Sound Mapping in noisy/busy/lovely Dharavi

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Ask someone to blindfold you and lead you through Dharavi. Listen. Ask the guide to shout out if someone does the very Mumbai thing of spitting paan. Otherwise, listen.

Although you’d like to imagine that a soundwalk through Dharavi would tell you where you are according to the noises that fill your ears, it’s not always possible. Chances are that you will be puzzled by the alarming number of sounds that are jammed together. Some sounds are comforting: children playing, sugarcane juice wallas, chai wallas and, perhaps, street Chinese food being prepared. For the most part, however, Dharavi is a cacophony. The industrial sounds that pervade parts of Dharavi co-exist with domestic sounds.

We are mapping the sounds of Dharavi with Megapolis India, and we have narrowed down on two particular areas of interest. Mukund Nagar, a space with a mix of residences and sweatshops, is on 90 Feet Road. The gravelly grind of machines making belts, buckles and wallets plays out rhythmically in most of the streets. The machines have specific tasks – punching holes or finishing off ends – but they all sound very similar. The buzz of welders and their rain of sparks is also there on most days. But Mukund Nagar is also a place where children congregate after school around kulfi wallas and vendors selling sour eatables like mangoes and amla, and where they play Power Rangers.

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The other area where we are recording sounds is Sanaullah Compound, closer to Mahim railway station, where many kinds of recycling units are stacked against each other. Here, the shredding of plastic, the burning of aluminium furnaces and the sacks of scrap being thrown down from trucks are frequently heard. The screeching sounds from rusty shredding machines make one wonder how the labourers can work without the use of earplugs. For these labourers, most of whom are migrants, Sanaullah is work and home. A little shack of a restaurant, paan kiosks, barbers, an ironing man, chai stalls and various other essentials of daily living function side by side. Against this background, the aural predominance is of men talking business (or gossiping) over phones or with each other. Understandably, they don’t want their conversations recorded.

Walking around trying to be inconspicuous with a recorder in our hands, we realised that some sounds are bound to perish with time and modern lifestyles, such as the sounds of game machines in a very 90s video parlour or the bell of a kulfi seller. Collecting these sounds could be a way of creating an aural museum and complementing visual archives of Dharavi.

After some six field visits, we’re asking these questions: What are the sounds that distinguish Dharavi? Which sounds do we love and which do we complain about? Amidst blaring horns at traffic-choked chowks and the constant chatter of people, what if you wanted a moment of silence? Where does the Dharavi person go in search of a quiet place?

Junk-ed in Dharavi

In search of materials for art pieces for the Dharavi Biennale, we head to the road that runs from Dharavi to Mahim. On this road, flanked on one side by a plastic-filled sewage channel and on the other by mangroves, are scrap shops where refrigerators, ACs and washing machines meet their end part by part. Of course, calling them shops might be an overstatement, but they are too narrow to be called junkyards. About twenty such stalls are interspersed with others that recycle wood and oil tins.
Aslam, a 32 year old junk dealer, dismantles about ten domestic appliances a week. Despite paying Rs. 3000 a month for his stall, the job allows him to support his family of four. He is a cog in the recycling wheel and rests between shops and the smaller scrap collection units. The electrical appliances that arrive have mostly been dumped by showrooms after an “exchange offer” season gets over. In Aslam’s hands, a washing machine is disassembled into usable parts – drum, plastic frame, copper wiring, and so on. Sometimes the washing machines are just about useable and he sells them to less wealthy customers: a freshly washed blue and white example stands outside his stall.

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From across the road, a pillar of foul-smelling smoke rises, but Aslam and his friends who have collected around us are clearly not affected. The whole pavement exudes the smell of plastic, but Aslam says he has done this work all his life and doesn’t mind at all. His friend Rafiq, a driver from Dharavi, says that if you have experienced the winters of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where they are from, you will know what Aslam is talking about. Newcomers may find it difficult to bear the UP winter (or the Dharavi smoke), “But we have adapted to it,” says Rafiq. Nevertheless, Aslam would prefer his children not to take up this line of work. “Who knows what the world will be like years from now?” he says.

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A neighbouring stall glistens with metal, the path into it soapy and slippery from the towers of oil tins stacked inside.The empty tins arrive from restaurants and shops and are cleaned and sent back to oil factories. In the dimly lit room, three men clean about 300 tins a day. 40 year old Tribhuvan, the oldest and the most experienced, asks me to tread carefully and offers some chai. He works every day for 12 hours a day and has been doing so since the age of 15 when he came to Mumbai from UP with a bunch of neighbours from his village. “This was the big city, you know. We thought, this is where job opportunities will be available,” he says as he soaps an oily tin. There are no promotions or pay packages in his job; just the promise of a daily wage.

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Behind affable Tribhuvan rise towers of tins, but there is no sign of a ladder. You realise that there is no need for one when you see Mohamed Yakub, who has been working here for the last 15 years, shuffle sets of tins around to form a makeshift flight of steps. He clambers nimbly up the towers and is obviously proud of the system. Sets of oil tins can become anything here: ladders, towers, stools, armchairs, thrones, livelihood.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Mapping Journeys

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Vinayak said, “Let us make a map of Dharavi. This map will point out where the diverse recycling and manufacturing units are located.” Vinayak is our new project coordinator and it was three days since he joined when he said this. It was summer, a hot May and our only defences were caps and bandannas. Sitaram, our logistics help and a red-blooded Dharaviite, was the able guide and he led us through the winding alleys and the little lanes into the heart of Dharavi.

Dharavi is no heart of darkness. Here are a variety of business (in fact there seems to be a business for everything here) that operate from little homes as well as large workhouses. From the rakhi makers in Social Nagar to the leather tanneries of AKG Nagar, manufacturers from home and abroad come here to either process raw materials or collect finished products.

The prevalence of many manufacturing units has also led to the presence of recycling units. Glass, plastics, paper, fabric, metal – it seems nothing is spared. Everything finds a purpose in this space.

While we surveyed, photographed, collected data and made friends, many were suspicious of our moves. They believed we had come from the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan belonging to the MHADA and suspected that we were sourcing sensitive information. We weren’t. For the most part, we were mesmerized by the work that takes place here. However when we went to MHADA to get detailed maps of Dharavi, we realised that the concerns of many workers and residents here were not unfounded.

We have photos and stories with us. We are thinking of a map as curious as the place itself.