Incubating Dharavi's industriousness

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community ManagerCarlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Photos by Meena Kadri (CC)

On a trip last year through Dharavi, Mumbai's largest slum, I stood atop a SPARC-built housing project and took in a bird's eye view of the surrounding land. Precariously stacked tin structures were squeezed into every last speck of space, blanketing the one-square kilometer in brown. Piles of trash were bursting from rooftops, and residents — lacking sanitation facilities — were taking their daily duties outside. It was a dismal sight.

But that's the portrait that's often painted of slums.

Inside, on the ground, Dharavi is teeming with activity — productive activity. A 2007 Economist article on Dharavi, "A Flourishing Slum," captured its bustling and industrious nature: "If poverty can seem dehumanising from afar — especially in much reporting on it — up close Dharavi, which is allegedly Asia's biggest slum, is vibrantly and triumphantly alive."

I discovered this for myself as I descended from my perch to the bustling streets below. My visit was part of a conference I had organized in Mumbai, "The Future of the Urban Poor," with 40 urban researchers from around the world — Lima, Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Bangkok. Though, collectively, the group had seen similarly challenging areas of their home cities, Dharavi, it was decided, was unique. As we traversed the narrow lanes to a housing project, the potters area, the recycling centers, and an innovative sanitation project, we passed hundreds, if not thousands, of entrepreneurs at work: building, pushing, kneading, washing, trading, stitching, cooking, repairing. Everyone was working, and essentially the entire enterprising arena was self-made, built by the slumdwellers themselves and existing outside the formal labor market.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Reflecting on the visit, one our researchers, Julius Gatune of Accra, Ghana, said that Dharavi is different from his home city "because Dharavi has the ability to grow organically through the entrepreneurial spirit being nurtured there. The slums in my region have been seen as pools of cheap labor." Dharavi, says Gatune, is how slums should grow. In Accra, there are few jobs for the poor in the slums, forcing them to travel long distances to earn a meager income. Living and working in the same space — or at least in the same area — as does the majority in Dharavi, residents save on travel expenses and can walk or bicycle to most of their activities.

"Slums should be seen as places that can grow and upgrade, and also as places that can be engines of growth themselves rather than just pools of cheap labour," explains Gatune. "As we observed in Dharavi, slums can create industries that can even be competitive enough to export."

As Gatune observed, Dharavi has built up a highly organized web of craftsmanship and trade that links the slum to markets all over the world. The leather industry, for example, creates designer labels for the Italy's best brands, and the garment industry has ties with Walmart. It is also worth a lot of money. As the island city of Mumbai has grown northwards, Dharavi, once the outskirts of the city to which the poor were pushed, is now at its geographical center. The two main train lines intersect at Dharavi, making it one of the most centrally accessible locations, and now, a highly desirable plot of land. In another article in The Economist, the slum's land alone is valued at $10 million. Add to that the $500 million that is produced in goods from Dharavi annually, and the dusty brown settlement suddenly looks a bit brighter.

Incubating solutions from inside

Given the ingenuity of Dharavi's half-million residents and their eagerness to improve their circumstances, the next logical step would be to apply this entrepreneurial spirit to pressing issues in the slums: improving access to healthcare, housing, water and sanitation services. As Howard Husock's article "Slums of Hope" shows, more and more agencies are awakening to the "resourceful and creative" population living in poverty. Husock quotes journalist Robert Neuwirth, who "extols slums as places where 'squatters mix more concrete than any developer. They lay more brick than any government. They have created a huge hidden economy.... [They] are the largest builders of housing in the world — and they are creating the cities of tomorrow.' In keeping with this encouraging trend, the UN even describes the Third World's informal settlements as slums of hope."

Not only have the residents of Dharavi subsisted independent of government assistance, they have incrementally improved their circumstances — expanding their houses, growing their industries, and innovating to create an environment that is better for their children. As social entrepreneurs work to tackle the slum's difficult challenges, the solution might just be to partner with the residents themselves.

Innovative programs for training youth

While Dharavi has certainly built a mecca for enterprise, there is a pressing need to create a more substantial infrastructure that supports, trains, and grows the slum's workforce, particularly its youth. Much of the artisanal and traditional work will cease to exist. The dhobis, for example, who hand-wash clothing, have diminished in number from a large workforce to a handful of people. Washing machines have taken over their work as India's middle class continues to grow. The next generation will need to be educated and skilled, but programs should still encourage entrepreneurship. Despite having one of the largest youth populations in the world, the country lacks the educational programs, systems, and training centers to provide up-to-date technical, vocational, and literacy and language skills to its ever-growing employable population. In the next 20 years, India will add 250 million people to the working-age population, compared to Brazil's 18 million and China's 10 million during the same period. If the potential of these youth remains untapped, it will not only slow growth, but a cycle of poverty and illiteracy will persist.

"Young people can be dynamic agents of social change," says the World Youth Report (WYR), "...but they must be given the right tools to work with." Increasing access to jobs will improve their prospects for financial security. The positive economic and social value of this will have ripple effects throughout society.

"Slum of Hope"

The future of Dharavi relies on decision-makers who don't just occupy the same sanitized vantage point where I started my walk through the slum. Under the rickety rooftops are full-fledged enterprises, industries, and factories. As another researcher on my field visit, Tanja Hichert of South Africa, pointed out in describing this enterprising spirit, "This is a unique competitive advantage that the urban poor in other places do not necessarily possess. How would one go about 'cultivating' industriousness, entrepreneurship, and an enterprising spirit?" As for Gatune, from Accra, he believes that Dharavi can be an example for other cities if its residents can "find ways to create their path out of poverty through homegrown solutions founded on entrepreneurial zeal." The way forward in Dharavi is complicated, but keeping in mind the strengths on the ground will certainly produce more sustainable improvements and perhaps transform the way policies and programs are implemented there. If this happens, who knows what positive path today's "slum of hope" will be on tomorrow.


Great article — am proud to have my photos illustrating this piece!

There is the same problem with stereotyping the poor in the US and these perceptions limit the solutions presented. Great article about this same issue, but in the United States:

"There is such a strong stereotype about the nation's poor — that being low-income means being broken — that no one is interested or even willing to consider and learn from the low-income families who activate their resourcefulness and know-how to solve their own problems. Why? Because policy makers, funders and advocates don't believe families like that exist. The stereotype of poor people as incapable is so entrenched that it is impossible for most to see how low-income families are really like the rest of us, just with less money and fewer connections. And as a result, we cut ourselves off from an entire approach that can springboard mobility — investing directly in solutions generated and led by families themselves.

"In order for our nation to effectively break the cycle of poverty, not simply create new programs to ameliorate harsh conditions, we need to take the blinders off, to dispense with the stereotypes, and ask the low-income families who are beating the odds jut how they are doing it. Then we need to follow through to support those effective solutions."

Jill, thanks so much for this article. You're right that the resourcefulness of the poor is overlooked the world over. Imagination and ingenuity are so much a part of under-resourced communities, but these attributes are rarely associated with the poor. It's always amazing to me to hear people who visit Mumbai say they are "surprised" by how hard people are working. In a country where nearly 80% of the people work in the informal sector — outside of any social service benefits — how else are they supposed to survive each day? And their means for survival, of building their own housing, industries and communities, are certainly the foundations for inspiration. These places should be the first place governments and organizations look for "inspiration" for their development projects, though they are all too often dismissed — in Dharavi, the urban ghettos in the US, and so many other struggling communities.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.