Eleven Days, Eleven Nights in Dharavi

If you were a newcomer to Mumbai, of all the places you might choose to stay, would Dharavi ever cross your mind? While the rents are high, accommodation here would burn a smaller hole in your pocket than in bohemian Bandra or neighbouring Sion. Does the word “slum” scare people away from renting a flat in Dharavi, or is it the lack of amenities?  Where will I eat? Is there a toilet in the house? If not, how far away is a community or public toilet? Are spaces in Dharavi safe? Dharavi may be known as a slum, but it is home to lakhs of people in Mumbai – place for them to feel safe, uninhibited and comfortable to indulge in oneself in natural actions that are considered part of living.

Manish Sharma, filmmaker and thoroughbred Delhi-walla, said that he was staying at our centre, the Colour Box, for almost a fortnight. He and his crew were making a movie – “Indefensible Spaces” – about toilets and women’s safety in Dharavi. I met up with him to learn more about his experience and he said that he mainly chose to stay at the Colour Box because of accessibility. “We were filming in the nights and early mornings, the times when most Dharavi residents need to use the community toilets. I had an option of staying in Borivali, but that is the other end of town and much time would admittedly be wasted in commuting.” 

I wanted to ask Manish how he found his Dharavi stay as an “outsider”. A number of slum tourism enterprises operate in Dharavi, and we have seen numerous foreigners on tours. But “foreigners” and “tourists” in Dharavi need not be from another country; they could be other Mumbaikars who may have driven through 60 Feet Road but never set foot in it. The Dharavi tourist is bound to be met with contrasting opinions – poor conditions available for human existence versus intense commercial activity. Opinions are easy, but living is difficult.

On the issue of safety, Manish hesitated to respond and then burst out laughing, “I must admit that on the first three days I was scared. We had equipment that was worth lakhs, including lenses and a Mac, at the Colour Box. In the nights I was paranoid that someone might murder me and loot the place! I was a tad nervous about who might be keeping note of my comings and goings, especially looking at some of the drug addicts who frequent the neighbourhood in the nights.” Even so, perhaps it is not unusual to have the jitters in a new place, especially if you are from New Delhi, which recorded a crime rate four times higher than Mumbai last year. “Of course, by the fourth night I had made friends with most people around and I even wished the druggies good night! I slept like a log on all nights after that with three coolers for company. There was this little mouse that crept over me one night, but I couldn’t care less. My biggest trouble was sleeping on a mat and waking up in the mornings with straw marks on my face,” continued Manish. At this point Rohin, his camera-person, and I laughed and called him an elitist.

Manish was in Dharavi to make a film about toilets and we dipped our toes in the subject of his experience of toilets in Dharavi. “Space and time in Dharavi community toilets are luxuries. The days when I was here in Dharavi, I had to use public toilets and I must admit that I was too ashamed to in the beginning. The very fact that I had to reveal to a stranger that I had to sh*t was an embarrassment. Furthermore, standing in line and paying a couple of bucks to use what you think is a basic amenity in homes changed my perspective on things that we take for granted. If you like spending some twenty minutes in a loo, that is not what you will get in a common toilet. You feel a social responsibility to finish your job fast and let the others in line have their turn. 

“It took me the first couple of days to get used to the idea of using a common toilet. Initially, I would just ignore any urge to pee and wait till I went to restaurants, like a pizza outlet in Sion, and guess what… they too didn’t have toilets! I would then go to a cafe, order a dessert unnecessarily, stock up on calories and then use the loo there. Or I would travel all the way to a mall a couple of kilometres from Dharavi just for the sake of a pee!

“Every morning we set off to film people’s morning routines near the toilets. It was an interesting scenario: women were carrying heavy buckets of water and looked very busy, whereas men looked like they were sitting around. I remembered what I was taught in school: that men have more muscle power to do heavy work. But what was baffling to see was that women were doing the heavy work and men did not seem to be helping them out. Watching this helped me understand what Dharavi mornings are all about and how gender roles get defined on the pretext of the woman being expected to be the caretaker of her home.”

While Manish was filming with us, there was a rumour going about that he hadn’t taken a bath on one of the days. I asked him if this was true and also assured him that it wasn’t a big deal at all. He confirmed that he hadn’t and said, “Well, you must be aware that we didn’t have water in my initial days at Colour Box. This may have to be a secret. I took a bath under the tap in the boys’ hostel in Chota Sion Hospital. I would walk from Colour Box to the Hospital with my toiletries. The hostel boys there either cared too much or didn’t care who I was at all, and hence I bathed there till water was restored at Colour Box. In fact it is to be noted that while we have common toilets there is no concept of common bathrooms.”

So, let us consider this: What does it take to call something your “home”? A toilet, a bathroom, water and electricity, but most of all, courage and familiarity with the space. Thus, do residences, such as those in Dharavi, qualify as homes if one has to pay access to a public toilet in the absence of a private one? If there is no water supply in your house for a major part of the day, is it still a livable space?

