Journeys for Change 2: The Hive

This is the second of Tom’s five blogs from the Journeys for Change India adventure, November 2011.

The Hive

It’s like a beehive.

Inside it is teeming with energy. Each individual has their own work to do, day out and day in. Some are tasked with securing the lifeblood of the hive, others with keeping it in order. It positively throbs with incessant movement, its rigid structures cramped but functional. Resources are brought in constantly whilst valuable commodities created there are taken out.

Dharavi is home to a million people in 1.7 square kilometres, just two thirds of a square mile; the largest slum in Asia. Its enterprise is all-consuming. There are potteries where the ovens are rebuilt after every firing, their mud structures continually recycled, cotton the fuel of choice as it produces more heat than flame. There are vegetable oil can recycling plants where the containers are cleaned, scoured, stripped of all identity and re-used three times; after the fourth they are hammered into the sheet metal from which the workshops and many nearby homes are built. There are poppadum processors, drying their wares on upturned wicker baskets in the unkempt streets where the animals, children, motorbikes and passing cricketers all kick up the dust.

And there are the plastic recyclers.

Your waste and mine, plastic bottles from across the seas, brought to India by the megaton, delivered to Mumbai and sorted by hand by smartly dressed women in darkened hovels. Then they are crushed, chipped by home-engineered iron machines, washed and laid out to dry on the corrugated iron roofs of Dhavari before being melted and re-formed into pellets for making… just about anything and anywhere. If there is money to be made from recycling plastic this is where you will find it.

A community apart from others it is one of 2,000 slums in Mumbai alone; together they are home to more than half of the city’s population. Served by six railway stations and an airport, and adjacent to the city’s financial district, the government-owned land of Dhavari must be worth a fortune. A million people, mostly on the local minimum wage of around 150 Rupees (£2) per day, are reputedly putting $600 million into the Indian economy each year from which barely a penny is raised in tax.

Next to the industrial zones and just as dark are the residential areas, with fetid water running down open sewers in streets just a paving stone wide, running between the one-room houses which are home to an average of five people with no toilet. Upstairs, a second room is constructed with corrugated walls and roof, rented out to another family. The slum has electricity 24 hours a day (though few can afford to buy much) and water, mostly from stand pipes, up to 4 hours per day.

The streets are bedecked with redundant telephone lines. Every second adult clutches a mobile phone. No-one is smoking.

The leather industry creates a super-soft and supple product reputedly bought for Armani; tanning chemicals are banned in the slum as they are dangerous, even more dangerous than the plastic-chipping machine, yet they are used. Similarly, there is no child labour in Dharavi. But everyone knows there is.

No slumdogs, the children are happy. With an incredible 82 per cent literacy rate and opportunities to work outside the slum, with crime and disorder lower than the national average and life expectancy no worse than in Bombay itself there are reasons to be cheerful. School is enhanced, kindergarten provided and English and computer classes delivered each evening through Reality GIves. This foundation is funded by the profits from Reality Tours, a unique travel and tourism company which shows 1200 guests a month around the slum to be impressed by its energy, drive and self sufficiency. And its squalor and its poverty.

There is energy and there is drive; the industries are sustainable. But can development take place? Who gets the profits from the plastic recycling? Do they stay within Dharavi? Probably not. Reality may be helping improve the services available in the slum in a small way but this industry is by no means a guaranteed route out of poverty.

Yet there is hope. I ask three girls of 8-10 what do they want to be when they grow up. They say: ‘Teacher’, ‘Doctor’, ‘Scientist’. The world needs what Dharavi does and part of what it does is to generate that hope. Let us hope it proves to have foundation.

The bee can find pollen in the most unlikely places and what it does with it can only be described as alchemy. So it is fitting that somewhere in that baking sea of iron roofs that is Dharavi yet another new enterprise is being launched: the slum’s first beehive for honey production.