Mumbai has a constant buzz. That is the best way to put it. The city is always moving, coming and going in all directions And full of light. I arrived in Mumbai three days ago, and immediately was taken aback by the vibrancy of it. Even as I made my way from the bustling airport at 1am to my hotel, taxi cabs lined the streets and pavement dwellers sit in front of their tin shacks, eating around fires.
I am here to visit the Indian SDI alliance, an impressive trio of organizations consisting of Mahila Milan (the women's savings collectives, which are federated citywide as well as nationwide), the National Slum Dwellers Federation (a network of male-dominated slum dweller federations operating at the same scale as MM) and the support NGO, SPARC. I have heard tales of the dynamism, innovation and success of MM-SPARC-NSDF, but truly there is nothing like seeing it for yourself. The same goes for Mumbai, for Dharavi, for all of it: you can read all the books, see the movies, read the newspaper and taste the food abroad, but there is nothing like coming face-to-face with the life of the city, of the people, to make you really understand.
Yesterday was my first day in the field. Alongside a colleague from SPARC, I visited three of Alliance's projects in Greater Mumbai. First we stopped at a housing project in Dharavi called Rajiv Indira, designed by the women of Mahila Milan. The building is light and airy, with children playing and riding small bicycles in the wide corridor. On the ground floor there is an open courtyard, where women congregate with their kids, chatting about the day. All but the top two floors of the building have been constructed with 14-foot ceilings so that families can build a mezzanine floor to maximize the 225 sq ft space.
The women make this happen through financing from various sources, but savings is a big part of it. Not only does money collected through daily savings go towards financing the actual housing projects, but it also serves as a means to organize, mobilize and unify the group around a common vision for the community. Even after moving into the building, the women continue to save in order to pay for maintenance and further improvements to their homes. It is not a project-based activity, but instead becomes the very core of their activities.
I have read so much about Dharavi. How residential and commercial uses co-exist. How many millions of dollars are generated there. How high the population density is. How poor some of the living conditions. How vibrant, and dynamic a place it is. But again, nothing compares to reality. It is not simply a slum - Dharavi is a town. The true essence of an informal city, existing right in the centre of the formal city, feeding into it minute to minute and day by day. We make our way to a community toilet project, turning off the main (4-lane) road and onto a crowded, winding side street. We pass a Hindu temple, painted bright with garlands and incense adorning the entrance, and are shaded by green canopies of tall, old trees. A white cow passes us on the right.
We arrive at the community toilet and it is bright and clean. My colleague explains that it is used by 226 families (roughly 1,300 people), each of whom pays 20 rupees per month (about USD .40). Others pay 2 rupees per use. There is a caretaker who looks after the facility daily, closing it only from 1am - 5am. He has a room upstairs that he shares with his family, and there is a lovely roof terrace with a mosaic tiled floor that can be used by the 226 families for community events and meetings. There are basically two other options for toilets in Dharavi: 1) shit wherever you can find a hole, which often means holding it in until it is safe (especially for women), and of course causes numerous health risks; or 2) use one of the government-provided communal toilets, which tend not to be well looked after, and are often dark, smelly and unpleasant to use. By making this a community project, it has kept the toilet clean and pleasant to use. One of us even stopped to pay the 2 rupees to use it during our visit!
The last site we visit is a housing project called Milan Nagar, also designed by the women of Mahila Milan, located in Mankhurd settlement quite a ways from the centre of Mumbai. This group of women were pavement dwellers, perhaps Mumbai's poorest population, and some of Mahila Milan's oldest members. They lived in shacks along the sidewalks, crowding the streets near Bombay Central station. The women tell us that one of the biggest differences in their lives today is that they are no longer called "pavement dwellers" - that they are respected by others because they now live in formal housing. But pavement dwellers chose their spots on the streets to be close to economic activity, and the women say this is one of the challenges of their new home. It is further to go to work, and they cannot come home between jobs to spend time with their children. There are three different design options within the building, each one consisting of a mezzanine floor like the building in Dharavi. The homes are modest but beautifully maintained, with sparkling pots and pans and spotless floors. Children play in the hallways, and music pours down the stairwells as a family upstairs prepares for an upcoming wedding.
