Home » A short look at Dharavi before Slumdog made it famous.

A short look at Dharavi before Slumdog made it famous.

70 Dutch students from Erasmus University wanted to find out what drives innovation and enterprise in different settings. One view was to get exposed to families who live on no more than $2 a day – their concerns, aspirations, dreams and stress points – their world view and what makes them hopeful of the future. We facilitated their 2 day visit in January 2008.

December to January marks the time for ‘discover’ or ‘re-discover India’. It’s not difficult to cherry-pick wide eyed newbies at airports, ashrams, management school campuses, malls, temples and streets. Each one of us here has played host at some time or another. We take our cultural prescript “athithi devo bhava” seriously. It makes playing host pleasurable and rewarding, especially if the guest is curious, happy to explore, open and receptive. Playing host to people from “outside” our culture poses a creative challenge of planning and executing to deliver maximum “experience value”. The trip must be authentic, memorable and a learning. Despite the plethora of information one can find on the Net, making meaning of a new country needs time, patience, resources and a “guide”. Mid-January we faced a challenge of taking a group of 70 students and five professors for a “consumer immersion” in Dharavi. The students studying Entrepreneurship at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University were in India on a 9-day trip to experience and participate in a social entrepreneurship program. The trip was to culminate with the students solving business cases. The output was to arrive at ideas for projects that will bring about social development at the bottom of the pyramid. While 80% of group was Dutch, there were students from multiple ethnicities viz., Egyptian, Haitian, German, Indonesian and Chinese. The class had pre-selected Dharavi in their request for study and had contacted us to help design a two day program to experience communities and life at the bottom of the pyramid. Planning involved designing a program for two days and the logistics for managing safety and security in a very small, densely populated and congested area. The students began their two days with a classroom orientation into observation, and set off for their field-visit to Dharavi. The students were briefed that it was Makar Sankranti, the auspicious day of new beginnings following the harvest festival. They were informed that they would find people dressed nicely on the occasion. Cleanliness of the home, and personal care and grooming is important to Indians it is not uncommon to find people in tiny huts having clean, bright and shining utensils. They will wear clean clothes and women might even wear small pieces of jewelry. The students found this in contrast with poor people in Europe who might be careless about their appearance and upkeep. As a people, we like adornment and our persons and our homes rise above the squalor in the community, quite like the proverbial “lotus in a filthy pond” of the Buddha’s teachings.

A “moderator-translator” led each of the 20 groups comprised of 3 to 4 students into the pre-selected homes. We used a discussion guide to understand life’s context, painpoints, aspirations and joys in their life. We observed their homes, their kids, the appliances they used and the basic amenities they had access to viz., water, electricity, sanitation and housing. Most moderators were unfamiliar to the ‘gullis’ and ‘mohallas’ of Dharavi. Unless one has good reason to, most locals in Mumbai will only have driven past 90 feet road and 60 feet road. The demeanor of the consumers, their dignity, happiness despite their lot was a surprise to the students. There was much discussion about what might lie behind the smile. The spirit of enterprise, creative effort and stretch, and belief and support to children for education is what is the positivism in Dharavi.

Shanti got married to Praveen who has lived in Dharavi since he was born. She has two daughters aged 8 and 4 years. She works as a domestic help and has the permission to take her younger child to work. The husband works as a daily wage earner at getting work from time to time at local small time construction sites. They live in a rented room paying Rs. 700 per month and a deposit with an 11 month lease. Housing and the uncertainty of not knowing where they move next is the biggest stress of this couple’s life. There is an everyday struggle of earning enough to bring home the day’s provisions. The 10*10*7 room is the kitchen & dish wash area, sitting room, bedroom evokes a mix of shock and admiration for Shanti. There is a wall rack lined with small steel dabbas with provisions. There are at least 30 one litre PET bottles filled with drinking water. There is a tap inside the room and a bathroom in an adjoining but “private” area, making the place very promising. Shanti’s utensils are shiny and neatly stacked in her rack, and, large covered utensils with stored water. The 14” TV set, the only source of indoor entertainment, does not work. There is a wooden two ft. wide shelf on two sides of the wall at a six ft height. Bags possibly with clothing and mattress rolls are stored. Most homes like these do not have cupboards and every day clothes are stored in trunks or bags. A bright red and blue school bag on a peg on the wall is the high point of this visit. Shanti proudly tell us that she spends two hours each evening with her eight year-old making her do her homework. The child purposefully pulls out her notebooks and hands them to us as if for inspection. The writing is neat and the teacher has put in encouraging remarks. Shanti, who has studied up to class VII and more educated than her II class educated husband, is the mover and shaker in the home. She drives her kids hard and says she does not hesitate to hit the children when they don’t study. She basks in the reflected glory of her child’s marks, the intangible that is her sense of purpose. Education is a primary barrier that keeps people in Dharavi, some of whom have lived there for over 30 years. The residents are “education-locked”, “opportunity-locked” and “credit-locked”. Parents like Shanti recognize that education is the only “eject button” for people outside their lot. Engaging the children in education is also a way to keep them out of trouble and going astray. The Dutch students can now see tangible evidence of the conundrum India is at the bottom 1/3rd of the development index but among the top countries on the happiness index. The hopeful, hardworking couple with two daughters and their quest to keep on going despite their pitiable present makes an impact.

One student quips, ‘why are people not angryIn Europe people would turn communist. We tend to take our democracy for granted. Why is there no rebellion? Some students feel that people here might make positive efforts to bring about change if they were less accepting and not complacent of their current condition. The students observe with surprise the possible lack of grass-root level community initiative and action. Over the two days we organized thought-provoking lectures, made presentations on corporate initiatives at the bottom of the pyramid, and a field trip to a mall in Central Mumbai and a visit to Mumbai Central station. Many students were disappointed and were unable to connect the dots between the mall visit and the lives of the people in Dharavi. The visit to the mall was intended to demonstrate the potential of market place in bringing about community transformation. Shanti works in two homes and knows how “rich” people live,. Her husband has helped build some of these homes. Both these places they render a service; they do not visit to be served. In the new market places where Shanti and her family will visit in the near future, discover with surprise that she can wear her footwear inside the store, will shop with her simple dignity intact and delightedly discover that she has saved a small amount. Perhaps she can treat the kids to an ice cream and take them home in an auto rickshaw. Shanti and Praveen will begin to explore creative ways to earn more and stretch the rupee further. Perhaps this is how these new marketplaces will contribute in transforming community. Shanti will have renewed confidence that her children will study and get jobs; they will improve their life with hard work and industry. It will make her want to find creative ways of doing more things so she can earn. She will learn embroidery from a neighbor and attend a tailoring class and make time to take tuitions for small children in the neighborhood. She will begin keeping her garbage in a covered dustbin and handing it over to garbage van that comes every morning. She and her neighbors will become more conscious of keeping their lane clean, demand tarred roads, covered sewage and sanitation. And they may no longer be satisfied being passive vote banks repositories of unfulfilled election promises.

Marcia De Graff one of the student organizers writes me a mail, ‘I can only hope that I will make a (humble) contribution by investing my future in entrepreneurship in the BOP. I will already start of by writing my thesis on this topic. I hope that we stay in touch to discuss issues and I also hope to return to India soon to do my research’. The India experience has ignited Marcia about becoming a social entrepreneur.

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