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

Visit: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/01/urbanist-guide-to-dharavi-mumbai
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.”