As mentor for a participatory film, Manish concluded, “An unexpected outcome of my stay was that the community participants found me more accessible. Some of the ladies called me over home for dinner, and they thought I was like one of them. Not just some camera-toting tourist who has come to make a movie on their lives.”

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The Toilet Story in Dharavi

A 2006 UNDP Human Development Report made an almost unbelievable estimate of one toilet for every 1440 people in Dharavi. It went on to describe the situation: “In the rainy season, streets, lacking drainage, become channels for filthy water carrying human excrement.” “People in Dharavi rely on wells, tankers or unsafe sources for their drinking water. In a typical case, 15 families share one tap that works for two hours a day.” If reports are not enough, there was the 2008 flim Slumdog Millionaires’s exaggerated graphic depiction of the boy-jumping-into-a-shit-hole scene in Dharavi.

Toilets, sanitation and the recent rise in reported rape cases across the nation that coincide with this lack of toilet facilities, made us want to get some insider stories through candid conversations with Dharavi Biennale participants. Anjali Amma, around 55 years old, lives in Pila Bangla in a house right next to a common toilet block. Her son got married earlier this year and she was worried about wedding guests commenting on the mucky state of the toilets. Unable to bear the stench, she decided to do her part by cleaning them herself. “Everybody praises me for it, but no one comes forward to clean the toilets. I couldn’t dream of my son’s wedding taking place without a clean loo next door,” she says.

worst building

The state of disrepair of common toilet units is a familiar story. While the adjectives describing them are unpleasant to the senses, the list of problems is specific: lack of water supply, safety hazards for women and children, poor maintenance and lack of a sense of sanitation. The overarching problem seems to be that there are very few toilets in working condition and many people who need them.

Moreover, what are the choices that Dharavi people make? The desire to reside in a central location of Mumbai like Dharavi has overpowered the necessity to leave room to build more toilets. The choice residents make is to stand in long queues rather than relinquish their home space. It raises a debatable question on urban health on which is a more serious predicament: living in dingy small spaces that breed diseases or using badly maintained common toilet blocks.

If the authorities do not do their part to keep the toilets clean, residents like Anjali Amma have taken matters into their own hands. She and her neighbours each put in Rs. 30 every month (one rupee per day) and take turns to clean the toilets themselves. She has even taken the initiative of making a lock for the toilets so those with no interest in paying up do not misuse them. Unfortunately they keep breaking the locks, she says.

Malati Murkar, a resident of New Kamala Nagar near the polluted Mithi river, says that she and her neighbours contributed Rs. 500 each some years ago so that they could have a common, exclusive toilet block. While they deal with the problem of broken locks, they still manage to maintain the sanitation. “We take water and bleaching powder from home every weekend and wash the toilet. Every lady who uses it washes it,” she says. One may wonder why the men in their families don’t help their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, but Malati recalls that when her two sons were younger they would have to be careful venturing out at night to use the nearby toilet.

19 year old Saiba Kadir also hesitates to use common toilets and it is normal for women visit the toilets in groups. Her younger sister Fareeda, who is 13, says that she is unafraid, although she has heard of ‘bad things’ happening to girls who go to the toilets alone at night. She chuckles and says, “I travel all alone to my school in Bandra by train. I am usually the one who reassures my sister if we are ever alone in a place.”

Luckily, the long lines outside their local toilets mean that there are people around, even at midnight. Bhagyashree Alkunte, a friend and neighbour, says that so many people need to use them before and after dinner that four toilets can’t possibly meet the needs of the area. Saiba says that they have requested (she doesn’t know to whom) a toilet to be built above the gutters, but her family and neighbours are rethinking the idea because the gutters flood in the monsoons.

Another group of girls, who did not wish to be named, say that the visiting the toilets in the wee hours of the morning is a golden opportunity for them for some girl-talk. Living in mostly one-room houses where privacy is hard to come by, stepping out to use the toilets is a good excuse to share the latest neighbourhood gossip on lovers and relationships and nagging in-laws. One girl says that she takes her mobile phone with her and makes a quick good morning call to her boyfriend in the privacy of the loo.

Sitaram Kharat, Dharavi Biennale’s logistician, feels that private-public partnerships may be the way to go for improved and safe sanitation services. In his locality, Naik Nagar, an NGO named  SPARC teamed up with the MHADA some years ago to set up three well maintained block of toilets that are rumoured to be some of the best in Dharavi. Each block has about 22 toilets with regular water supply. “Back in the 1990’s, people in my locality used the BMC’s open maidan as a toilet. When the BMC stationed a construction company’s on-site office in the maidan, that is when the need for an actual toilet arose. Before that, could you believe that people in my locality didn’t actually use a toilet?” he wonders.

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