A Journey Inside a Mumbai Slum

Adventure rating 2

I’m going to ask you to challenge your perceptions. What do you immediately think of when you hear the word ‘slum’?

Really think about it for a minute. Do you think of poverty? Of filth and squalour and poor sanitation? Of people living in desperation and misery? I’m ashamed to admit that before my visit to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, this is exactly what I pictured.

Define and conquer

A good place to start is to actually define the word ‘slum’. Officially the term for a piece of land which is owned by the government and illegally inhabited by the city’s residents, the Dharavi slum is one of thousands in Mumbai, and is one of its most advanced.

The Dharavi slum is home to over 1 million people, which makes it the largest slum in Asia. However, around 54% of Mumbai’s 12 million people live within areas defined as ‘slums’, and the quality of life varies drastically from one to another.

Dharavi slum

Touring responsibly

I took a tour around Dharavi with Reality Tours & Travel, who are one of a handful of official companies guiding tours through slum areas, and employing local people as guides.

Reality Tours & Travels is a not for profit organisation, specialising in improving life for the people residing within the slum. Through the money raised through providing these tours, children and young adults receive free education and training to help them secure jobs in the legal areas of the city.

80% of the profits from the 800 rupee tour fee go directly back into improving life for the people here. It is not advised for foreigners to enter into the slums without a guide, as the probability of getting lost is probably close to 100% once you start winding into the back streets.

Mumbai slum child

Step inside

Walking into the boundaries of Dharavi, near to Mahim Junction railway station in the centre of the city, you would be excused for mistaking this for just another part of the ‘legal’ city. Instead of the expected shanty style buildings I had seen elsewhere in Mumbai, I was greeted with a main street, complete with (very permanent) concrete buildings, shops, small restaurants and warehouses.

Journeying further into the slum, our guide, Champ, explained the rules of visiting: No photos (images on this blog have been provided by Reality Tours & Travels), no gawking and certainly no making faces at smells or the way people live. This is over one million people’s reality, and it should be treated with respect.

Mumbai slum

He also explained how people here make their living, how they generate US$665 million per year in income. Split by a million people, that’s a mere $665 per person, annually, even less should the population be higher.

Champ guesses that the real figure is closer to US$1.2 billion. In Dharavi around 50% of the slum’s income is declared, and the other 50%, well… we don’t talk about that.

A hive of industry

Branching left off of the main street, we entered the commercial area of town. Loose wires hung overhead and streets, piled high with debris and swarming with people seemed chaotic at first. But out of the chaos, there was order. Each piece of debris had a purpose, everyone had a job to do and nothing was to be wasted.

What first stood out was the level of industry that you see, everywhere. The slum is home to hundreds of factories, churning out products to be sold all over the city and beyond. It is also a hub for recycling, with thousands of tons of plastics and metals making their way here each day to be turned into new products.

Dharavi slum metal work

Meeting some of the workers, our group saw how plastic is shredded into tiny pieces and reformed into tiny pellets to be dried and shipped out to make new products such as phones, computers and casings for electrical items.

This is all done using a custom build shredder seen nowhere else in the world, built by the hands of those in Dharavi itself, with no previous training. Health and safety are two words which seem not to exist here but everything works, and things just get done.

Dharavi slum plastics

The slum is also home to a host of skilled dress-makers and leather workers, who dye and stitch clothes, bags, wallets, shoes and anything else you can think of. We were lucky enough to be able to buy a leather wallet here for 500 rupees (about £5), a fraction of its retail cost (remember what I said about undeclared income?).

The people here also make an incredible amount of food items to be sold across the markets of Mumbai. Breads, cakes, sweets and snacks are processed daily in tiny, dusty rooms and sent out for the next morning’s breakfast run.

Mumbai slum bakery

The slum is also home to a women’s cooperative who help women towards financial independence by making popadums. Watching the women chat and laugh as the fresh popadums dried in the sun was fantastic, but when I learned they only received 18 rupees (about 20p) per kilo of popadums, I wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad thing to have the women working in this way.

