Dan McDougall reports from the chaos and filth of Dharavi in Mumbai, where a recycling industry is helping thousands claw a way out of poverty.
Men work at tanning goat skins in Dharavi – India’s largest slum. Photo: Adrian Fisk.
Wiping beads of sweat from his forehead, Mr Aziz stubs out a grubby cheroot on his counter and unwraps a glossy paan leaf the size of his palm. Holding it to his pockmarked face he inhales the aromatic betel nut paste inside. ‘I sell these as a stimulant to the local nightshift workers,’ he says. ‘I use them to escape the smell of this place.’
Around his tiny stall the unmistakable stench of ammonia and sewage hangs heavy over Apna Street, a packed industrial lane that dissects Mumbai’s labyrinthine Dharavi slum. The paan vendor looks out towards the Arabian Sea, as if wishing an ocean breeze would somehow blow the foul air west, out over Asia’s largest shantytown towards the desolate salt-pans and low-lying marshes encircling India’s most chaotic city.
A 175-hectare maze of impenetrable dark alleys and corrugated shacks, Dharavi swarms with more than a million residents. There is only one easy way into its true heart, according to local folklore – you follow the splotches of blood red betel juice, spat on to the muddy ground by Mr Aziz’s satisfied customers.