Asia's Biggest Slum Is a Land of Opportunity

Here in Dharavi slum, children play in open drains, scavenging dogs pick through piles of garbage, and the sun never seems to penetrate the narrow, putrid lanes.

But for the 1 million people who live in this 370-acre sprawl of rusty shacks in Bombay, Dharavi is not a slum but the city of their dreams. Most manage not only to survive, but to thrive.

Dharavi is the only home that Shankar Lingappa has ever known. The teenage boy makes canvas gloves for assembly-line workers at a nearby car plant. Five people sit at sewing machines in an airless room about the size of a pickup truck.

"I like this place. I want to set up my own business soon," says Shankar, whose family migrated to Dharavi because they had no work or land in their home state of Andhra Pradesh.

Asia's largest slum is an unwelcome blot on the landscape of India's commercial capital and investment gateway, Bombay. Civic amenities are almost nonexistent.

Water runs once a day, and there is only one toilet for every 5,700 residents. The slum's only school provides primary-level education. But most parents prefer to make their children work. But for impoverished migrants from all over India, Dharavi is a place where a living can be made, a family can be raised, and the endless cycle of poverty can be broken.

Most people who come here are driven by desperation and the will to succeed. Thousands of sweatshops absorb an endless supply of cheap labor, while the growing consumer markets of India and the West provide an outlet for their wares.

Far from being an impoverished slum, Dharavi has developed into a major manufacturing center for garments, leather products, plastics, and food processing. Every house here has a second story where people sit and work cutting leather, sewing garments, and making other items.

Unemployment is almost nonexistent, and average earnings are around Rupees 100 a day ($3.50), or more than most factory workers elsewhere in India can ever dream of making.

Why people live there

"People in Bombay don't stay in slums because they want to. They have no choice. It's a problem that is particularly acute in Bombay because of the serious shortage of land and accommodations," says Upamanyu Chatterjee, chief officer of the Bombay Slum Improvement Board, describing Bombay's exorbitant real estate prices, which are some of the highest in the world.

"The people who stay in Dharavi, for instance, would in any other Indian city live in lower-middle-class colonies. They are clerks, lawyers, and messenger boys. But it is just that [in Bombay] they cannot pay these absurd rents," he explains.

Average-size dwellings in Dharavi sell for at least $30,000, an amount well beyond the means of most Indians. But still people flock to the slum.

"This is a mini-India," says business owner Deepak Kale. "There are people from every corner of this country. There is no more room here, but still they come."

One of many success stories

Mr. Kale and his brother Narhari run a successful leather business selling to the domestic and international markets. They are proud of their air-conditioned showroom on Dharavi's crowded main road, with its chrome-plated stands and modern spotlighting.

It is a far cry from the impoverished village in Bihar state they left nearly 15 years ago with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and the determination to succeed.

Today, they provide employment to about 80 families, have a turnover of $350,000, and export leather jackets, bags, and shoes to Europe, the Persian Gulf, and North America.

"I started off as a cobbler and then saved enough money to open a small workshop," Kale recounts. "When we opened our shop here, everybody thought we were mad. 'Why do you want such a beautiful shop in a place like this?' they said."

Business boomed until the bloody Hindu-Muslim riots of 1993, which erupted across India after religious Hindu fanatics tore down a Muslim shrine at Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Dharavi bore the brunt of the violence in Bombay. Age-old animosities - deeply rooted in religious intolerance - were settled with bloodshed that left hundreds dead and thousands of shops, factories, and homes destroyed.

"For three months we couldn't fill our export orders, because so many of our workers fled, and the buyers stayed away," Kale says. "The people who started the riots are now running the government," he says, referring to the Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu party that now rules Maharashtra state, of which Bombay is the capital.

Redevelopment scheme

If the new government has its way, the face of Dharavi might change forever in the next few years. One of its election promises was to provide new housing for 4 million slum dwellers, or two-fifths of the population of Bombay.

Under the Slum Redevelopment Scheme, 900,000 huts spread over 2,335 slums will be replaced with concrete apartments, providing every family with free housing measuring 225 square feet.

The scheme sounds simple. The state provides administrative support, and private builders erect free housing for slum dwellers in exchange for being allowed to build flats on the newly created surplus land, which they can sell at market rates.

Slum dwellers have already started forming housing societies, which will give them some say in how their new dwellings will be constructed.

With Bombay's real estate among the most expensive in Asia, and many slums in prime commercial areas, builders should be able recoup their costs easily, or so the theory goes.

"Not all the slum dwellers may be willing to participate in the scheme, and we can't force them to," says Mr. Chatterjee of the Slum Improvement Board. "Then there is the problem of how to prevent the slum dwellers from selling their new flats and starting a new slum somewhere else." In Dharavi, opinion is divided about the new scheme.

Mixed emotions

Although everybody wants more living space, there are those who are afraid that the new concrete high-rises will break the strong neighborhood bonds that exist in Dharavi. "If someone is sick, if someone is in trouble, we always know about it," says Manik Pramanik, a leather worker. "If we move into these new buildings, we may not even know who our neighbor is.

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