We also saw how skilled potters churn out hundreds of pots per week and leave them to dry in the scorching Mumbai sun. When the monsoon rains come in June, the popadum and pottery businesses will no doubt be impossible, so people scramble to make as much as possible now, whilst the going is good.

mumbai slum pottery

How the people live

Working our way through the industrial area, we came to a residential area of Dharavi, consisting mainly of concrete block housing arranged in very tight formation around tiny, dark alleyways strewn with hazards.

Electrical wiring hung at head (and sometimes neck) height, cracked pavements slipped under each step, and electric blue rats, coloured by chemicals and hours away from death stumbled lazily through open sewers. Residents hummed along through their daily business, unfazed.

Dharavi slum inside

Each house typically has one room of around 10 square metres of space, and usually sleeps around 8 people. Some were full of people playing games, watching television or sleeping to escape the stifling midday heat. Others were bare and open, with no sign of life and a few basic belongings on display. Compared to western standards, the residential area was dirty, but the people here seemed happy.

Contrary to popular belief, the slum does have a water sanitation system, and although very basic, provides clean water for the million residents from shared taps. The government provides this water along with free electricity and eduction for the slum’s children, despite it not recognising Dharavi as an ‘official’ residential area.

inside a mumbai slum

From June to September, when the monsoon rains take over the city, the sewers overflow, and water sanitation becomes an enormous problem. Outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever have taken thousands of lives in previous years, and this is without a doubt the most desperate time of year for the slum’s citizens.

Exiting the labyrinth of chaotic and light-starved alleys, we suddenly came across a huge wasteland piled high with rubbish and being used as a makeshift cricket ground. Children excitedly greeted us with their few words of English learned at school. The kids were as happy here as in any area of the city, and played in the rubbish with reckless abandon.

Dharavi slum industry

A word of caution

Although walking through the slum with a guide is very safe, this is still a very poor area where morals are different to those in the developing world. As I walked through the narrow streets I passed a man who groped my private area as I passed him. Of course, there is no way of stopping this, but please be aware that this can happen.

Is it worth the trip?

Before my slum experience, I had very limited knowledge of how they actually worked. I had seen what I believed to be slums at roadsides throughout Mumbai, but had not considered that ‘slums’ can take on many forms.

I was pleasantly surprised that the people there had such an extensive setup for industry, and although it makes me uncomfortable to know how little these people are earning, it is good to see that people seem happy here. They have access to water, electricity, education and even amazing 3G connection, which people here are crazy about!

mumbai slum plastics

The experience was a positive one, and I came away feeling as though I had an honest view of how people live. It’s not in squalour and desperation, and although there will no doubt be hard times ahead for Dharavi, the spirit of its people will always overcome.

If you are considering a visit to the Dharavi slum, I would definitely recommend Reality Tours & Travel for a safe, educational and inspiring trip.

Have you ever been inside a slum? Let me know using the comments below.

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

Comments 23

  1. Estelle

    wow, what an experience, I didn’t even know this kind of tour existed. I once walked through a slum by mistake in Delhi, we were trying to reach Humayun’s tomb from the metro station and got lost. But when you’re alone without a guide it’s very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have thought about doing this kind of tour but it seems a good idea to raise awareness among tourists.

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    LovePuffin Travel Blog

    Oh dear, I would have probably felt a little uncomfortable without the guide to be honest. Plus he was doing a great job of explaining all of the intricacies of the way people live on the way around too. If you ever go to Mumbai you must go! Thanks for leaving a comment 🙂

  3. Liv

    great blog – really interesting!

    I did a similar tour back in 2009 when I visited Mumbai and as you said it’s an eye opener to what slums are actually like.

    The thing that stayed with me more than anything is how happy everyone was.

    Everyone is squashed into such a small space but yet everyone greeted us with a massive smile and were very welcoming. Ladies come out of tiny slums houses looking beautiful in amazing sareees having produced the most amazing looking meal on one hob! I was in awe! The buzz and hub of activity made the place so vibrant.

    The endurance, the energy and the positivity to make the most of what’s available will stay with me forever.

    Whenever I am having a bad day I always think back to the slums…

    Hope you are having a great time, loving the blogs it’s really making me want to travel back to India xx

  4. Frank

    Great post Hayley, very informative. I guess my biggest surprise and shock is the level of industrial development that goes on within the slum. Actually it makes me sick. This is the future of global development as companies parcel out work to those with the least resources: pay them crap working long hours doing dangerous jobs where they’ll be in daily contact with industrial waste. They have no medical benefits, no minimum wage…nothing. This is the new world we live where as you say, you can buy a 500 ruppee wallet because those people are getting paid 1/100th of that. Horrible.

