It is widely known that Dharavi is an active manufacturing hub. Industries, operating from thousands of tool-Houses, have been manufacturing goods for the local and global markets for decades. It supplies the leather industry with export quality goods. It supplies processed food and garments for sale to local and regional markets. Its well organised recycling industry ensures that most of the plastic produced by the city finds a new use.
The most obvious question in today’s pandemic inflicted times is this; can’t the potential of such a neighbourhood be harnessed to produce masks and other equipment and products that are in high demand at the moment?
The answer is both yes and no. Dharavi has the capacity. But it can’t do this on a large scale without systematic support and a recognition of its capacity. Dharavi’s home-scale manufacturing units have the potential to respond quickly to clients' needs. The neighbourhood can produce masks ranging from simple ones for personal use to medical grade ones for professional purposes, face shields, gowns, and gloves. It could even produce hand sanitizer and soap. They have proved this in the case of the present crisis. Diverting resources at hand to produce much needed masks for the local population did happen on a small scale. Unfortunately, the process was accompanied by uncertainty, fear and prejudice.
The masks, a thousand of them, were made on an experimental basis by a family from Dharavi. They could not do this openly. Nor are they expecting a repeat order. The reason? They fear a backlash by the authorities in the absence of an authorised license for manufacturing masks. People from Dharavi have been harassed in the past for producing something they were not licensed to do. Even though they had the skills capacity and the tools. Even the thousand masks they made could not be easily transported to a key distributor in Dharavi - because of the fear of the authorities.
The masks may not be of a personal protective equipment (PPE) standard, but would have been better than no protection at all for the general population. Families who make products such as school bags, sanitary napkins and other products can easily churn out much needed masks. Such businesses are willing to contribute to a national, even global effort to fight the pandemic. But they were not encouraged to do so - in fact quite the opposite.
Many families are in dire need of income to sustain themselves. Instead of giving them the opportunity to build on existing resources and directing it to produce masks, city authorities made it difficult. All they had to do was to encourage home-based, family managed units - which were already complying to the needs of self-isolation and quarantines. Additionally, pick-ups and distribution networks could have been organised to deliver this essential commodity.
Such an immediate response to the need for masks is something that larger machineries of the state and even developed countries are struggling to meet. The USA is having to rely on large scale manufacturing units from China to supply masks for medical staff in bulk. European countries are trading masks within the EU as new hot-spots have emerged. Governments are now encouraging decentralized production systems to reduce the pressure on manufacturers of medical supplies. The USA has issued guidelines to make DIY masks. These can be made of recycled T-shirts or other cotton cloth. In Switzerland, 6 handcrafted reusable triple cotton masks are sold for CHF 40 (Rs 3000). The masks made in Dharavi are highly affordable, with a manufacturing cost of Rs.10/piece.
In India, the need for a mammoth production of masks is obvious, however, a centralised supply chain cannot cope with this demand. Immediately after the first few cases of COVID-19, cities started running out of masks and hand sanitizers. Even hospitals are running low on personal protective equipment. Relying on centralised, standardised mask production will not meet the needs of millions, it would be prudent to encourage people to opt for home based production of the masks for common use.
In states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the government is supporting the manufacturing of masks at all scales. Self-organised women's groups, like Kudumbshree, are expanding their operations to produce masks. The state prisons are also being converted to mask manufacturing hubs, engaging prisoners to help make masks.
Dharavi residents unfortunately, even those who are making masks on a small scale, are hesitant to be open about it. Besides concerns around licensing issues, they fear that their masks may end up being stigmatized, thanks to the pervasive vilification of informal settlements as unhygienic. They fear that people will refuse to buy masks made in Dharavi. This is not a baseless sentiment. A few well-intentioned manufacturing set-ups in the neighbourhood have actually had to shut down due to the stigma. But if we are willing to wear masks made by prisoners, why can’t we get them from the same workshops that produce the Papadum we consume all over the city or the shirts that we wear?
It is time we legitimised modes of production in Dharavi and asked ourselves why, even in times of medical emergencies, we refuse to recognize the potential and opportunities staring at us in our face?