March 6, 2012

It’s been a year since Artefacting Mumbai adorned Dharavi with what was an appreciative arts festival for locals and an open house/contemporary art exhibition for outsiders. And now a year later Arne and I have returned to Dharavi straight off the plane, to meet familiar faces, friends and local partners and explore the continuation of our work with Dharavi.
The 13th Compound (recycling area) buzzed with business and life as we had remembered, with a couple of noticeable changes. A recent vie for election votes has brought a brick road into one of Sannaulah Compound’s slickest and busiest truck loading corridors. On the weekend a cricket match put the brick road to a sportive use… with the skilled batsmen caroming the ball off of oil barrels, sacks of recycling plastic and corrugated tin metal, erupting laughs, smiles and challenge.

But most striking was the transformation of a stretch of land we used to refer to as Yellow Roads, named after the yellow pigment processing that made all yellow. Now all the life of those roads has been reduced to a walled and barb wired parcel of land. Destroyed were alleyways and spaces we remembered for their buzzing production and life; this is where thousands of things were happening including jean, chuna, and car part production, and all the steps of the plastic recycling process (cleaning, grinding, sorting, packaging). And the hundreds of homes in a labyrinth, stitched together like a fabric, were now reduced to rubble. Surreal and tough to swallow.

Exuded from the community was a sense of pain and grievance for the hundreds of friends and family that were whisked away… some that had been there for 50 years. The clearance itself was traumatic-in the midst of the monsoon season and oppressive in its brutal nature. The Indian state had overruled legislation prohibiting slum clearance during the wet season, sending nearly 300 Maharashtra officials in to execute the operation. No idling, no inquiry was tolerated. People were arrested for hovering around while the bulldozers did their thing, and despite local’s efforts to reach out to the media, there was no response, no interest, and no coverage leaving locals outraged and feeling helpless.

They were apparently cleared to provide access to the water pipe for maintenance and now that land sits vacant as rubble, off limits to thousands of people looking for a piece of land to carve out an existence. It felt like a demilitarization zone… and demilitarized being the “slumdwellers” as the soldiers of survival that evolved this piece of water pipe hinterland into a dynamic habitat, community and economy. But despite this destruction, some of the displaced return to Dharavi daily for work but incur the cost and time of a long commute.

To our delight however, and overshadowing the clearance, were the fruits of the strength and resolve of Dharavi. The art workshops that we began just over a year ago have blossomed, with ACORN volunteers steadily taking the program to an incredible level. The work of the students we once taught have matured steadily, and now the center is adorned with a wide range of impressive creative work. Materials are organized neatly and kids work quietly in their respective acts of creation. We give an applause to coordinator Anil and dedicated volunteers that keep the project going strong.
In all it was a bittersweet experience that remains to be continued.