    Being fondled no fun either and Spanky was a bit shocked reading it. Sorry you had to go through that. Lot of sex issues have come up around India in recent years and you have to wonder…I wouldn’t leave her alone for a minute.

    Great post, very informative read.
    Frank (bbqboy)

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    Author
    LovePuffin Travel Blog

    Thanks for your comment Frank. Yes, it did feel uncomfortable knowing what’s going on there, but to see it with your own eyes and to know that some of your money is making more opportunities for people is better than not visiting at all. Yes, the fondling was regrettable, but really nothing you can do in that split second. Before I knew it, he was gone.

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  8. Juliana - chiaryRTW

    I walked through Dharavi too while I was in Mumbai and was humbled by the experience. The income disparity I came to understand between those living in the slums and those outside of it was huge and unfortunately a very sad situation. I too found it was interesting though, but these slum dwellers have also expressed negative feelings about tourists going on these tours because they don’t like to recognised as a tourist ‘attraction’. There are lots of articles on slum tourism and I can’t decide if this should be stopped or not, but it definitely did broaden my mind!

  9. Post
    Author
    LovePuffin Travel Blog

    I don’t think anyone wants to be a tourist attraction. There’s no dignity in being stared at and judged. I too felt mixed feelings about it but I’m glad I went too. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

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    Hayley Griffiths

    It definitely did, and although that does make me a little uncomfortable, I’m glad I did it. The way the tours are conducted is responsible, and the people don’t seem fazed by the groups of tours going around as they know that their presence is ultimately making things better in the slum. Mixed feelings! :/

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  14. paul

    Thanks for nice article, Slums are a result of poor planning or the lack thereof. Everyone deserves clean water and enough food every other day. Capitalists looking for a quick buck are propagating this acceptability of slums. I say no to slums and poverty. This world has enough for everyone to live a happy and productive life.

  15. UCAB

    Hello Hayley,

    Very informative and well executed the slum area in Mumbai. Amazing photographs. Enjoyed It. 🙂

  16. martin

    why do we still have so many slums mostly in Africa and Asia at this age and day? life there is not very pleasant. we should find a way of eradicating them.

  17. Judy Nix

    We are going on our first visit to India in March. I had seen this tour advertised and did fancy it but now it’s a definite after reading your interesting blog. Can you take writing paper, pens etc to give them. Thanks. Judy

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Judy, so glad you found the blog useful! Actually it’s not so helpful to take pens, paper etc as these are usually well-meaning gifts but encourage begging and dependency on tourists. It would be better to buy some of the things available after the tour or leave a monetary sum with them so they can distribute it properly. I hope that helps, and have an incredible time!

  19. Anu

    Hi Hayley!

    Thanks for the article! It really made me think… those people, their lifes. I (+many other people) usually take for granted things like food, shower, toilet, warm and dry facilities, health care etc. I feel sick for those people who don’t really have all that stuff.

    Is there any way to help those people to get away from those circumstances? Or is there a way to elevate their living standards in there?

    Also you wrote they look/seem to be happy, but I’m thinking, are they really? Or is it just that they don’t know or believe there could be someting better for them? Who knows..

    Anyway, thanks for opening my eyes and all the best for you! 🙂

    -Anu

  20. Post
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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Anu

    That’s a complex question about their happiness – my experience was that yes, the people seemed to be pretty happy, but who knows, really? Even amongst those of us lucky enough to live in a clean, warm house with all mod-cons, there are people who are unhappy. My view is that life is what you make of it, and the standard of living for the people of Dharavi is slowly improving thanks to the work of the NGOs there. They’re really working hard to deliver education and help for the most vulnerable.

    If you’d like to help, I’d suggest contacting Reality Tours and Travel and making a donation to their cause. They have the expertise and the connections to make a difference there, but they do need more funds. Check them out here: http://realitytoursandtravel.com/about.php

    I’m glad that my article has helped you to learn more about the situation in Mumbai and many other cities across the world. All the best for you, too!

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