Mumbai’s Dharavi is one of the world’s largest slums and is home to roughly 1 million people since it was established in 1884. Dharavi was initially inhabited by fishermen and later extended to migrant workers from south Mumbai. The slum’s conditions are dire and inhabitants have suffered from the spread of numerous epidemics and diseases due to the lack of sanitation, drinking water, roads and basic healthcare services.
Despite its harsh economic and social conditions, Dharavi is close to Mumbai’s two main suburban rail lines, which has made commuting to work easier for workers. Over the years, Dharavi has also developed a large number of thriving small-scale industries that produce embroidered garments, quality leather goods, pottery and plastic. Furthermore, there are estimated to be 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories located within Dharavi, making it a prime entrepreneurial realm with potential revenue that can total anywhere from $700 million to $1 billion USD a year.
Many of these initiatives are undertaken by women living in the slums, many of whom have taken the lead and become the main breadwinners of their families. In fact, out of the 65,000 rural markets in India, almost 75% are run by women.
Renuka Shinde’s Story
One such example is Renuka Shinde, who was forced to take up the role of the breadwinner after her husband left her and their three sons. Renuka traveled to Kolkata from her home in Dharavi to buy handloom saris to start her small business. At the end of a month’s hard work, Renuka brings home Rs 3,000 or roughly $48 by selling saris and other garments around Mumbai. Renuka makes a profit of Rs12,000 ($200) a month and this tends to increase during Indian festivals such as Diwali and also during wedding seasons.
Pushpalata Chittikindi’s Story
Another example is Pushpalata Chittikindi, who is left to fend for her two sons in the absence of her alcoholic husband. Pushpalata started making metal buckles and sold them piece by piece to nearby factories in the neighborhood. The businesswoman also worked as a cook and cleaner in her spare time. Following the advice of her friends, Pushpalata took a loan to set up her machine but lacked financial knowledge and experience with banks. Pushpalata took the help of a local NGO that gave out small loans to support local women.
With help from the NGO, Pushpalata started making Rs 250, about $4, per day. The businesswoman later pivoted to buying biscuits and snacks from wholesale stores and selling them from her home to nearby school kids. With the money she earned, Pushalata was able to pay off her loans in a year and rented a small store nearby, which she later named after her son, Sagar.
Women in Poverty
The biggest challenge to women looking to follow in the footsteps of Renuka and Pushpalata is access to credit – a first step to overcoming their financial struggles. In India, the poverty rate for women ages 25 to 34 was roughly 12% in 2020 and is said to increase to 14% following the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, Indian men in poverty are roughly 100 men to every 120 women in poverty. The statistics highlight that there is disparity even within the parameters of poverty and that Indian women need support and guidance in their economic endeavors.
Addressing Credit Challenges
Thanks to the Vandana Foundation, an organization that provides low-interest micro-loans to female entrepreneurs in Dharavi, this challenge has become easier to overcome. In addition to the Vandana Foundation, many other NGOs such as the Light of Life Trust, Human Capital For Third Sector and Catalyst For Social Action, also play a big role to support India’s entrepreneurs and inhabitants.
A Take-away from Dharavi
The story of these women stands to show that although we tend to underestimate the power of small-scale local entrepreneurs, they are capable of making a considerable impact. If given the opportunity and starting resources, people have the power to change their financial circumstances and thus their lives, even in slums like Dharavi. There are hidden markets similar to the ones in Dharavi all over the world. By understanding where the opportunities lie and how to best support them, we can help people to help themselves and their communities.
– Samyudha Rajesh