After spending the afternoon at the SPARC offices, housed in a beautiful old municipal building in South Bombay, another colleague whisks me off to a Mahila Milan function in honor of a Hindu holiday celebrating the beginning of spring. This is the real thing. There are hundreds of women, all dressed in colorful saris and their best gold jewelry. We are asked to come on stage, and are honored with flowers, and decorated with saffron and turmeric on our foreheads. We eat sesame sweets and listen to the women speak about their daily realities, from the importance of daily savings to their struggles with crime. Before the close of the evening, traditional music comes on and the women begin to dance. We are drawn into the crowd and a young women smiles and grabs my hand. We dance together, laughing and I doing my best to imitate her every move. It is infectious - the vibrant soul of this community. Empowered and real, dancing under the scaffolding of 900 new homes.
We left the city in an early morning haze of pollution and sunrise, making our way through flat green valleys and into Western Ghat mountains. We are on our way to the smaller city of Pune about three hours north of Mumbai. With a population of roughly 3 million, Pune is the second biggest city in Maharashtra state after Mumbai (population ±16 million).
Mahila Milan (MM) has had a presence in Pune for years. Savita Sonawane, one of the longest-standing members of MM in Pune, first met the women from Mumbai when she was only 22 years old. That was nearly twenty years ago. Today we meet Savita in MM's Pune office, located above a community toilet project constructed and managed by MM. She is sitting alongside her daughter and her two baby grandchildren. Savita has made lifelong friendships with the other women of Mahila Milan, and with Celine d'Cruz, a colleague of mine at SDI who has spent thirty years working with the women of Mahila Milan in Mumbai and Pune. Celine and Savita sit cross-legged beside each other, laughing as Savita's granddaughter, little Arya, writes out the alphabet and pours us imaginary tea. These connections, these friendships, make up the foundation for Mahila Milan's strength, their ability to persevere, their determination and courage.
Alongside a group of local leaders, Savita manages projects ranging from housing construction, slum upgrading, and government sponsored resettlements. Starting with management of daily savings, the MM women learned the necessary skills for management and coordination of human as well as financial resources.
The first project we visit is at Yerwada, a settlement near Pune city centre where Mahila Milan has facilitated a very impressive slum upgrading project. Old tin shacks have been torn down and replaced with one, two and three story single and multiple family homes in the style of townhouses and small apartment blocks. The most fascinating thing about this project is the use of space. Most of the homes' footprints are no bigger than 250 square feet, but adding the second floor nearly doubles this space, giving the family a significant increase in their amount of living space and allowing for space for extended family to live comfortably together. One woman's home is a narrow triangle of only 170 square feet. The second story nearly doubles this, and MM has ensured that she she has permission to build a third story once she can afford it.
In addition to reconstructing the homes, MM worked hard to to realign the structures in order to widen pathways and make space for municipal water, sewerage and electricity connections. The pathways, widened from crevices to lovely pathways, are lit by street lamps. Each home has been designed in partnership with the family, so no two are alike, and construction overseen by the women of MM. They are painted bright colors, and front doors hung with bright flowers. It is clear that this is a community. Not a slum. Not an informal settlement. It is a neighborhood, with families living and working, improving their homes and kids walking home from school.
Next we travel a bit further out of Pune to a settlement called Shanti Nagar, where the second phase of slum upgrading is taking place. Being further from the city, this settlement is far less dense than Yerwada, making roads and pathways wider and the footprints of houses larger. They have recently started demolition of homes here, so much of the settlement is still under construction. Of course, convincing people to demolish their homes and live in rental housing for six months can be a challenging task, and MM must take each family's situation into consideration. Some people are not ready to make this kind of commitment. Children are in the midst of exams, or they do not have the money to pay rent while their house is reconstructed. These are things that would hardly be taken into consideration if the government, or even an external NGO, was heading up the process. But with MM working on the ground within their own communities, there is sensitivity to these realities.
On our way out of Pune we visit a resettlement project that is still under construction. The government has requested that MM assist in relocating just over 1,000 families to these new buildings to make way for various public works projects. Mahila Milan has agreed, but it is going to be a challenging task. They have not been involved in the design phase of this development, and the blocks of flats are looming structures, towering high into the sky and far from the city centre. Perhaps the one saving grace are the middle-class developments sprouting up on either side. Jobs as domestic workers and drivers for these middle-income families might serve as incentive for families to relocate here, as they will be next door to (some) economic activity. But still, for many this will be a hard move. The buildings lack character. The footprints are small, there is little cross-ventilation, and the location is not great. But Savita says they will come. They have to. And once here they will form housing societies, start daily savings, become an organized community with a voice, and they will be heard.
