Can we trust the Dharavi leather market

Dharavi- the secret heart


Text: Karola Körber
Photos: Reality Tours

The glamorous Mumbai slowly unfolds in front of you. The skyline of modern high-rise buildings and company complexes is lined up shiny and glittering like a string of pearls along the sea. The Queen's necklace, also called the face of Mumbai, is reminiscent of New York. Mumbai is home to the Bollywood stars and India's money nobility, but the flagship city has a secret that it hides deep in its midst: In the heart of the city, just ten minutes from the center, lies one of the largest slums in the world, made famous by the Hollywood film Slumdog Millionaire: Dharavi, the shadow city.

Above the roofs of Dharavi's plastic recycling site © Reality Tours

I want to know how people live here, just a few meters away from the Bollywood stars and the money lords. My tour guide Chetan, called “Champ”, lived in Dharavi for seven years. Today he is 27, studies and guides tourists through the slum on the side. "Reality Tours" is the name of the agency that offers this. Anyone who wants to work for the company must have lived in Dharavi themselves.

Deep black, viscous water gurgles at our feet. Garbage drifts by, the slippery water pipes that run on the ground make it difficult to find a stop. It's already very hot in the early morning, the air stands in the narrow streets and lets the sweat run down in streams, everything screams for idleness. But Dharavi is busy and buzzing like a beehive. Everywhere you look there is hammering, screwing and welding. It smells like burned plastic, the soot brings tears to your eyes. Welcome to the secret heart of Mumbai.

Narrow alley in Dharavi © Reality Tours

Dharavi is one of around 2000 slums in Mumbai. More than a million people live here, densely packed in two square kilometers. The land on which Dharavi stands belongs to the government, explains Champ. Most of the dwellings in Dharavi have been built illegally. A piece of land in the heart of Mumbai that is not allowed, by definition makes Dharavi a slum. Dharavi is wedged between railway lines that converge narrowly at the southern end. In the north it is harassed by the rest of Mumbai. "When viewed from above, Dharavi even looks like a heart," says Champ, not without pride. He wants to show strangers "his slum" so that they can see Dharavi with different eyes. The film "Slumdog Millionaire" made Dharavi famous beyond the borders of India, but Chetan and most of the residents of Dharavi don't like him. It only shows the poorest corners. In addition, most of the scenes were not shot in the slum, but in the studio. "The dharavi in ​​the movie is not the real dharavi," says Chetan.

Men recycle plastic © Reality Tours

Just like the industrial district, the busy Dharavis beehive, in the middle of which we stand. This has little to do with the image of poverty in Hollywood films. No lethargy, no begging children, but hustle and bustle in the small alleys. Again and again men come towards us with huge bags full of plastic rubbish on their heads, they move unerringly like rope acrobats on the wobbly floor slabs. There are around 10,000 different mini factories and workshops here, all of which produce for the city, for India, and some even export abroad. The largest industry is plastic recycling. In Dharavi, all of Mumbai's plastic waste is processed into tiny spheres, so-called pellets. In this way, 10 tons are recycled every day to make computer parts and cell phone cases. In small barracks that have been converted into workshops, steering wheels, car parts and complete fans are dismantled and broken down into reusable individual parts. The men mostly also sleep in the workshops, the way through Dharavi's labyrinth to their work would be too far. Women and children also toil in Dharavi's industrial district. Without them, Mumbai would be lost, it would not be the shiny, rich metropolis, because in Dharavi alone around 700 million euros are turned over annually. Mumbai's luxury hotels, restaurants, clothing stores - they all wash, bake, cook and produce in Dharavi. Mumbai's heart is beating faster and faster.

Workshop in the industrial district © Reality Tours

"Chello," calls out Chetan, let's go. The journey continues in Dharavi's residential area. The ground becomes more slippery, you have to jump from concrete slab to concrete slab to avoid standing with your feet in the sewage. The streets become narrower, the houses swallow the light. The pungent smoke smell of the industrial district gives way to the dull smell of sewage. "Please have respect for the people who live here, don't hold your nose," Chetan admonishes us before he plunges into an alley and is swallowed up in complete darkness. We feel our way behind, Dharavi swallows us. To the right and left, curious eyes look out of small concrete huts in which whole families share a tiny room. Without a toilet, without running water. 1,500 people share a toilet here, says Champ. The Hollywood images pop up briefly in my head. After the next bend, the alley suddenly widens to a large square. In the middle, women bake papads, wafer-thin, crispy bread for a bakery in town. The smell of food wafts towards us from some dwellings, chillies and coriander are lying on the roadside and are offered in bundles for sale. Women hang up colorful saris, it pulsates, the colors of the clothes and the brightly painted houses explode. In a small temple the priest rings a bell as part of a religious ritual. We are in the Hindu quarter. I want to know what kind of people live in Dharavi. “People like me,” laughs Chetan. Not only the poorest of the poor, but employees, lawyers, teachers, even bankers - often already in the third generation. In Dharavi, it is said, the residents built the slum with their own hands.

In the Hindu quarter in Dharavi © Reality Tours

But their home is threatened: Dharavi is a coveted and controversial country, Mumbai is considered the richest city in India. Nowhere are real estate prices higher than here, free living space in the center is almost non-existent, and certainly no building land. Dharavi, located in the center of Mumbai, makes this a real real estate gold mine. The illegal dwellings can be demolished at any time. The city administration has been doing a lot for many years to "beautify" the slum and gain new building land. Among other things, it allowed private investors to purchase land in Dharavi in ​​order to build apartment houses there - on condition that some apartments are left to the residents of Dharavi. However, they cannot afford the rents. Many have rebelled against it, but it has brought little.

Even the multi-storey social housing that was built by the government to move the residents on the outskirts of Dharavis rent-free, with a connection to electricity and water supply and a functioning sewage system, are not a solution for many residents: the apartments are rent-free, but the running costs are too expensive. “It's like giving these people a BMW. You drive it until the tank is empty and then you have no more money to refill it. ”Chetan's eyes blink cynically. The plan also failed because the industrial part of Dharavi is incompatible with multi-storey apartment complexes. How should plastic recycled, leather workshops or bakeries have space on a third floor? The residents cannot afford to drive kilometers from their apartment to the workshop every day. The industry, the heart of Mumbai, would lose its rhythm and everything that had built up over decades would be lost. The government's plan misses the reality of Dharavi's residents. Chetan smiles sadly. “The people here don't want to leave. They want to stay in Dharavi ”.

Man in the industrial district of Dharavi © Reality Tours

We cross the main road and we are approaching the end of the tour. Chetan always shows the pottery quarter at the end, for him it is a highlight. He is particularly proud of this neighborhood because it is the oldest and also one of the richest neighborhoods in Dharavi. The loose floor slabs have given way to a clean, solid base of sand, and clay jugs and bowls are drying everywhere. Instead of the tiny concrete barracks, there are multi-storey houses with brightly painted shutters and wrought-iron gates. The clay and the sandy soil bathe the quarter in a pale ocher, and it smells pleasantly of smoke from the kilns. Some of the houses here are legally built. Their residents do not have to fear that they could be torn down every day. Chetan was right: Dharavi isn't just a slumdog millionaire. It's rich and poor, loud and quiet, colorful like women's saris, gray like the concrete barracks in the workshops and ocher like sand and clay. Dharavi is a microcosm. Dharavi is India. Dharavi is home. The people from the shadow city cannot be driven away. Like Chetan. He moved away to come back. He smiles, in a sweeping gesture he lets his hand wander over the ocher-colored pottery district as if it were his: “You should have shown that in the film”.


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