[Photo Story] Dharavi: Not a slum, but Asia’s largest small-scale industry

Walking through Dharavi, home to an estimated 15,000 single-room factories, it becomes difficult to conceive of anything that is not made or recycled here.

My tryst with the infamous Dharavi and it’s people began in 2011. I was working as a photographer for “Dharavi Diary” – a documentary movie and community development project. Dharavi is located in the middle of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, accessible from both Western and Central railways and is a few minutes from two National Highways. With such a location advantage, the land in Dharavi is of premium interest among builders.

During my stint, what was unveiled to me about Dharavi was beyond my imagination. Well-known as “Asia’s largest slum” as termed by the slum tourism industry, international movies, and the government of India, was actually not a slum, but full of small-scale industries. Walking through Dharavi, home to an estimated 15,000 single-room factories, it becomes difficult to conceive of anything that is not made or recycled here. There are plastic, metal and paper recycle units, leather and textile which includes dying clothes, block printing, screen printing and tailoring. You will find glue, pipes, soap and candle making units, brick breaking, restoring old drums, bread bakeries, pottery and so on.

Dharavi, home to a million residents, is full of self-sufficient people who have created a job opportunity on their own without any help from any Organization, Government and are not in any way a burden to society. The recycling units of Dharavi generate revenue by turning around the discarded waste of not only Mumbai’s 21 million citizens, but from all around the country and abroad as well. However, the government does not recognize these industries as it will have to start giving subsidies.

Though poor, the people of Dharavi don’t beg, but work with dignity. These people have been trying on their own to uplift their community, by earning and sending their children to schools, and improving their living conditions; they are happy and content. I was once ignorant and I perceived Dharavi as a slum. Hundreds of tourists, artists and photographers visit Dharavi every week. They go back home and still post images and talk about it as a slum. I wonder, why?

Why can’t we give respect to these people who work independently for their living; who let us peep into their lives and who welcome us into their space and share their tea and food with us. Being a photographer myself, I am ashamed of photographers who visit Dharavi and only display images of filth and grief. We need to stop referring to them as slum dwellers and give them back the dignity and respect they deserve.

The space in Dharavi is primarily a place of work. The factories in Dharavi existed long before independence. In the name of redevelopment, people only with proof of residence in Dharavi are provided with new houses to live in. Others are left homeless. The livelihood of both these people is affected when they lose their land. How can this source of income be replaced? Imagine a million people jobless. What will happen to the well-being of the city? Wouldn’t we be responsible for the catastrophe it will create?

Let us begin by correcting Mumbai, India and the world’s perception, by calling Dharavi “Asia largest small-scale industry” and not a slum or wasteland! As to call each thing by its right name, is the right thing to do…

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