"No, Nora. We don't care about the chemicals here in the water as long we have work." said Sunil when he walked me through Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia. I was in Bombay on my search of the strongest need of the people in fashion industries. Sunil is raised in the Slums and knows a lot a lot about it. The minute we met we couldn't stop talking, discussing global politics, economies and what it is that makes our world following such unfair systems.
In fact it is money.
Most of the workers in the industries of the slums are migrants. Young boys from different states of India, who send money home to their families. For that they accept a lot of harm. "You know, Nora, I think it is good that those boys work here. They might have failed somewhere else and they don't have anything else to do." That's a perspective I never looked at.
We passed some dying manufactures and many recycling businesses for plastic, paper, iron, aluminum, batteries and many more. And it is true that the workplaces in the fashion industry actually look the best, just because they are less dirty.
"Nora, you know that they sleep where they work, right?" I nod my head standing in front of a paper recycling house.
It's full of paper and a dense fog is hanging in the room. The floor leaves space for maybe two mattress or four thin indian guys. The house we stand in front of is one of the bigger ones. But we just came out of a place where they recycle car motors with iron splitters on the ground and in the air, so shockingly this is actually an improvement. I swallow and nod my head again "Yes. I know that. I have heard about that."
The streets are incredibly tiny and you have to watch your feet in order not to fall in the water which is running under/next to the loose stone plates on the ground. The water is purple and foamy.
You also have to watch your head to not touch all the cables which are hanging not to far above your head. And of course everywhere is trash and dirt. Old bananas, brown spill from the snooze and also a lot of old underwear and other kind of the left overs of food. The rest of the trash is what they are working with - they recycle; recycling is probably the dirtiest business in the slums.
80% of the recycling done in the slums comes from frogein countries. I wonder if any campaign like Fashion Revolution is fighting for the recycling industry.
All of the clothes productions I see here in Dharavi are for local brands and not for the international market.
It comes clear to me that even if the big brands have stopped producing in the slums in order to improve working conditions in clothing production, it doesn't mean that people in the slums have a better life. "We want any job we can get. I don't think that Fashion Revolution helps us when they fight for better working conditions" says Sunil, who has never heard about Fashion Revolution. But like any other Indian I met so far he is confused why I as a German care about how my clothes have been made.
We keep on walking and walk the Ally's of Dharavi, which are incredible dark, dirty and small (I at a height of 1.66 meters couldn't stand upright in these streets). This is where the families live, 48% of the people in the slums live on less then 110 square feet. I look inside a house with an open door and see a women sewing on a sewing machine on a tiny table, behind her sits another women on a plastic chair. She stretches her legs, which fills out the last free space in this room. Next to the little table is a ladder which leads upstairs to another level in the same size. In places like this live entire families.
We end up at a field, which is actually just a lot of dirt and trash, but there are many kids playing and women and old men sitting around chatting. Little boys play cricket with old cricket sticks and two little girls come constantly to me giggling saying "Hello" giving me high fives.
If it was not for the smell, the atmosphere of this place in the sunset would be very nice and peaceful. But I still feel the shock of the dark and tiny alleys, which people who don't live at their workplace call their home.
Many people in Dharavi are Moslems, so that most women you see wear a Burka and men a little hat.
We walk a little further and see a jeans production with a guy, who might have been not elder than twelve, running all the machines himself. In the corner sat an elder guy on a sewing machine. He was cutting jeans, I wanted to talk to the people but they seemed so busy that they didn't want to be disturbed. Sunil just took me around the corner and brought me to the leather production. "The leather production is very good quality here in Dharavi. They make the leather for Woodland, or I think you call it Timberland."
I look at a street in which it looks like it is snowing. The machines which press and cut the leather splitter millions of little white leather pieces in the air. In front of those machines stand one or three very muscular people pulling and pushing the leather through.
I spot a little shop in between all these garages, which is a weird thing to see here. This shop has a door, light and air condition. We enter and I meet Imran, who runs the leather industry with his family here in Dharavi.
The shop is full of wonderful bags in all kinds of leather. I am stunned.
"We just started our own brand called Dharavi. We used to make fake brands, but I was not happy with that and people kept on asking me why we don't make our own brand. Everybody knows how great the leather from Dharavi is. Lonely planet says so.", he laughs.
Imran is another stunning character I met, he tells me about his ambitions with Dharavi. "We have an english friend who wants to sell these bags on the english online market, because clearly here in Mumbai or India noone wants to wear a bag with the label Dharavi."
I instantly like Imran and I sit down and we start talking. Sunil already told me that he tried to open a business once. The production was no problem for him, but he didn't know anyone - so no one would buy from him. Imran tells me his story: "We started this label on the 24th of December, one day before Prophet Mohammed's birthday." He smiles, "I am born here and I love Dharavi. I wanted to make something good from here and also bring some good to the people here."
I smile. It's a smile of hope. It's great how Imran sees Dharavi. He turns the slum into a brand and deals with a specialty from there: leather. It's high quality and something Dharavi is famous for. Imran saw the strength in Dharavi and its work, so it's a great idea to turn it in a brand instead to work for others only.
I talk with Imran and his family until it gets dark, we exchange contact details and Sunil walks me out. Sunil and I say good bye and I ask him: "Do you go back in there?" "Yes." "Do you also live in an alley?" "Yes, Nora, my house also is in an alley." I think back at this tiny dark roads and the super small houses. Sunil smiles "I am happy to have shown you this today. Now you understand."