COMING CLEAN IN DHARAVI

Right in the middle of the muck and dross in this suburb, exists the WHO-certified Ideal Trading Company, exporter of sutures

RISHI MAJUMDER

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Abdul Baqua, at his factory


“Around 15,000 people surrounded the Koli basti nearby to burn it. I went with DCP Yadav and climbed atop his jeep. I clasped my hands together and said, ‘Just two things. If you want to burn Dharavi, please burn me as well. I want to die here’.”
Seventy-seven-year-old Abdul Baqua’s voice breaks as he recounts this incident from the ‘92-’93 riots, and a stream of tears course down his face. In a few months time, he’ll shift his factory from Dharavi to Ambarnath, which he’s hoping to build sans financial aid, with the help of a bank loan. The government needs his land for the Dharavi Rehabilitation Programme. Baqua’s Ideal Trading Company, manufactures sutures (used for medical stitches and to attach meat sausages to one another) for export to Japan, Europe and South Africa. His clinically clean factory is certified as per EU and WHO standards, despite being located in the midst of Dharavi’s open gutters and unattended garbage dumps.
Baqua flaunts photographs of a team comprising doctors and officials from the Agriculture And Processed Food Products Export Development Authority inspecting his factory for these certifications in 1997: “They were impressed with the standard of hygiene. We were lucky they only visited Dharavi till where our factory is located. Touring the whole of Dharavi might have forced them to think otherwise.”
Business is down now, because his foreign clients don’t want to place orders till the factory’s location is certain. Still, four workers in a 500 square feet room reeking of phenyl sort the sutures as per diameter, washing off the slime. Large windows are screened to prevent dust or smoke entering the room. Hence the walls, though faded aren’t blackened. The sutures (originally
goat or sheep intestine) are then mixed with salt and stored in plastic barrels in a godown below. This room and the godown is the entire factory.
Baqua came to Dharavi from his village in UP, at age 13 to earn and support his family. He mastered the sutures trade in a friend’s Coimbatore factory, before setting his own in Mumbai. An Italian exporter then took him on as partner to form Ideal Trading Company with a Dharavi factory, but left India soon after, leaving Baqua only with an international address book of suture importers. Inducting his brother, Kalim Shoaib into the business, they approached each contact till a Japanese company asked them for 2,00,000 yards of sutures, as mere sample. “It was a huge risk, but we sent it,” Shoaib remembers, recounting how they then invited delegates to Mumbai, paying for their conveyance and stay in the Taj so they could inspect their factory. A nod from this company was the culmination of Baqua’s long struggle,
with many international orders following.
Moving to Ambernath means added transport cost for their raw material, thus pushing their prices up, and granting an advantage to already competing Chinese suture manufacturers. It also means laying off most of their 30-odd workers (some women) who won’t be able to afford the daily commute. But Baqua speaks on the effect of rehabilitation on Dharavi at large: “Will the disruption of all these lives and livelihoods be compensated adequately?”
Baqua’s unit, like every such in Dharavi resembles Japan’s matchbox factories which utilise each square inch. Even homes are used or let out for work, with one table being enough to start an enterprise. A rough estimate of the productivity of these unrecognised industries was stated at over Rs 5000 crores. Much of this amount is earned from export, bringing foreign exchange into the country. By these criteria, Dharavi attained the status of SEZ — which everyone’s screaming for today — many years ago. A decline in crime rate post the Vardharajan era, has seen the area become only as unsafe as certain pockets of Juhu, or Bandra.
The only thing that prevents Dharavi’s recognition as an industrial estate then, is the dirt. Besides the fact that companies like Baqua’s have constantly overcome this constraint, the larger problem of filth in Dharavi could be solved by reconstruction, with proper drainage and road facility from the BMC. “Japan’s factories are as crowded and congested, but they are located in clean areas,” Baqua points out. He also points out that most banks in Japan claim interest on their loans only after the entrepreneur sets up his unit, unlike Indian banks which, despite being ‘nationalised’, bleed the poor aspiring entrepreneur without giving him a chance. Baqua talks Tokyo, even as the government cites Shanghai. But the former, strangely, seems far closer to Dharavi’s definition.

Baqua's factory entrance

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/ejht

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