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Dharavi, The Dalai Lama, And Striving For Abundance Without Attachment

 Asim, our Operations Manager in Mumbai, traveled to Dharamsala along with three Dharavi businessmen to sit with the Dalai Lama on a panel discussion about enterprise and poverty.

I was recently invited to Dharamsala along with three entrepreneurs from Dharavi to sit on a panel discussion organized by American Enterprise Institute. Abundance without Attachment was the theme of the program. They wanted to discuss about enterprise and poverty, and how to lift people up. There were around 50 people present in the room and they were interested in hearing our stories from Dharavi.

Yusuf Galwani, a potter and teacher from Dharavi, was the first speaker and he shared his family’s history. They are from Kutch district in Gujrat, one of those places in India which is frequently affected by droughts. It was during one of the draughts when his grandfather had to move from their rural village to the city of Mumbai. He found accommodation in Dharavi’s Kumbharwada (potter’s colony) neighborhood where they had a few relatives already living. As soon he arrived, Yusuf’s grandfather asked for some food – he hadn’t eaten for 3 days. His relative offered him some leftover food, food which is often given to beggars. He refused to have it. After some time he asked for a wheel from some other relatives and they gave him a wheel which they didn’t use any more. With the wheel Yusuf’s grandfather made some fine pottery which he sold in the market. Finally earning some money, he bought some food and was able to eat in great satisfaction because it wasn’t food which was offered by pity but was food earned by working hard.

“The hardworking people of Dharavi have transformed it from a desert to an oasis.”

His grandfather carried on with the pottery business continuously passing the trade down to his son and grandson. In his prime, he accomplished making 200 kilograms of pottery in one day which is more than the world record holder in China (who can make 150 kilograms). He eventually started teaching in JJ College of Arts and later in few more art colleges. It is indeed a proud moment for everyone in Dharavi that someone from here teaches in some elite art intuitions in Mumbai.

Yusuf Meeting with the Dalai Lama
Yusuf Meeting with the Dalai Lama

Once Yusuf was finished, Murti Ramaswamy, who has a water purification business in Dharavi, spoke. He surprised everyone by deciding to only speak in English. He told us about how proud he felt about his water purification business and how it satisfies the locals of Dharavi. Giving them pure water to drink is appreciated by one and all. Murti explained how he grew up in Dharavi how challenging it can be. Dharavi may be pleasant to its people during certain parts of the year but it’s not so pleasant during other times, like monsoon season. During the monsoon, most of the time the rain water covers the small and narrow alleys which means that the water pipes are also covered. The rainwater makes its way into the pipes because of leakage. As you can imagine, it is a difficult and dangerous time of the year. Murti has witnessed a lot of people affected by polluted water: he saw people losing their lives because they drank polluted water and got cholera or diarrhea. This made a huge impact on his young mind. Murti runs his water purification business to help with this problem. He is also strongly motivated because he wants to support his children’s education. Murti explained to us how he didn’t get the opportunity to have an education and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen with his children.

Murti Meeting with the Dalai Lama
Murti Meeting with the Dalai Lama

The third speaker, Akram Shah, spoke about the government’s failure in providing basic amenities to the locals. But despite this, he says, the hardworking people of Dharavi have transformed it from a desert to an oasis.

Akram is a budding entrepreneur: he runs a tailoring shop in Dharavi. The business is quite seasonal, he provides new clothes for festivals from Ganesh Chaturti and Diwali to Christmas. These few festival months are profitable but some opportunities need to be let go due to insufficient capital. This is an issue that hundreds of tailors face in Dharavi. Akram explained that he can survive this market by sometimes partnering with other tailors and otherwise doing small orders throughout the year.

Akram Speaking during the Panel
Akram Speaking during the Panel

 Akram then discussed his difficulties accessing public services. This is not uncommon in Dharavi and other slums; many citizens have problems accessing these services. He illustrated this point with an example. Recently both his son and daughter contracted dengue, which is a serious problem in slums. Akram took his children to the hospital and his son got a bed on the fifth floor and his daughter on second floor. But the staff, as is all too common, ignored him until they got a bribe. But why should he pay them extra when the governmet already pays them proper wages? Akram had to continuously rush up and down those stairs one hundred times a day to look after his two kids. The experience left him very frustrated with public services and helped him make is concluding point: Dharavi is made by the locals, and they take care of themselves. If the government supported them more it could be a really good place.

 “Modern education is not adequate to shape happy individuals living in happy families in a happy nation because there is too much focus on materialism.”

When it was my turn to speak, I mainly spoke about the sense of community in Dharavi and how people are running their day to day lives. Continuing Akram’s point, I explained that people in here look after themselves and try to get an education to ensure they can live a good life. I also shared my personal story of how I was able to get an education in a good school despite coming from a poor background. This was possible because my mother took up tailoring work to earn extra money to save for my education. I became the first kid to go to the private school from my area. Her example helped more children from my neighborhood go to this school. Today, around 80% of kids from my area go to that school. My daughter, Ayesha, will go to school in the coming year and I hope she will go to a better school than mine.


Asim Speaking
Here I am during my part of the panel discussion.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, after listening to the representatives of Dharavi, said that he felt the sense of community which lives in every heart of the people in Dharavi. He also talked about the amount of enterprise there and how the people are striving every day with the common hope to make their future brighter.

He also discussed inner peace and materialism: “I often point out that existing modern education is not adequate to shape happy individuals living in happy families in a happy nation because there is too much focus on materialism. In the West people are affluent, but are beginning to realize that having inner peace is more important. Because no one religious tradition can have universal appeal, we need to adopt a secular ethics, a sense of respect for all spiritual traditions and even for the views of those who follow none.”

His Holiness left us with a few words of wisdom about compassion: Compassion can take two forms. The first is very natural, compassion towards our friends and relatives. This is limited and biased compassion but it could be the beginning of something bigger by extending our compassion by involving others. A genuine concern for the wellbeing of others without discrimination is real compassion and humans have a gift for developing it.

This experience was a very proud moment in my life and one that I will never forget. I would like to thank my colleagues at Reality Group for choosing me and trusting me to meet His Holiness Dalai Lama and represent our organization. My favorite moment was when I made His Holiness laugh. I told him about when I left to visit Germany earlier this year, my first trip to Europe, 70 people from my neighborhood saw me off at the airport! Seeing His Holiness break down in laughter and become very happy, felt really good and I think at that moment he really understood the sense of community that we have in slums.

Asim and 3 Dharavi based entrepreneurs
“This experience was a very proud moment in my life and one that I will never forget.”