‘Most homes have televisions,’ points out Santosh, a guide from Reality Tours, as we squeeze down a narrow lane in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums. He turns to me and smiles: ‘So nobody works when Mumbai play cricket.’
Even in cricket-mad India, this is hard to believe. Dharavi is a thriving centre of industry and raw entrepreneurial spirit, a sprawling temple to a sort of distilled capitalism – but it’s also a place for dreamers. You don’t leave your village to come and live in slum conditions unless you’re chasing something.
People move to Dharavi from all over India to find work, to send money back home and to build a better future for themselves. They start families and seek better education for their children, who seem mainly to dream of cricket and of the ‘Little Master’ Sachin Tendulkar, India and Mumbai’s talisman and the man who has scored more runs in Tests and one-day internationals than anybody else.
We make our way onto a rooftop. To the south lies the Wankhede stadium, the site of India’s Cricket World Cup victory a few months ago. It’s only seven miles away but from this vantage point it seems to inhabit another world – well apart from Dharavi, the city’s core.
A 1.75 km2 plot of land in the shape of a heart, the slums are home to a million people and an estimated 15,000 businesses with an annual turnover somewhere in the region of US$665 million. But this massive wealth creation translates to an average daily wage of just 150Rs(£2), and every rupee is hard-earned. ‘A lot of people think that slum dwellers sit around doing nothing all day,’ says Santosh, ‘but you will not see a single beggar here.’ The estimated employment rate in the slums is 85 per cent.
Much of that work is recycling. Cooking-oil containers and paint tins are cleaned and returned to pristine condition; bales of cardboard are reworked into boxes; plastics of every sort are transformed into pellets ready to be sold back to factories, and piles of aluminium are melted down into ingots. The West could learn much from the ingenuity of Dharavi’s recyclers, although their workplaces are extravagantly dangerous.
Cardboard recycling. Photo by Tom Parker via Reality Tours.
Manufacturing. Photo by Tom Parker via Reality Tours.
Recycling oil cans. Photo by Andreas Grosse-Halbuer via Reality Tours.
Pottery. Photo by Andreas Grosse-Halbuer via Reality Tours.
These are other hardships, too. Homes are tiny and electricity and water is erratic, but the most visceral sign of poverty is the lack of sanitation. What little open space exists is marked by hills of rubbish; children play cricket as their friends defecate openly nearby. It’s estimated there is one toilet for every 1,440 people, and even these are extremely unlikely to be in a usable state. The nearby Sion Hospital admits 10,000 patients each year for diarrhea and treats 30,000 more through their Outdoor Patient Department.
A few days later I make the planetary leap to the Wankhede stadium to see Mumbai Indians take on Kings XI Punjab in the Indian Premier League. The city’s upper and middle classes are gathered to worship. When Tendulkar makes his way onto the grass, overweight businessmen scream and rattle the cages that separate them from the cricketers. Tendulkar is their god as well as the children’s, and he is at least part-myth. All the best heroes are.
Tendulkar carries a heavy burden because he has come to represent not only cricketing success, but also global Indian success. India is a country on the move, and nowhere is that more apparent than Mumbai. The people who move to Dharavi become part of that growth, and in the slums the real spectacle is not poverty; it is communities struggling to make their big society work despite ineffective and corrupt government interventions.
For many years the government has been attempting to move people out of the slums. Newly built high-rises dot the periphery, but many do not want to leave. As Indian journalist Suketu Mehta wrote in his extended love letter to Mumbai, Maximum City:
‘We tend to think of a slum as an excrescence, a community of people living in perpetual misery. What we forget is that out of inhospitable surroundings, the people have formed a community, and they are as attached to its spatial geography, the social networks they have built for themselves, the village they have re-created in the midst of the city, as a Parisian might be to his quartier.’
Back at the stadium, Tendulkar is looking nervous. The crowd grows anxious, and I imagine the thousands huddled around their television screens in Dharavi. They have come to expect transcendence, but the beginning is unremarkable. Then, Tendulkar suddenly twists his body effortlessly and sends the ball rising high towards the starlit heavens, over the boundary, into another billion dreams.