Mumbai Needing to drag our friend, Parasher, the Waste filmmaker along to provide footage for another documentary project, gave Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director in Mumbai, a good reason to visit with our leaders in Dharavi, get an update, and see what was new in Mumbai’s giant mega-slum.
Our leaders were enthusiastic. The combination office, school, recycling and sorting center opened a year ago for ACORN International’s Dharavi Project and had established a presence for the ACORN Foundation of India has been popular and a huge success. Materials were stacked up to the roof, and everyone was covetous of the new space added next door by the landlord and wishing that we had enough resources to expand. Work was being done as we visited and compared to many of the spaces we visited it was small, but better ventilated and safer.
There was lots of news for the whole Dharavi slum as well, which for years has been on a death sentence for future development. The municipal corporation has announced that it would not agree to the massive multi-billion dollar proposal by one developer, which had been fast tracked, but instead would redevelop by sections and do one at a time. Practically speaking given organizing, politics, financing, and the innumerable other delays that might be won on each section, this could mean a 20 or 30 year developmental time frame rather than the 2 to 3 year phase out that the big businessmen, architects, and planners had proposed. This is a gamechanger that will also require us to rethink our strategy.
This was hardly causing celebration. The problems of relocation and proving residence and time lived in these informal housing squats still loomed ahead. Only those with proof would be able to claim any assistance at this point and a slum like Dharavi is known for many things but paperwork, receipts, and dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” are not high on that list.
The business of recycling for the city of Mumbai and many other livelihoods continues at fast and furious pace as we visited. Many of the godowns, as they are called, being business people have already started acquiring alternate locations one and two hours away where they could acquire land outside of the Mumbai megacity, keeping one foot in Dharavi and another faraway.
We looked at what was left of the Artefacting project that ACORN India had hosted for several months with a group of artists, filmmakers, photographers and others. There were some peculiar “beehives” on the top of some of the structures that were of interest, though I wasn’t sure if I got the artistic message. The ones I did understand were the sign for the barber and some other trades people. Something of value remained.
As we all walked about what stepped carefully between danger and amazement. Going into the dust and fumes of small, unventilated spaces where a dozen workers were re-sorting plastics deftly tossing various items in more than a half-dozen tubs of different kinds and colors. Watching metal and plastic grinding machines tended without masks or goggles or shoes or gloves is always sobering, speaking of longer term death sentences as we were earlier. Peek through another door and one is watching craftsmen with the deep dyes that seem lost in much of India moving from one rich garment to another. Another 100 feet later and one sees several men practicing the ancient, traditional craft of textile and fabric design with wood blocks.
Dharavi contradicts almost everything that people imagine about a slum as they miss the connection between livelihoods and habitat which are inseparable here. If we are winning some time, maybe there’s still a chance that some of the best of Dharavi can still survive.