having a generic redevelopment proposal, you need to have a closer look at what is essential for individual communities and housing colonies. Do your children have space to play in Dharavi? Do you need tall buildings? What would you love to have? These are the sort of questions a Dharavi resident should be asked.
As the first dentist in Dharavi, Dr. Chang recalls those days when it was 25 paise for a cup of chai, Rs. 5 for a tooth extraction and Rs. 5 for a silver filling. This was back in 1976, when the Calcutta born and Manipal educated doctor came to the ‘money making city’ of Mumbai. Dharavi was then a marshy area with narrow roads and hutments. “Many people in Dharavi were daily wage earners and have financial problems. They prefer a cheap cost of living,” says the 60 year old dentist.
While the cost of living has gone up in the last 35 years since he started work here, Dr. Chang still charges the minimum from his patients. He says that the educated can take care of themselves but the poor in Dharavi need to be more informed about dental hygiene. Looking at the cases of tooth decay and gum problems, Dr. Chang says he continuously dispenses advice stating lesser usage of paan and tambaku. “You can give them as much advice as you want but they are just not prepared to listen,” he adds.
However, Dr. Chang is quick to note that things are better than what they used to be three decades ago. There is more awareness through the television and internet and people are more careful about what their dental health. As we sip on colas offered by Dr. Chang, we ask him slyly if this is going to harm our teeth. “That’s good for business, isn’t it?” he grins.
While the line for Dharavi dental problems might be thinner than before, many Dharavi clients want a pretty set of pearlies. There is more readiness to spend on bleaching and procuring a new set of dentures, something that was thought as too expensive three decades ago. “Many Dharavi people have better incomes than they used to and looking good is part of the deal, isn’t it?” says Dr. Chang.
Dr. Chang hails from a Chinese family of dentists and his three sons are also dentists. He is mysterious about his origins and despite persistent attempts to seek out his full name, he says, “Just Chang. People know me as Dr. Chang.” And if you thought that his Chinese origin may lend itself to some mystic source of knowledge about dental health, Dr. Chang is quick to bust the myth. “It is just that we have better access to instruments and lab technicians than my forefathers did. However, the next generation of dentists lacks the access to basics that we had. There was a time when I manufactured dentures ourselves. There is some knowledge about ground realities that we had access to which the younger generation of dentists doesn’t have,” he says.
In his well-equipped clinic, buzzing with junior dentists (mostly women) and patients, Dr. Chang has a thriving business. He has two more clinics in Byculla and Kurla and caters to mostly lower income groups. He says that if it wasn’t for dentistry, then he would have chosen to become a physician since “you can serve longer. Even till you are 80 years old. As a dentist, you can practice only as long as your eyesight is good. I would like to continue as long as I can. Whether it is looking good or relieve pain, I would like my patients to be happy.”
From local Dharavi block printers Sohail, Yunis and Babubhai, come some detailed patterns and motifs that they use to make prints on fabric. At one point business was roaring with orders and fashion designers pouring into their workshops. But business is dull these days and Sohail has given away many of his blocks.