December to January marks the time for ‘discover’ or ‘re-discover India’. Its 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
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
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 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 a 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 every day 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 angry? In 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
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
neighbour 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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