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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.