Once Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi today is vastly different. Make no mistake. It is still a slum. But he squalor is increasingly being overcome by stories of grit.
Change is manifest not just in the form of
the replacement of slums with buildings or
better roads, improved hygiene or even the
ATMs coming up there; it is evident from
the sharp rise in the socio-economic profile
of the average Dharavi resident. The story
of today’s Dharavi is about the rise of a new
generation that is clearly more educated,
more informed and more affluent. From
being a symbol of the daily struggle for survival of the urban Indian poor in
Hollywood films, many people raised here
now crisscross continents for work or study.
Like Jasmine Jacob.
“Till my third standard, we stayed in a tin
house that would be roughly about 10x10
sq ft and then we moved into a brick
house,” she recalls. “There were lots of
infrastructure issues at home and around.
It was impossible to study in the evenings
as everyone would be watching television
and there would be so many distractions.”
Her father, the sole bread earner, could not
afford to pay her fees for higher studies. “But
my teachers ensured that my studies were
not affected. They knew of my background
and went out of their way to help me. They
supported me by finding out and recom-
mending me for scholarships,” she says.
After completing her post-graduation in
chemistry from the Institute of Science,
Mumbai, she earned a Department of
Atomic Energy scholarship and gained
entry into a doctoral study of nanosciences
at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Her
performance there earned her a govern-ment-funded post-doctoral research study
trip to Paris. And it led to another course at
the University of Notre Dame in Indiana,
Every step was paved with scholarships.
“Money isn’t everything. I’m a good
example of how, if you are prepared to work
hard and have it in you, nothing can stop
you,” says Jacob, who now does research in
She continues to live in Dharavi; her family has shifted to a building there.
Jacob also wants to inspire other students,
especially from her locality, to dream big and
pursue those dreams. Rather than big schools, she prefers to devote time to students at
her alma mater, the Kamaraj Memorial School. She was educated in the Tamil medium
till the fourth standard at this little-known
school near Dharavi and thereafter shifted to
English medium in the same school.
She tells her students to concentrate on
studies and not fear roadblocks: “I was so
focused and good at studies that I did not
know many students in my class. But, my co-students knew me and wanted to befriend
me for my notes. My locality did not matter.”
Jacob says she never dreamt of working or
staying abroad and did not fancy a high-pay-ing job or the lifestyle there: “I always wanted to be in India and am happy to be here.”
Amolik Selvaraj, who worked in the
United States and the United Kingdom,
before returning to India, feels the same way.
Brought up in Dharavi, the 46-year-old
started working as a data entry operator
while in college. He simultaneously learned
software languages like Clipper, Foxpro,
This helped him get offers to work as a
systems programmer and the chance to
work in Maryland in 2007.
To keep his career moving, he shifted to
quality assurance, which got him the chance
to move to Didcot, Oxfordshire, UK, in 2011.
He recently returned to India to work as
a senior consultant at Systems Plus
Technologies in Pune, Maharshtra.
Despite his travels, Selvaraj says he is open
to the idea of living in Dharavi even now. He
doesn’t intend to wipe it from his identity;
his passport stills bear his Dharavi address.
“One of the things about Dharavi is that
one would end up running into so many
people,” he says.
He missed that easy camaraderie, the
bonds of the neighborhood when he lived
outside India. “Abroad, people never turn up
impromptu at your place,” he says. “They’d
almost always turn up only after fixing an
appointment. The doorbell never rings with-
out one knowing who is at the door.”
But Selvaraj is practical enough to know
that living there won’t be easy for his fami-
ly. “Were it not it for factors like my chil-
dren’s education and good influence, I
would have happily shifted back. Things
have changed so much now... The facilities
are much better now,” he says.
Reverend Samuel Christudoss, ex-parish
priest of Good Shepherd Church, Dharavi,
who has resided in and has been observing
the area for over a decade, says, “It is almost
routine to hear old people talking about
their children being in the US or Germany
these days. Apart from those settled
abroad, many people travel abroad regular-
ly for work or study. The new generation
has lapped up higher education like never
before with the result that almost everyone
is literate here now.”
The prosperity is evident in his lifestyle
too. “When I had to live in Dharavi around
1991, I recall being provided with just mats
to sleep with bricks for a pillow by the
church because the people here lived with
such basic, primitive means. I would be
hauled up even if I took a cab and ques-
tioned as to why I did not walk the distance,”
he recalls. “Today, when I am re-posted in
this place, I see a marked difference. The
same church now allows me the option of
traveling by air-conditioned cabs, a direct
result of the younger generation being
exposed to a higher standard of living.”
While the much-touted Dharavi Redevelo-
pment Plan continues to gather dust in the
files or drawing boards of the Maharashtra
government, it is evident that the people of
Dharavi have chalked their own course. n
While plans redevelop what was once Asia’s largest slum gather dust,
its young residents chalk their own course, Hepzi Anthony finds out.
Dharavi The go-getters of Dharavi The go-getters of
Amolik Selvaraj, left, and Jasmine Jacob, right, are just two of the inspirational stories coming out of the slums of Dharavi, top.