Recently, I have been blogging about the disappearance of work. Things operate in ways that we cannot see, and the places of work, from separate offices to factories, are either shrinking in size or disappearing into far-off places. Then I traveled to Mumbai, and found a place where work is evident in all of its complexity: Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia.
There, a million people produce well over a billion dollars worth of value. They do it in a messy, dirty, crowded, and intensely creative manner. I have never seen anything like it.
Or I thought I hadn’t. It turns out Dharavi is a bit of a media star. You may have see it in movies such as 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, which was shot on location there. It is by now so famous that our group, there as part of the Holcim Conference on Sustainable Construction, was guided by a team of young men who had grown up there and had started their own company showing tourists the sights.
And such sights they were.
Through alleys too narrow to walk straight, we moved from workshops where teams were stripping apart old shoes to make new ones, melting plastic toys into pellets, and hammering the dents out of old cans to make shiny receptacles. In one workshop—each area being a structure of indeterminate posts and beams covered with recycled bits and pieces of plywood and corrugated metal—we watched pickers bring in old cardboard boxes, which they then flattened, cut, trimmed, and transformed into new containers. We walked through mounds of leftover strips that were covering a worker taking a nap until he rolled over and one of his friends cleared the debris off him.
Machines abounded, but they were small and only did what hands could not. Dharavi’s rule is that everything is reused, and that everybody works, no matter what age or with what infirmity. Life is brutal but productive. One of the scariest sites we encountered was a stray dog, completely green from drinking the chemical run-off in the gutters. Life expectancy here is ten years less than in Mumbai, which is already less than in the rest of India.
I felt exhilarated and troubled. From the incredible inventiveness and productivity of this place, to the sheer beauty of the materials collaged together to house and connect every aspect of its life, Dharavi made me believe again in the ability of humans to remake even this former swamp with almost no infrastructure—and to build a community in the process. For there is order and rule and logic to every aspect of Dharavi. Yet the horrors of life there are very real and evident.
Change is on the horizon. Already there are a few high-rise apartment buildings dotted among the shacks, and there are various grand plans to clear and redevelop the whole slum, which, though once a mere fishing village far away from Bombay, now sits in the middle of Mumbai. The place might not exist in a few years.
Over drinks that evening, we discussed Dharavi’s possible future with Rolf Soiron, Holcim’s sharp chairman. I offered that the pace of economic development would wipe Dharavi away, both physically and in terms of its economic logic, as automation ekes more and more value out of even formerly left-over material and the smallest improvements in production. Soiron believed that the sheer inventiveness evident in Dharavi would enable it to adapt into something that would attract investment in health and living infrastructure without making the place unaffordable.
I was almost convinced. But I wonder whether we should celebrate and protect Dharavi as a creative center, despite the costs it imposes for the people who live there. Quality-of-life improvements might ensue from an ugly, overly expensive, soulless redevelopment. Soiron suggests that we can dream of a gradual upgrade that captures and preserves what is amazing about the place, and I hope he is right. Even if that process compromises the romantic industrial spectacle—as it inevitably will.