Data Collection on livelihoods in the slums

Initial Report

Prof B.K.Chakravarthy ,
Rohan Karpe ,Utpala Wandhare ,Dipti Panesar

IDC IIT Bombay, Mumbai 400076,India


The Urban Opportunity project, a research initiative of Institute of Design, IIT Chicago, has provided the scope for adopting a collaborative  approach of working between ID Chicago, IIT Bombay and non-governmental organizations like the Society for Human and Environmental Development (S.H.E.D) in Mumbai.  This collaborative approach has enabled the acquisition of true and valuable insights on the livelihoods in city slums.

The active participation by the S.H.E.D, Mumbai, working in the area of slum rehabilitation, has  enriched the task of data collection due to its close proximity and association with slum residents in the Dharavi area of Mumbai city. It has a unique position in providing valuable support to the Urban Opportunity Project owing to its direct efforts on improving the living conditions of people residing within urban slums by active community involvement through mobilization of various slum groups and numerous outreach programs on education, health and nutrition, and women’s empowerment.

The activities envisaged for IDC in the Urban Opportunity Project can be categorized into three areas

  1. Data collection through student and faculty conducted research.
  2. Triggering Design Intervention through analysis of knowledge gathered by data collection
  3. Prototyping of Design concepts that are conceived through the Project.

The data collection phase has been taken up to gather information about the social structure of a slum; how it functions on a day-to-day basis and becomes a means of livelihood for its inhabitants.  The procedure adopted for research is as follows:

  1. Observing daily life and various livelihoods.
  2. Selection of 3-4 livelihoods for initial analysis and study.
  3. Conducting qualitative interviews with slum dwellers.
  4. Documentation through video and still images.
  5. Analysis to help design intervention .

The task of data collection concentrated on understanding the livelihoods from the viewpoint of the slum residents. Insights  have been gained in relation to their daily routines, cultural influences, survival strategies, opinions on self and economic progress and their significant contribution to society. Responses to these questions through gestures, emotions and language have been documented.

Slum as a “solution”

Slums have been perceived as a “problem” or a hindrance that needs to be solved, but its residents view these very slums as a solution to the problems of shelter ,amenities and employment in large cities. Initial observations undertaken at Dharavi in the city of Mumbai indicated that slums function as autonomous, self-sufficient social structures capable of providing low cost services to the society at large.

Livelihoods in Slums

Every individual that resides inside a slum is employed in some constructive activity or the other. These activities bring income to the individual’s household and provide sustenance to the members of his or her family. Some residents work within the slum area whilst others go outside it to earn a living. Individuals that cater to the needs of the slum residents generally utilize the facilities available within the slum precinct. Some slum dwellers provide service to the “outside world” depending on the specific type of skills they possess.

The classification of livelihoods as – internal livelihood and external livelihood, has been done based on the above observations. Internal livelihood is the outcome of services rendered by slum dwellers to residents of the slum itself. Individuals such as a barber, launderer, vegetable vendor, repairman are included in this category since they earn their living without needing to venture outside their immediate surroundings.

A Vegetable Vendor in the Slum

A Barber Shop in the Slum

External livelihood is the outcome of services rendered by slum residents in workplaces situated outside the slum environs, thus requiring them to commute often. But sometimes these workplaces are situated close to the slum areas. Individuals such as mill and factory workers, auto mechanics, delivery boys, taxi drivers, housekeepers ,vendors for shoe polish and snacks etc are included in this mode of livelihood.

A shoe polisher at the Railway station

A snacks vendor at a Railway Station

Slum Housing Structures

The residents are poor from the city or migrants from rural areas who try to recreate a rustic ambience in the slum. For example in the earthen pot making community the open courtyard of the house is used for making and drying the wares. Moreover, eating habits and cultural practices are also followed religiously here.

Due to very high population density within the slum there exists a harmonious interdependence between its residents that results in sharing of scarce slum resources.

Slums represent a series of tradeoffs as illustrated through a table of comparison below. 


Poor hygienic living conditions

Closer proximity to jobs and markets

Poor housing infrastructure

Extremely affordable means of housing

Low salary jobs

Lack of Jobs

Inadequate infrastructure support

Low overhead cost

Housing inside slums takes the form of makeshift shacks, hutments and  brick and mortar single room spaces depending on how much money one is able to spend. Dharavi is an expansive slum with many closely spaced dwellings. Owing to such space constraints, one will find many two storeyed housing structures. Often such spaces also double as working areas. Single families with members ranging from 2 to 5 inhabit such accommodations.

