The Vibrant Economy of Dharavi, India’s Largest Slum

Dharavi is located in Mumbai and considered to be one of the largest slums in the world. It has an estimated population of about one million in an area of just over 2 square kilometres. To put that into perspective, that is about a third of the size of London Gatwick Airport. Despite the challenges of poor sanitation and widespread disease faced by residents, an active informal economy has managed to thrive which contributes over $1 billion annually to India’s economy. This article explores some of the most prominent industries within Dharavi and sheds a light into the positive economic contribution of the slum as opposed to the negative aspects often portrayed by the media.

The leather industry is the most prominent industry in Dharavi with over 20,000 small businessmen and producers. As the slaughter of cattle is banned in India, the leather comes mainly from goats and sheep. The skin is washed, cut and pressed with the desired pattern. Once it has been made into the final product, it is exported to high-street brands such as Zara and even high-end brands such as Giorgio Armani. A key theme that runs throughout Dharavi is ‘nothing is wasted’ so leather scraps are either used for energy production or reused by other industries such as pottery within the slum.

Another large industry is plastic recycling which employs about 10,000 people and recycles 60% of Mumbai’s plastic waste. A few thousand workers will sort and separate the waste to identify recyclables with plastic being sorted further by colour and quality. The plastic waste is then crushed into microplastics and cleaned thoroughly. Microplastic cannot be melted in Dharavi due to health and safety regulations, so it is sold off to industries throughout India to be melted and reused as different plastics and finally resold to firms.

Wax printing is one of Dharavi’s oldest industries with around 40-50 units still functional. A wooden block with the desired pattern is used to apply the molten wax onto the cloth, and after the wax solidifies, the cloth becomes coloured. The cloth is then washed with warm water to remove the excess wax so the design can be visible. Wax printing requires a high level of precision, so workers are paid relatively highly in comparison to other jobs in Dharavi, with a day rate of approximately $10.

The ‘Kumbharwada’ community in Dharavi is renowned for their pottery making skills. The community is spread through narrow alleyways where the potters, the business owners who own the kilns and run the workshops, live and work onsite whilst labourers assist them with firing and finishing pots. The clay is transported from Southern Gujarat, linked to the fact that the community was originally founded by migrants from Gujarat, and then ground into a powder. The powder is then mixed with water to make the clay, from which the pots are made, polished, and fired in the kiln. Potters selling their products directly would make around $0.10 of profit per medium sized pot whilst wholesalers buying from potters and selling to other consumers would make double the amount of profit.

To summarise, Dharavi is a modern representation of the capability of such a deprived community to give rise to so many industries whilst ensuring the level of waste produced is kept at a minimum. Whilst Dharavi is often portrayed as a hotspot of disease and poverty, it is important to keep in mind its crucial contribution to the Indian economy through the work of the numerous potters, leatherers and textile workers who make up Dharavi


Dharavi: Asia’s Largest Slum Or A Recycling And Circular Economy Goldmine?


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