The Rise and Fall of a Midwife

“If you write about me, will I get a job in a hospital?” is Shanti Devi Jasiwar’s first question. She claims she is 55 years old, but somehow that is hard to believe. With wrinkles, greying hair and betel-stained teeth, she seems older. She agrees, saying that she hasn’t really kept count of the passing years. She hasn’t recorded the number of babies she has helped deliver in the last 23 years either. Locals agree that it could be anywhere between 50 and 100 (and never a stillborn, they say). She breaks into a characteristic hoarse laugh and says, “Well, I am poor and I haven’t studied or I would have noted down these things.”

Shanti Devi has worked informally as a midwife and masseuse for infants and new mothers in Dharavi. She comes from Basti, a district in Uttar Pradesh, and came here after marriage. As she tells her midwifery tales, you understand that this is more a way of life than a source of income. Her first ‘case’ was “before the lafda (problem)”, referring to the 1991 riots, when a thin, heavily pregnant woman came back home from a local hospital. She went into labour suddenly and her baby was crowning. “I uttered God’s name and I helped her deliver her baby. That is how I started my work,” says Shanti Devi. Locals chime in when Shanti Devi says that she never takes any money for delivering babies. People offer her water, tea, two rotis or money to buy betel. Young boys from Mukund Nagar are busy playing around where we sit and she points to them and says, “I helped deliver some of them and even massaged their mothers after delivery.”


These days, Shanti Devi is cautious. She has stopped working as an informal midwife due to deteriorating health (she can’t see properly and can’t climb the steep stairs in many Dharavi homes). Only when a woman is going into labour in the middle of the night and there is no other alternative does she offer her services,

While Shanti Devi continues to massage young mothers and babies with rye oil, the major reason why her work has come to a halt is the implementation of government schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) – a scheme designed to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality by encouraging institutional delivery for poor pregnant women. Along with the institution of auxiliary midwives, such schemes have been key ways of bringing down alarming maternal mortality rates. The WHO estimates that there were 50,000 maternal deaths in India in 2013, as opposed to 148,000 deaths in 1990. However, the WHO notes that world-over there is a need to bring into hospitals skilled midwives who can specialise in deliveries and newborn and postpartum care. Currently, auxiliary midwives are found in rural India and urban trends indicate an over-medicalization of pregnancies and deliveries. Training people like Shanti Devi specially as one who will accompany a pregnant woman to the hospital, negotiate hospital formalities, help care for her and the baby with formal training might be beneficial for the time constrained, urban poor.

Back in her heyday, Shanti Devi was a much-sought-after midwife. She has never used a mobile phone and locals joke that she gets lost in Dharavi as easily as the average tourist does. People just came running to her when in trouble. She looks old mostly because you know she has seen it all as you listen to her stories. She is a mother of four; five more children passed away. Her husband, who makes a living selling undergarments on the footpath, has tuberculosis. So does her eldest son. “All the earning members of my family are sick,” she cries. She consoles herself by saying that God gives and God takes.

Shanti Devi encourages women to seek medical attention these days. She also advises youngsters to have fewer children and recalls, “My father was asked to do a nasbandi (vasectomy) during the Indira Gandhi government. He was adamant that he wouldn’t. He had fathered 16 children and swore that he would have 16 more. In those days, having children was cheap. The expenses that you incur for celebrating a child’s birthday these days … that money you could use to get your daughter married off in those days.” As women sitting beside her laugh and talk in eyebrow-raising numbers about the children they have given birth to (Shanti Devi’s neighbour had 10, of whom 6 survived), Shanti Devi is clear about one thing. That the practice of a midwife is one of sisterhood.

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Young photographers show you Glass

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 Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni


By Pooja & Ahmed

By Pooja & Ahmed


By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani

By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani


By Ankita, Mehzabeen and Roshni

By Ankita, Mehzabeen and Roshni


By Roshni, Sameer & Suhani

By Roshni, Sameer & Suhani


By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani

By Roshni, Sameer and Suhani


By Ruksar & Nazmeen

By Ruksar & Nazmeen


By Ruksar & Nazmeen

By Ruksar & Nazmeen


By Ruksar & Nazmeen

By Ruksar & Nazmeen


By Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni

By Ankita, Mehzabeen & Roshni


And, here is one that shows our young shutterbugs at work!

photo group collage

Occupational Hazards in Dharavi


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?

Dharavi’s once-booming leather industry losing its edge | India Insight

Originally posted on CHINDIA ALERT: You'll be living in their world, very soon:

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…

View original 288 more words

The Painter of Portraits

Mahendra Parashuram Vartak painter

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.

Non-violent communication in violent times

Originally posted on healthyurbanworld:


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…

View original 309 more words

Election Fever and Destination Dharavi

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.

An Urbanist’s Guide to Dharavi

A chai stall in Dharavi, Mumbai
A chai stall in Dharavi, Mumbai Photograph: Benita Fernando

Dharavi in brief

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.

Best place

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.

The western edge of Dharavi
Houses on the western edge of Dharavi. Photograph: Benita Fernando

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.

Worst building

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).

Public toilets are not safe for women to visit at night
Public toilets are not safe for women to visit at night. Photograph: Benita Fernando

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!

Dharavi street
Recycling in Dharavi. Photograph: Benita Fernando

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.

Typical big blue drums in Dharavi
The ubiquitous big blue drums. Photograph: Benita Fernando

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.

Children at play in Dharavi
Children at play in Dharavi. Photograph: Benita Fernando

Changes with Dr. Chang

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.

chang dentist 2

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.

chang denture

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.”