June 26, 2020
Photography and words by Claudia Orsetti
Introduction by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Claudia Orsetti is a globetrotting Italian photographer who has lived and worked in several countries. An architect by training, she has always loved taking pictures. For Claudia photography is the way she can show other people how she sees things. It is also a way of getting to know herself, as her focus shifts over time. She is interested in imprecise moments without expectations, the reality where you think there is nothing more to see. In 2017, Claudia traveled to India and visited two of Mumbai's slum areas. The experience left her deeply impressed. This is her story.
In 2017, I had the chance to spend a couple of weeks in India with a group of photographers, travelling through the country. On my way from North to South, I made a very short stop in Mumbai. But somehow that chaotic and fast growing maddening metropolis fascinated me deeply, even in the little time I spent there. It is a common saying that Mumbai is a beautiful city, but a terrible place. Whether that is true or not...it is definitely a place of extremes. Stray dogs and exotic birds, the largest tropical forest in an urban area, some of the most luxurious and expensive developments in the whole of Asia, and yet 60% of the population live in slums or shanty towns. These contradictions are probably what makes Mumbai so interesting, and definitely what made me curious, especially about the life in the slums, about which I knew little.
The idea I had in my mind (and probably most people, due to portrayals in the media and movies) was simple: a dangerous area, consisting of an infinite amount of cramped shacks, with no sanitary system and destitute people. But as Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, "a single story can be dangerous: it creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."
So I visited two of those areas: the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air laundromat where the washers, known as dhobis, work in the open to clean clothes and linens from Mumbai's hotels and hospitals; and Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums and one of the most densely populated areas in the world. I was hoping to find another story to tell. And I did.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
At first sight, both Dharavi and the Dhobi Ghat look like a messy stack of tin roofs, squeezed between railways and rising towers, but once you get in, the maze of narrow alleys reveals a totally different and unexpected life.
There is, on the one hand, the squalor: both areas have their challenges — they lack a proper water supply, sewage, regular urban infrastructure of any sort; they have limited access to toilets, activities and educational programmes (although Dharavi has one of the best-educated slums populations). On the other hand, as soon as you go beyond your very first impressions and forget about the smells and the flies, you start discovering that Dharavi has become a fully functioning circular economy, with over 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories, many of which focus on sorting waste and recycling, with an estimated turnover of 1 billion dollars. Harvard Business School used it as a case study.
We were shown around by a young man. The 13th Compound is at the heart of Dharavi's recycling industry, where an estimated 80% of Mumbai’s plastic waste is delivered by an informal network of waste pickers, sorted, melted and transformed into reusable chips. Needless to say, the working environment is extremely hazardous and unsafe, toxic sludge flows down alleyways and child labour is widespread. This is a parallel economy, an informal one that compliments and sometimes substitutes for the formal one. In the words of Eswar Prasad, a leading Indian economist, “Economic opportunity in India still lies, to a large extent, in urban areas. The problem is that the government hasn’t provided easy channels to be employed in the formal sector. So the informal sector is where the activity lies.”
So, although Dharavi may not be considered visually beautiful, and can be seen as a symbol of raw inequality that embodies the failure of the government, to accommodate the millions of rural migrants searching for an opportunity in Mumbai. It is also a hub of creativity and a vibrant society with a very strong sense of community.
One should obviously not romanticise life in a slum, but it is useful to remember that people come to Dharavi voluntarily because Dharavi represents an opportunity for them. It was once known as a very dangerous place, but nowadays the police say the crime rate is low, lower than in many other areas of Mumbai, and although there appears to be misery all around to a foreign eye, people here do not speak about being poor, they speak proudly of their work and about getting ahead. There is an interlaced system of layers of poverty, work, politics, and hope, in Dharavi, and when exposed those layers reveal something far more complicated and organic than the superficial aspect of a slum. It is a society within a society. They say it is a mini India.
THE GIANT LAUNDROMAT
Dhobi Ghat is different, although it can similarly be thought of as a city within a city, occupying 60,000 square metres near Mahalaxmi train station. I found myself within a maze of rows and rows of wash pens, hanging clothes, ladders and walls of corrugated metal, which create a labyrinth of light and shadows, pervaded by an intense smell of soap. This giant laundry facility was created in the late 19th century, when the British colonialists built approximately 730 washing pens and flogging stones and allotted them to dhobis (washer men) to wash their uniforms in the open air. Today it turns over approximately 15 million dollars per year, and it is estimated that half a million pieces of clothing are washed here, every day.
The Mumbai Municipal Corporation officially owns the land and charges the dhobis something like $5 a month for renting the washing pens and for their maintenance. Everybody has their own set of clients. The majority are hospitals, gyms, restaurants and hotels, but there are also a good number of laundry businesses in town which are subcontracting their work to the Ghat, and many private households who have their dhobi bag picked up by a dhobi man up in the morning for laundering.
Like in Dharavi, there are different layers within the Ghat, which are physically split in sections: the ground level is flogging stones and hand work, where the clothes are soaked then thrashed repeatedly on the stone before being boiled and hung out to dry. Some workers spend most of their day knee-deep in the water. But when you go up a floor, you can see the big washing machines. The top floor is the drying area, and it is amazing to see all the ladders everywhere interconnecting the levels.
The Ghat is in fact a huge three-dimensional maze. From the top of some of these shacks I could see the towers of drying clothes against the high-rises of the skyline of Mumbai, that was quite something...walking around the Ghat really made me feel as if I were moving in a parallel reality, a village with its own rules and its own life. It can be a very lucrative business and the beauty of it is that most dhobis don’t compete because there is enough work for everybody.
Nonetheless it is not an easy life. A typical day starts at 4 am, when they bring the clothes from everywhere around Mumbai and start soaking them in water. The first break is for breakfast, around 8:30 am, a communal moment when everybody gets together and shares food. Around 11 am they have to start drying the clothes because the sun becomes harsher as the day progresses, and they can then rest while the clothes are drying. Around 3 or 4 pm the launderers start the business of ironing, folding, and delivering the clean laundry back to its owner.
The more they work, the more they earn, so it is not unheard of for the dhobis to work up to 20 hours a day. They pass down their business from generation to generation, and the area is also home to between 200 and 500 families who reside in the adjacent shacks. Although the houses are no larger than a room, most of them are kept clean and decent. The dhobis are proud of their work and their family heritage, but they are also very conscious that their children need education and might want to pursue another road in life. The majority of the children do go to school. When I spoke with them they told me of big dreams, being an engineer or moving abroad to study.
The shacks are considered hazardous, and recently the government decided to demolish some of them, evicting a number of families. The land prices in the Ghat are very high, as it is in a prominent area of Mumbai, so developers have long been making plans for its redevelopment. The same holds for Dharavi: several development plans have been discussed, and it now seems now that they are close to awarding the tender contract for a project to start.
I agree that governments should be able to upgrade the living and working conditions to a basic acceptable level, but they should be equally careful not to get rid of the existing micro-societies and economies in these places. They are hugely important in India, and they contribute essentially to a formal system that is not fully equipped to cope with the country's needs.
There is another angle to these informal societies, which are far more complex and dignified than people generally imagine. They are providing work and giving people some hope. This is another story that I want to add to the generic stereotype of the slum.