Mumbai: Two years ago, Harishankar Das left behind the grinding poverty and stagnation of rural Bihar to try his luck in Mumbai. He worked 16 hours a day to earn Rs4,000 a month, stitching leather wallets in a claustrophobic industrial unit set amid the crowded alleys of Dharavi, a Mumbai slum that has grabbed global attention as a backdrop for the film Slumdog Millionaire.
The 19-year-old is now homeward-bound—one of an estimated 100,000 migrants who have either left or are expected to leave Dharavi and go back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar.
Low demand: Mohammad Naseem Ansari, who once had 20 workers in his manufacturing unit, says he can’t employ more due to falling orders. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Many will board the Pawan Express at Mumbai’s Kurla train terminus, which begins its scheduled 40-hour journey to Muzzaffarpur in Bihar at 12.15pm every day. The train was packed on the day this reporter visited the terminus, and several passengers hurriedly said they were going back for good, while a few others also said they were only off for a short break.
The recession is hurting Dharavi’s floating population of migrant workers. Lower earnings and job losses in the 57,000 or so tiny industrial units that are packed into the slum’s 600 acres have created a steady stream of reverse migrants, who are moving back to their villages. For example, Das’ monthly earnings halved, as domestic and foreign demand for leather goods went into a tailspin because of the global downturn. He now barely earns enough to survive, let alone to send money to his family in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district.
Das has few illusions about the grim situation he is stepping into. “If Mumbai has some hope, the situation back home is hopeless,” he said with a sigh. His six siblings are still in school. “Being the eldest sibling in the family, all responsibilities are on me.”
Das’ employer, Shakir Sheikh, is in Bihar for the last two months and Ibrar Ahmed, who is running the business in his stead, said he was struggling to keep the leather unit humming in the midst of the slowdown. “Earlier, we used to get orders from different shop owners for more than 2,500 pieces a month, but the orders have come down to less than 400 pieces a month. In such bad times, how can we retain so many workers?” the 32-year-old asks, as he stands in the 125 sq. ft unit—a shop floor by day and a sleeping area for 10 workers by night.
Dharavi’s local economy is heavily dependent on the production and sale of leather goods, though it also supports other small units to make textiles. Tapan Nandi, a former president of the Indian Leather Products Association, said in a phone conversation from Kolkata that overall exports have started to decline by around 15% after October-November. “Leather exports have declined by around 15% post-November across categories, and are likely to come down by 30% this year, if things don’t improve.”
It is difficult to measure the extent of Dharavi’s economic plight and the resulting reverse migration back to the villages of north India. Updated official numbers do not exist. A project to replace the slum with high-rise tenements has been stalled because, among other things, it has been very difficult to pinpoint the beneficiaries in an area with a large floating population and thousands of unorganized manufacturing units.
Gautam Chatterjee, an officer on special duty for the Dharavi redevelopment project, said there are about 57,000 manufacturing units and 400,000 residents in the area, of which an estimated 80% is in the workforce because every hand in a family is used in local leather units. “We are still working on the details and are analysing the data,” he said, explaining that many of the units are run out of homes where the entire family is working.
But Dharavi could be seen as a microcosm of Mumbai. The city has about 16 million residents. Of these, said Sudha Deshpande, a demographer and retired professor of economics at Mumbai university, around 42% are migrants while the rest are non-migrants. Most of the migrants coming from other states are from the rural areas, she added.
Slowdown pattern: Mohammad Ahsan (left), a worker in Dharavi, is ready to go back to his village in the Darbhanga district of Bihar. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
On the division of migrants, Deshpande said, “Of the total migrants in Mumbai, around 37% come from other districts of Maharashtra, around 24% from UP and Bihar, and the rest from other states. While there has been slight increase of migrants from UP and Bihar over the last few years, (migration) from Gujarat is seeing a sharp decline.”
Sudam N. Adsul, chairman of the 500-member strong Leather Goods Manufacturers Association in Dharavi, estimates that the slum’s leather industry employs 400,000 workers—the same as Chatterjee’s estimate of the slum’s population. He said they are all from Bihar and UP, and added that at least a quarter of them have lost jobs.
“There are more than 100,000 manufacturing units in Dharavi, and each unit has minimum four workers,” Adsul said. “To give the exact number of workers is difficult as there are no official records. Some big units have around 25 workers or more. However, the total number of workers is not less than 400,000.”
Even he admits that things are not better in Dharavi. “Earlier, around this time (2.30pm), the shops used to be full of customers and we couldn’t have given much time to you. But now, the entire day we sit in the shop, but very few customers walk in. You can say the business is finished in the area,” Adsul said. “What will they do in the village? Had there been some source of income, why should they have migrated here?”
Adding to manufacturers’ woes is the influx of cheap Chinese products, which fit perfectly with the increase in the use-and-throw consumerism, said Adsul.
“I don’t keep imported goods, and only India-made leather goods are available at my shop. Suddenly, the market is flooded with Chinese goods,” said Deepak Kale, who runs Jazz Interiors boutique in Dharavi, and claims to have lost 75% of his business. “No one wants long-lasting, durable products, as the younger generation is of the mentality that after a few months, (they) will be out of fashion.”
It is not only leather manufacturing units, but also zari workers, small-scale apparel manufacturers and others that are facing the downside of the downturn. Again, workers in these industries, too, are largely from Bihar and UP, besides some from Maharashtra. Here, too, at least a quarter to a third of the workforce has left Dharavi until times get better, said Adsul.
Babubhai S. Ayar, chairman of the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India, estimated that 25% of migrants from Bihar and UP have gone back. “It is not only from Dharavi, but from other manufacturing units in neighbourhoods such as Andheri, Malad, Byculla, Goregaon— wherever there are manufacturing hubs.”
Mohammad Ahsan, a zari worker in a small manufacturing unit in Dharavi, is ready to go back to his village in Darbhanga district of Bihar. His employer, who had 20 workers, now has two, including Ahsan.
“I can’t employ many workers these days as I am facing a cash crunch,” said owner Mohammad Naseem Ansari. “My orders have dropped significantly post-October and I am not able to retain my workers.” He further added that workers migrating from Bihar and UP are scared as the local politicians are opposed to these workers coming to Mumbai and working. “If these skilled workers go back to their native places, then how are we going to run our units?” he asked.
Ahsan, another zari worker who only gave his first name, has not yet fixed the date when he will go back, maybe within a week. Asked about a ticket reservation, he laughed and said, “I hardly have any luggage, only a bag, and will travel in the general compartment as I can’t pay for the reservation”. Ahsan’s family has 10 members, and his father works as a building painter. Ahsan is the second earning member. But he is clueless about how he will sustain his livelihood back home in Darbhanga. “I may work in the fields. I don’t know what I will do,” he said. “I hope things become normal fast in the city and I may come back early.”