Dharavi’s small-time manufacturer Mustaqueem, a supplier to Wal Mart, brings hope to the unemployed in the suburb


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Mustaqueem at one of his Dharavi units

At a factory near the T junction on Mahim highway, we watch Mustaqueem carefully sort mint leaves to flavour our liquor teas, made painstakingly to order. “When I came to this city at age 13 to work, I was not paid for the first four months,” he remembers. His work, at a Kamathipura garments factory, consisted of serving tea, besides cleaning the factory, washing the machines and carrying orders to places from 7 am till after midnight. This was when, after the workers left, he would be allowed to learn how to work a machine for half an hour. He slept on the road outside the factory. His meal consisted of roti and salan, from a nearby restaurant or home. After becoming a paid worker, he branched out on his own at age 16 with two sewing machines in a relative’s hutment at Dharavi.
Today, Mustaqueem runs 12 manufacturing units (including sister concerns of the parent company) in Dharavi. Seven of them, owned by him, comprise 3200 square feet of space each. The unit we are on, on rented area, stretches to 8000 square feet. He employs 900 people. All his garments, mostly feminine tops, skirts
and capris, are exported to the US, and sold by names like MKM and Burlington. He earlier supplied goods to K Mart and Wal Mart as well, but discontinued because they were “too inconsistent with their order quotations”.
How did he get here? Mustaqueem’s eyes, study us even as he talks, with piercing intelligence. Having stood first in every class till class VI, his principal and relatives went into mourning when he had to quit studies to earn for family. But once on the job, the same intelligence prompted him to learn his trade quickly. Also radiating from his eyes is quiet confidence. As a worker he elicited many guffaws from his seniors when he proclaimed that he’d have his own factory someday. Their rejoinder was: “We’ll work for you!” Which they did eventually. He wasn’t let down when his friends dissuaded him from deliberating on exports. Yet this confidence is tempered by a strong faith in God. He says, “There are many more talented than me. I’ve succeeded because Allah has honoured me.”
But that is every successful entrepreneur’s story. What distinguishes Mustaqueem is what surrounds him. Workers as well as managers employed in his factories are taken on by Mus
taqueem not on the basis of degrees, but on their ability to read. This approach is reminiscent of another man who rose from the garments trade, Dhirubai Ambani. He had hired a clerk, Indu Sheth, to spearhead his export strategy; a petroleum product salesman, Natwarlal Sanghvi, as his marketing manager; and an auto parts salesman as his knitting manager. These men went on to be counted among India’s best business brains. Also reeking of this approach is the modus operandi of Sam Walton, whose company till recently was Mustaqueem’s customer.
‘Mustaqueeem Seth’ in Dharavi is a respected name. He helps many with problems ranging from those with the municipal corporation to healthcare. He is a man known well by the police, government officials and politicians. But his decision to continue to centre his business here stems from beyond this ring of influence. Through his own past, he understands a talent pool of Indian youth that is unable to obtain MBA, CA or CFA degrees. And that pool, hired as worker and inching towards ‘supervisor’, ‘manager’ and then ‘owner’, understand ‘Mustaqueem Seth’ through their present… and longingly, through their future.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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