The world’s largest slum in Mumbai, India, contained Covid-19 against all the odds. Now the people of Dharavi need to survive an economic catastrophe.

Normally, Khwaja Qureshi’s recycling facility in Dharavi, the slum in Mumbai, would be no place for three newborn tabby kittens. Before efforts to contain the novel coronavirus idled much of the Indian economy, the 350-square-foot concrete room was a hive of nonstop industry. Five workers were there 12 hours a day, seven days a week, dumping crushed water bottles, broken television casings, and discarded lunchboxes into a roaring iron shredder, then loading the resulting mix of plastic into jute sacks for sale to manufacturers. But during a recent visit, the shredder was silent and the workers gone, decamped to their villages in India’s north. That left the kittens plenty of space to gambol across the bare floor, nap on a comfortable cardboard box, or be amused by the neighborhood kids who came to visit.

Qureshi, a stout, thick-fingered man of 43 whose father founded the operation, mostly ignored his feline workplace companions. He’d been spending his days sitting on a plastic chair, drinking cup after cup of milk tea and chatting with other Dharavi entrepreneurs, all of them part of Mumbai’s fearsomely efficient but completely informal recycling industry, who stopped by to talk business. The consensus was pessimistic. India’s economy is in an historic slump, and less economic activity means fewer things being thrown away—and also less demand to make new products from the old. No one had much hope that things would pick up soon.

Khwaja Qureshi, a scrap factory owner whose work has come to a standstill because his workers were forced to flee for their lives during the lockdown, waits for them to return from their villages so his factory can resume work again. Dharavi, Mumbai. 17th July, 2020.

The irony is that Dharavi, which has a population of about 1 million and is probably the most densely packed human settlement on Earth, has largely contained the coronavirus. Thanks to an aggressive response by local officials and the active participation of residents, the slum has gone from what looked like an out-of-control outbreak in April and May to a late-September average of 1.3 cases per day for every 100,000 residents, compared with about 7 per 100,000 in Portugal. That success has made Dharavi an unlikely role model, its methods copied by epidemiologists elsewhere and singled out for praise by the World Health Organization. It’s also a remarkable contrast to the disaster unfolding in the rest of India. The country has recorded more than 6.5 million confirmed cases—putting it on track to soon overtake the U.S.—and over 103,000 deaths.

Dharavi’s economic calamity, however, may be just getting started. Its maze of tarpaulin tents and illegally built tenements and workshops have traditionally served as a commercial engine for all of Mumbai, a frenetic crossroads of exchange and entrepreneurship at the heart of India’s financial capital. Before the pandemic, it generated more than $1 billion a year in activity, providing a base for industries from pottery and leather-tanning to recycling and the garment trade. Deprivation abounded, but Dharavi could also be a social accelerator, allowing the poorest to begin their long climb to greater prosperity—and to joining the consumer class that powers the $3 trillion Indian economy. Qureshi’s own family is a case in point. His father was born in the hinterland to a poor tenant farmer but moved to Dharavi to work in a textile factory, getting into the recycling business after he realized the value of the plastic packaging that new spools of thread arrived in.

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