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Workers rest in a workshop. ( Satish Bate/HT)
Workers rest in a workshop. ( Satish Bate/HT)

Dharavi’s economy goes down the tubes

  • A ground report on how the hub of Mumbai’s informal economy worth an estimated $1 billion has come to a halt
  • The garment market has been shut. It’s the same story for other businesses—from leather and aluminium to plastics, gold and pottery

The row of leather goods shops along the snaking 90-Feet Road in Dharavi in central Mumbai has been shut for more than a month now. Behind the road and perpendicular to it lies an unfathomable maze of alleys and passageways wide enough for only two adults to walk by, hosting a jigsaw of semi-permanent ground-plus-one structures that are workshops of leather goods and double up as homes of workers.

In the innards of one dimly-lit such workshop, two young men idle away, sharing a phone to take in a TikTok video, barely managing to smile. Two other men sleep within centimetres of each other in the mezzanine loft amid an array of differently-sized colourful leather pieces.

“These are four of the five men who work for me but are bloody wasting their time now. The youngest has gone to get some rations," said Mohammed Zahid, owner of the workshop who prides on being a trained designer. “We were on the verge of sending a large order of wallets last month to a five-star hotel in Ooty and Kerala when we had to shut. The packages are here taking up my space, my money is stuck, and maybe those guys don’t even want these wallets now."

The shutters on his shops on 90-Feet Road, Leather Touch and Zaraa, have not been opened since mid-March when the Maharashtra government enforced a shutdown in Mumbai almost 10 days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown.

Across the myriad lanes and markets of Dharavi, the pulsating hub of the informal economy in Mumbai worth an estimated $1 billion, it’s the same story.

The garment market—workshops and tiny retail units—has been shut too. Some owner-traders are unwilling to even acknowledge that Dharavi’s first victim to covid-19 was a fellow garment trader. Kumbharwada, pottery units and market at the intersection of 90-Feet and 60-Feet roads, lies forlorn. The clanging, the low hums, the uproar from aluminium smelting units, soap and plastic recycling workshops have fallen silent.

Only sullenness hangs here, broken by occasional jabs of fear as news trickles in of rising covid-19 cases and deaths.Within 13 days of the garment trader’s death on 6 April, Dharavi registered 11 deaths and 138 positive cases.

Medical screening under way for residents of Dharavi’s Shastri Nagar area
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Medical screening under way for residents of Dharavi’s Shastri Nagar area ( Satish Bate/HT)

Dateline Dharavi

Dharavi, spread over 240 hectares and housing more than 700,000 people, including large groups of migrants from all over the country, is familiar with disease—from asthma and malaria to typhoid and syphilis. Residents, however, have never seen anything like covid-19. The fear about this strange, unknown disease is exacerbated by their fear of the destruction it will bring to their businesses.

There’s no saying when the covid-19 curve here will flatten out but the economic curve already has. In Asia’s largest informal settlement or slum that’s essentially an economic centre, the dilemma of policymakers pushed to choose between saving lives and livelihoods acquires a painful urgency. Here, lives and livelihoods are interwoven in inextricable ways.

In Dharavi, the work-from-home practice did not arrive with the covid-19; it was always there, just the way life and work have been arranged across the swath of tiny and cramped places. There are a few predominantly residential bastis and nagars, especially the redeveloped buildings that rise above the informal settlement on its edges, but the rest of Dharavi is a flexible, mixed-use space.

Definitive data of the number of workshops and factory units is elusive given that a number of them function below the radar. However, it is estimated that Dharavi has 20,000-25,000 workshops and units across all economic activity.

In the plastic recycling zone, Abdul Malik, the owner of a unit, echoes thoughts of all of Dharavi. “We have always done your work-from-home thing, or better call it live-at-workplace. We work, cook, eat, play and sleep in more or less the same space within an arm’s distance from one another. Now the government and doctors and BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) sahebs are all coming to say that we must keep distance. Where is the space here?" he said.

Malik’s 25-year-old unit, like others in this zone, employs young boys often brought by their male relatives from Bihar and West Bengal, to pulverize used plastic cans and bottles into plastic pellets which are sorted and sold to small-scale factories through agents. Sacks of pellets occupy more than half the space in the 150 sq. ft room, the machinery is at the back of this unit, and his employees sleep in the mezzanine loft.

He used to pay each of them roughly 200 a day, besides stocking up basic rations and providing a cooking gas stove. “When we have done no work for the last one month, why will we get any payment," asks a worker who identifies himself as Bablu, barely 20 and a Salman Khan fan.

His worry is the family back home (he refuses to disclose where in Bihar because he believes cops will go there) will go hungry if he cannot send regular remittances. He has a few thousands stashed away in his locked suitcase, he says, and might just go back home once the railways resume long-distance trains. “My cash inflow has stopped. From where will I pay my staff?" asked Malik.

workers line up for food packets at Dharavi after the movement was restricted to contain the pandemic.
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workers line up for food packets at Dharavi after the movement was restricted to contain the pandemic. (Satish Bate/HT)

The day after

Malik and others in the plastic recycling business have no idea what they will do till 3 May until when the lockdown is in force and, importantly, after that because trading agents do not answer phone calls and factory managers say they are flush with unused stock of pellets. “This coronavirus will go someday but we will have nowhere to go except the kabrastan (graveyard)," despairs Mohd Abdullah, another unit owner.

