Indian Slum Innovation: Dharavi

By Sangeeta Haindl 

Slums in India have been part of the national landscape for decades. In spite of urbanisation increasing in this country, living conditions in these poor areas have become worse, with new slums emerging. Many of these localities have no access to the local energy grid, forcing residents to rely on pricey, dirty and dangerous kerosene. They also have inadequate healthcare and lack clean water, and offer few opportunities in education. Yet despite the lack of all these necessities, there is strong, inspiring, social innovation going on. New business models that foster jobs, conserve resources and stimulate innovation thrive within these neighbourhoods. The scarcity of basic resources forces these residents to become creative.

One of India’s well known and largest slums is Dharavi, which lies on prime property right in the middle of the country’s financial capital, Mumbai. It is home to more than a million people, many of whom are second-generation residents. It bears no resemblance to the fishing village it once was: a city within a city. It is one unending stretch of narrow dirty lanes, open sewers and cramped huts. In a city where house rents are among the highest in the world, Dharavi provides a cheap and affordable option to those who move to Mumbai to earn their living. Rents here can be as low as 185 rupees ($4) per month. Moreover, it is located between Mumbai’s two main suburban rail lines most people find it convenient for work.

However, Dharavi is a special place. It is a recycling super-hub, the place that heralds ‘slum innovation’ in processing waste. It is home to a large number of thriving small-scale industries that produce embroidered garments, export quality leather goods, pottery and plastic. Most of these products are made in tiny manufacturing units spread across the slum and are sold in domestic as well as international markets. The annual turnover of business here is estimated to be more than $650m a year.

From every alley comes the sound of hammering, drilling and soldering. In every shack, people sit waist-deep in piles of car batteries, computer parts, fluorescent lights, ballpoint pens, plastic bags, paper, cardboard boxes, wire hangers, and other leftovers from Mumbai’s ever growing consumer culture.  ‘Rag pickers’ sort through the garbage and salvage everything imaginable. The average household here earns between 3,000 and 15,000 rupees a month (US $60-$300). Certain corners of Dharavi have even gone upmarket with bars, beauty parlours and clothing boutiques.

​The state government of Mumbai plans to redevelop Dharavi and transform it into a modern township, complete with proper housing and shopping complexes, hospitals and schools. It is estimated that the project will cost $2.1bn (£1.1bn). The irony is Dharavi’s one million people residents now sit on what many Indian leaders regard as prime real estate.

(Article Published under INDIACSR & 3BL Media/Justmeans partnership)

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