A street in the slum

Living above the work place

Hand embroidery on garments for export

Same place for home and work

Bachelor men mostly occupy housing spaces on shared accommodation basis. These men are single or married, of rural background who come to the city of Mumbai in search of work and livelihood. Such living quarters get regularly overcrowded as they provide shelter to more than 15 persons at extremely affordable prices.

Slum based Manufacturing

Slums like Dharavi have a variety of  manufacturing activity largely because they provide a very low cost option . There are warehouses, workshops and manufacturing houses for a variety of  products.  The finished products are on display for sale both at the place of manufacture as well as shops on the outskirts of the slum. Unfortunately these shops are usually inaccessible to the general populace; hence it makes good business sense for them to build a sound business through links with dealers and trading houses.

Product Costing and Operations

Owing to the scenario presented above, there exists a large disparity in prices of products manufactured and sold in slums as against the same products manufactured and sold elsewhere. In fact the difference in cost is so significant that even Up-market stores situated in posh urban localities would prefer stocking some of these products as they are hand made and command notable market acceptance.

The product, bought at a low rate from vendors in the slum areas, is sold in the up-market store at approximately three times the original price. Assume that a product manufactured in the slum is priced at Rupees X. A dealer would buy this produce from the slum dwellers and sell it off to the Up-market shop for a price of 2X. In turn, the Up-market shop would sell the goods to their customers at approximately 4X.

In the above transaction, three individuals can be distinctly identified. First is the slum worker who produces these goods. Second is the dealer  who buys the goods from the slum dweller after ensuring good quality and some times investing in the raw material . And third is the person running the up-market shop who buys from the dealer .

The slum worker  is chiefly engaged in production of goods; he possesses little awareness of the market opportunity and does not comprehend the significance of quality and cannot make investment to buy raw materials. The dealer ensures that the quality of the goods bought from the slum worker exhibit excellent workmanship and good finish. He is also responsible for the safe transportation of these goods to the premises of the up-market shops

The people running the up market shops procure the finished high quality goods from the dealers and sell them to their customers. They invest heavily in creating a shopping ambience that would prompt its customers to buy goods. These shops accept goods in two ways. One being outright purchases, that is direct procurement of high quality goods from dealers or  product exhibitions and trade shows. The other being procurement of goods on consignment basis through dealers to whom payments are made only after the goods are delivered and some times this spans to months.

There is certainly a large market for handmade goods developed in the slum but these goods are expected to be low cost and any intervention ought to keep this advantageous position in mind.

Cost Advantages of Slums

The slum environment is competitive and cost effective because of various factors. A slum dweller’s life and work are intricately linked. Plus, the cost of living within the slum is extremely low. The unstructured, unchecked existence and development of slums within large cities has inherently gives rise to advantages like non taxable services, water and power supply, absence of land lease levy and extremely low or negligible infrastructural costs.

The cost of shelter, amenities and food  fit into an equation that represents the state of a slum. If the cost of living in the slum were to increase, there would be a corresponding increase in the cost of manufactured goods from the slums. Such a scenario would make it difficult for them  to be a competitive.

A leather shop in Dharavi


Benefit of technology to Slum businesses

An example of good technology intervention in the lives of slum residents here is the acceptance of mobile phones for business. Indian Telecom major, Reliance Infocom has employed its Reliance IndiaMobile (RIM) services to reassert its leadership role in redefining mobile telephony in India. By offering CDMA cell phone technology at extremely affordable prices, slum dwellers are witnessing tangible returns in their day-to-day business transactions. Facilitating payments on installment basis, and giving loan options, owning a mobile phone is being seen as an extremely wise investment by slum residents. The costs incurred are as low as US $10 per month inclusive of the instrument charges.

Technology intervention by way of mobile phones owing to their very economical rates illustrates how slum livelihoods were benefited due to efficient communication and direct selling. This appears to be a sustainable solution.

The task of uplifting slum based livelihoods using design intervention presents a great  challenge since the current slum operative structure  flourishes largely due to the inherent advantages arising from its present existence. So far, intervention has generally taken the route of liberal donations through which external agencies provide changes where in  the slum residents do not bear the costs. Changes such as making better housing schemes by the government, provision of cooking gas, potable water etc need to be studied to see if it could come up as a sustainable solution.