The despair comes from the realization here that businesses in Dharavi, from leather and aluminium to plastics, garments, gold and pottery, however essential they may be to the formal economy, would not be eligible for the relief packages and economic stimuli that governments will roll out.

This is a throbbing and thriving manufacturing centre, built by large doses of enterprise and risk, with intricate networks of cash and credit, surviving without formal subsidies, protection or handouts from governments—parts of it running afoul of law, parts of it falling between the legal and illegal if not the latter.

The slum, its squalor and sweatshops, its inhospitable living conditions and open filth, its insanitary and exploitative work conditions, its pull for multi-million dollar films like Slumdog Millionaire and Gully Boy, its appeal as a poverty tourist destination, all mask the fact that it is, essentially, a large multi-sector industrial estate.

This took root and expanded organically, without design or formal planning, in spite of—not because of—disinterested or hostile governments and the powerful real estate lobby that eyes it for the monetary value of land. Dharavi will have to rely on its resourcefulness to recover.

In many quarters, this uncertainty and apprehensions overtake fears about the pandemic. The dozen-odd containment zones that have been marked out by BMC since early April have deepened these fears. The BMC team is busy testing thousands of residents here, forcing them into some sort of quarantine, and drawing up containment zones.

This, in Dharavi packed to its gills, is easier planned than done. In the gated colonies and buildings, this is relatively easy; in the open slums-cum-workplaces, it’s a challenge. In the last fortnight, the BMC found it was up against two barriers. One, residents were not forthcoming on their movements, which adversely impacted contact tracing of covid-19 patients.

The first victim’s family, for example, would not share any information except that he did not have a passport and only went to the local mosque. Precious days passed before the BMC health team figured out that he had also owned another tiny apartment nearby which had been used by five men who had reportedly returned from the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi.

“People here are afraid to tell us anything and equally unclear about specific micro details needed for our contact tracing exercise," remarks an official of the team. BMC medical officer Virendra Mohite, who heads the team, says that the civic team innovates its approach and methods to do its job. He and his team members have barely been home.

Two, the BMC teams have found it next to impossible to quarantine or isolate suspected cases. There just isn’t enough space anywhere in Dharavi. Social distancing, regular hand-washing and self-isolation, all preventive measures suggested by the World Health Organization and repeatedly advised by governments and health workers, are privileges that residents of Dharavi cannot afford.

Social distancing

Social distancing, in particular, is a joke here. Nearly half of India’s urban population live in houses where the per capita space is less than a single room, analysed Mumbai-based economics professors Mohd Imran Khan and Anu Abraham in a recent paper in the Economic And Political Weekly. In Dharavi, this space is often one-fourth or one-sixth of a single room.

This pushed the BMC to look for alternatives. Within days of the first few cases, the BMC turned a nearby sports complex into a quarantine facility—now used well—and enlisted beds in the government-run Sion Hospital, a stone’s throw away, to be used exclusively for covid-19 patients from Dharavi. “We cannot isolate people at their homes here," remarked Kiran Dighavkar, assistant municipal commissioner in charge of G-North ward in which Dharavi falls. As the number of positive cases hovered around 90, the civic body set up “fever camps" across Dharavi in an attempt to screen as many as possible while negotiating local resistance.

“This is where we live, this is where we work. This is our entire life, our universe. Now, there’s no work and we don’t have anywhere to go," said Kesarben in Kumbharwada, dominated by migrant Gujaratis. There’s marginally more open space here between homes that double up as storehouses for finished pottery products, large potters’ wheels occupying the open spaces. “We can send a virus patient to the rooftop (to be isolated)," she said wryly. In good times, the rooftops of the uneven but colourfully decorated houses hold extra raw material or carefully stacked fragile products away from human traffic.

The summer months are when potters here produce wares and send them to large godowns and wholesalers because they have only a small window between the end of monsoon and the rising demand for pottery products during festivals. “This virus has killed our business," says Ram Narayan, “if we cannot even go out to get milk and vegetables, how will we ever get out business up and running?"

Within Dharavi, there is a clamour for the relatively tiny sector of gold melting units and shops to do some business behind closed doors. When people bring their small valuables to take loans for subsistence, goldsmiths here know that times are well and truly bad. A month after the shutdown, this trickle has begun. It will take months for Dharavi businesses to get back on track and years for them to boom again, says a gold melting unit owner who saw the 2008 downturn.

In conclusion

The tremors from Dharavi will be felt far and wide. In an unusual installation at an arts exhibition three years ago, the urban research and planning group URBZ traced these connections. On perpendicular walls, it put up maps of Mumbai with Dharavi showing prominently and a map of India, and invited people to tie colourful strings or ribbons from Dharavi to their home towns, villages or places of business interest. The strings and ribbons made a dense tapestry all across India, with the exception of Kashmir and parts of the North-East.

With Dharavi shuttered, the fumes and fires are undoubtedly fewer. But a large segment of Mumbai’s economy—and hundreds of thousands of lives—are upended. Between lives and livelihoods, there is literally no choice here.

*Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based journalist and urban chronicler

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