AT a nationalised bank’s Customer Service Provider counters in Dharavi, there would be long queues of migrant labourers waiting to send money home. The CSP counters, run by small businesses in the 600-acre sprawl of Asia’s largest slum, are still functional, but the number of such workers has shrunk measurably since demonetisation in 2016.
One of these counters is located right across Sabir Warsi’s office-store called Karat, from where he supplies sheets of tanned leather sourced from Kanpur. His business is down 80 per cent since 2016 after the twin blows of demonetisation and the imposition of GST, a period that he calls recessionary for all of Dharavi’s businesses, estimated to number around 7,000, not including the thousands of sweatshops that offer services ranging from completed garments, button-making, dyeing, cutting, hand-embroidery and packaging to every other industry associated with leather goods and garments manufacturing. Follow more election news here.
In his 40s, Warsi came to Dharavi two decades ago, leaving behind joblessness in UP’s Najibabad. He worked for years in Dharavi’s Chamda Bazar (leather market) area to build a business supplying raw hide. “The beef ban brought business to a crawl, and then demonetisation was the final blow,” he says. After demonetisation, he started afresh, this time supplying tanned leather sourced from Kanpur. But as leather goods manufacturers in Dharavi reassessed business models after GST — leather goods attract an 18 per cent levy — he is yet to see a profitable month, he says.
“I have inventory worth about Rs 7 lakh to Rs 8 lakh, and large sums due to me from previous sales. Things are looking bleaker than ever,” says the father of four school-going kids.
Those in Dharavi’s leather goods sector say retrenchments have hit a high in the last two months as bulk orders for corporate gifts dried up ahead of election’s wait-and-watch season.
The slowdown across sectors means labour, already inexpensive in Dharavi, is further under-valued. “I had employed four men,” says Farman Ansari, who recently shut down his tailoring unit. “I managed to find them work elsewhere, but where the payment per shirt was Rs 13, it’s now Rs 10; if some other item was Rs 6 per unit then now it’s Rs 4.”
Ansari’s father, a hawker who sold Dharavi-manufactured shirts outside the Chembur railway station, is now at home, having sacked two boys who helped at his stall. Shirts and T-shirts, and especially dazzling white shirts, were until recently almost ubiquitous at hawkers’ stalls outside all major railway stations in Mumbai. “That business has almost shut. Manufacturing has stopped, labourers have had to work for less, boys employed by hawkers are jobless,” says Ansari.
At Mudeeb Leather, a retailer of handbags and nattily designed jackets, proprietor Musheer Ahmed Shaikh says business never turned around from the losses that began with demonetisation, and he’s still witnessing 50 per cent of volumes he had before November 2016. Where he had eight units of three to eight employees, he’s down to four units.
Industry in Dharavi has had an exalted status for years, the clanking and whirring of its sewing machines and recycling units the background score for many films set in this overcrowded, dank home of hundreds of success stories. “That seems to be changing fast,” says Raju Korde, who set up the Dharavi Bachao Samiti nearly two decades ago to contest a government-designed makeover for the slum, involving tearing down the 60,000 shanties to make way for multi-storey towers. “Labourers from southern states appeared to have something for them back home after demonetisation, but the poorest of the poor who run Dharavi’s industries have stayed back because there’s nothing to do at home in UP.”
Korde, a trained lawyer who also writes leave and licence agreements for scores of Dharavi’s units, says unit owners haven’t been able to raise rentals since the end of 2016, a first.
In 2014, riding the Modi wave, Shiv Sena candidate Rahul Shewale had won a lead from Dharavi too, one of the six Assembly segments of the Mumbai South-Central Lok Sabha seat. He had beaten two-term Congress MP Eknath Gaikwad from Mumbai South-Central by well over 1 lakh votes. Gaikwad is contesting again.
Warsi says Shewale is unlikely to repeat his performance from Dharavi. “Businesses and labourers here feel work will get back on track if the Congress comes to power,” he says.
Shewale, a former municipal corporator who enjoys support in the Chembur area, could suffer on account of Dalit anger in Chembur, Dharavi and Anushakti Nagar too. In addition, the large Muslim population of Dharavi and the non-Maharashtrian Hindus who supported the Sena candidate in 2014 will reconsider their choices now, says Korde.
Shewale, who has earlier raised the grievances of Dharavi’s leather industry in Lok Sabha, said the Dharavi Redevelopment Project would delineate space for small industries. “In the immediate term, we’re setting up a platform called Made In Dharavi to address the problems of all industries,” he said, while acknowledging that there’s resentment among the people of Dharavi.
While Dharavi’s poor face an unprecedented job and business crisis, the somewhat prosperous unit owners are not faring better. Gulzar Khan, a jeans trader, is owed Rs 1.2 lakh for goods he supplied. “I have only managed to get Rs 8,000 in payments,” he says as Warsi adds that actually makes him a “lucky man”.
Others are simply extending credit, as Dharavi’s downturn drags on.