MUMBAI (Reuters) - The first sight for anyone flying into India’s richest city is a sea of corrugated and tarpaulin-covered roofs beside a narrow, filth-choked river.
It is an aerial view of Dharavi, considered Asia’s biggest shantytown, two square km (0.8 square miles) of open sewers, muddy lanes and ramshackle tenements that is home to almost a million people.
But strip away its squalid veneer and Dharavi bares a unique entrepreneurial spirit, and multi-million dollar micro-businesses, that breaks all the stereotypes of a slum.
Past scavenging crows feeding on dead rats, past children scampering through trash, one arrives at the plastic recycling factory of Nisar Ahmed.
Here, half a dozen men toss plastic boxes into massive grinders that chop them into tiny pieces and melt them down into multicolored pellets, ready to be cast into, perhaps, cheap plastic toys.
“Dharavi has a huge plastic recycling industry, and we are one of the biggest,” Ahmed told Reuters sitting in his soot-blackened, one-room factory with a tangle of electric wires hanging from the roof.
“There are other industries as well like chemical, pottery, soap-making, leather goods, electrical equipment and many more.”
Arguably the most prosperous among the world’s biggest shantytowns, Dharavi has about 5,000 single-room factories and hundreds of cottage industries that together have a turnover of around $1 billion.
Practically every home here produces something to sell - incense sticks, poppadoms, pickles, soft toys and candles among the many crafts.
“Most know Dharavi as a slum where poor people live,” said Abu Khalid Anjum, president of Dharavi Businessmen’s Welfare Association. “Not everyone knows how productive this place is.”
In Dharavi, leather is the main product, much of which is exported to the Middle East.
Then there are the foundries, which make everything from buckles to brass fittings. Gold jewelers sit next to people making junk-metal ornaments, bakers and potters, clothiers and cobblers, motor welders and paint makers and countless other craftsmen.
There is, however, a dark side as well to Dharavi’s entrepreneurial spirit -- a thriving black market for drugs and fake fashion goods and electronics, run by some of Dharavi’s disaffected youth organized into gangs.
Until the end of the 19th century, this area of Mumbai, then known as Bombay, was a mangrove swamp inhabited by Koli fishermen before migrants from southern and western India arrived to seek their fortune in the country’s financial capital.
Over decades, Dharavi’s “jhoparpattis” or slums became the first port of call for dispossessed workers and penniless Mumbai newcomers, resulting in the most diverse of neighborhoods in India’s most diverse city.
Dharavi had once been on the northern fringe, but an expanding Mumbai sprawled toward the famous slum, eventually surrounding it and turning the once malarial swamp into a real estate goldmine worth an estimated $10 billion.
In recent years, prosperity has been trickling down to Dharavi’s residents. There is 24-hour electricity and running water, and 2006 research shows 85 percent of households have a television, 56 percent a gas stove and 21 percent own a telephone.
But Dharavi has its problems as well. Residents are only too aware of the basic lack of necessities: health care, sanitation, education and even a lack of toilets which force many to suspend their dignity and squat without privacy on the roadside.
Many plans have been made for Dharavi’s redevelopment, the latest a government move to tear down the slum and resettle 57,000 families in high-rise housing close to their current residences.
Each family is entitled to 225 square feet of housing, with its own indoor plumbing. In exchange for erecting the free dwellings, private firms can build for-profit housing and commercial space to be sold at market rates which rival real estate prices in New York and Tokyo.
But residents are not happy because they say their new apartments can’t be turned into workshops and factories.
Authorities say under the new plan owners of small businesses will have to settle for smaller, alternative plots.
“They can keep making plans, but Dharavi will never change,” said plastics factory owner Ahmed. “Are we to run our business from cubby holes?”
The head of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation says it could be years before the winds of change blow in Dharavi.
“Whatever it is Dharavi’s micro-businesses will have to be saved,” federation head Jockin Arputham said.