It is nearing the end of my stay in Mumbai, and I know I am going to miss this city as soon as I board the plane. I have spent the past week getting to know her streets and her people, and it is an experience I will certainly not forget. Mumbai is the kind of city that stays with you – the fragrance of the food, the colors of the sky at dusk, the buzz of people and traffic in the streets. Like other great cities of the world, its rhythm is invigorating and awe-inspiring – the vibrancy and speed of everyday life, set against the beautiful backdrop of history.
Over the past few days, I had the opportunity to revisit Dharavi: to walk the streets and narrow alleyways of the potters’ village and the recycling areas of the vast informal city-within-a-city, the world’s most well known slum.
We make our way from Bombay Central to Dharavi by train. It is past rush hour, so the great crowds I have heard so much about have subsided. The train is cool and quiet as it rumbles along the Central Line, and it is not long before we arrive at Sion station, the entrance to Dharavi. Actually, there is more than one train stop in Dharavi, making it very easy to access from almost anywhere across Mumbai. This, along with its central location, is one of the main factors contributing to increased interest in Dharavi as a site for private re-development. But re-development plans have not taken into account Dharavi’s place as a commercial hub in Mumbai’s informal and formal economies. They have not accounted for the outdoor kilns in the potters’ village, or the vast workshops where all means of recycling take place. Nor have they accounted for the long tradition of food production, leather shops, and textile mills. For now, plans are at a standstill. But there is a long road ahead if the vibrant economy of this bustling town is to be preserved.
We start off in the potters’ village. Here, thousands of local people work with hundreds of pounds of clay every day, stamping, pounding, molding and spinning it into beautiful pots, urns, serving dishes, candle holders for Diwali and statues of the Indian god Ganesh. Orders come in from all over Mumbai. Pottery is sold to housewives and retailers. We walk for half an hour, past shops and workshops, each one with a home overhead. Men sit inside, spinning handmade pots on wheels. A woman is polishing water pots outside her home, rubbing wet clay onto just-fired pots to smooth over imperfections. There are hundreds of the same pots lined up a few feet away. I ask her how much these sell for. Sharmila, one of the women working at the Indian support NGO, SPARC, translates for me. “About 100 or 120 rupees,” she says. This is equivalent to about US $2. This isn’t much, of course. But it is US $2 more than nothing, and when you multiply it by the 50 or 100 pots beside her, it’s a significant income. Multiply that by the many other workshops around her, and it becomes clear that Dharavi is more than a small piece of Mumbai’s vibrant economy.
From here, Sharmila takes me to another area of winding streets, this time lined with one recycling workshop after another. I have heard about Dharavi’s recycling industry, but again it is something else to see it up close and personal. Each workshop is busy with men and women sorting through, cleaning and producing every type of plastic imaginable. Women sit outside in the alleyways sorting through plastic cutlery and take-away boxes, as men work away inside on melting and shredding them to be reused across India and beyond. Dharavi is home to the largest plastic recycling industry in India. If the proposed redevelopment took place, where would this industry move to? How could it not be accounted for? How could it be seen as anything less than integral to the very heart of the city’s economy?
The next day I visit the Mahila Milan-NSDF office in Byculla. This was the neighborhood where SPARC first began its work back in the 1980s, when they made links with the community of pavement-dwellers who had their homes along these streets. Today, the streets are still lined with homes and shops, people milling about, living and working in the heart of central Mumbai, just blocks away from Bombay Central train station. Again, I am struck by the presence of the informal right alongside the formal city. Not even alongside it, but smack in the middle of it. Part of it. Contributing to it. We spend some time speaking with the women of Mahila Milan living here. They have been members of MM for over twenty years. They have negotiated with local government for toilets, for water taps, for electricity. Now each home is hooked up to the electrical grid, they have access to community toilets, and many people have water taps inside their homes. And they have prevented demolitions, prevented the threat of middle-of-the-night bulldozers and unannounced evictions.
The women know they will not be able to stay in Byculla forever, but in many ways it is better than moving out to Mankhurd, further away from jobs and schools. They made their homes here on purpose, and although they know they will have to leave eventually, it becomes clear yet again that a home is so much than a formal house. It is a community, a sense of security, access to the services and opportunities that bring rich and poor alike to the cities of the world. Why then should the right to enjoy these be a privilege only afforded to the rich? In Mumbai, the poor have claimed their space in the city – their right to it. Now the question is how they will hold onto that, and how the rest of us will support them.
For photos from my trip to Mumbai, visit SDI's Facebook page, or you can find them here.