After debating the pros and cons of slum tourism in my previous post we decided to go ahead with a tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai by Reality Tours & Travel. At 8.30am we journeyed from Colaba to Dharavi and prepared to enter one of the most densely populated places on the planet.
It was a fascinating insight into this massive community – around a million people are housed in just over 2 square kilometres. Here are some things we learned.
In Indian legal terms a “slum” is any dwelling erected on government land. For this reason over 60% of the Mumbai population is classed as living in slums. The word “slum” conjures up images of squalor and desperation, which is misleading. Although many of the residents are undeniably poor and there are definitely public health problems there is far more industry and infrastructure than you might think.
The Dharavi slum has an industrial area and a residential area. The residents don’t work in the industrial part of the slum – they work outside in schools, offices, hospitals, retail businesses etc. The workers in the industrial area cannot afford to live in the residential area. Many sleep on the factory floors.
The three biggest industries in Dharavi are plastic recycling, leather making and pottery. Walking through the narrow meandering lanes allowed a peek inside hundreds of small rooms where a lot of activity was going on – sorting, chopping and washing plastic, glass sorting, plastic being ground into pellets, aluminium being melted down in furnaces, cloth being dyed, luggage manufacture, leather washing and dyeing, shirts being ironed, it was endless.
The working conditions are precarious and often dangerous eg. sorting broken glass with bare hands and feet, welding without any safety equipment, no exhaust fans or masks around toxic furnace fumes.
There were rooms full of tailors hard at work over sewing machines, chapatis being cooked over open fires, children being scrubbed and washed in buckets. A lot of goods were constantly being carried to and fro. Cats and rats were scurrying underfoot and the noises of industry melded with the gurgle of open drains and the chatter of residents, negotiating work, joking around and exchanging news and gossip.
There are roads within Dharavi. There are also schools, shops, markets, restaurants and many other small scale businesses in the residential sector.
The residential area is divided into Hindu and Muslim districts but our guide pointed out that there is more harmony between these groups than there has been in the past. For example we saw a group of Muslims constructing a Hindu shrine.
80% of children in the slum go to school. Reality Gives also has programs to provide education to residents who weren’t able to go to school when they were younger, including classes in English and computing.
Most adults have a smart phone and many use 2 sim cards – one for cheap data and one for cheap calls. They are more common than in-house toilets which are few and far between. Most residents use shared toilet blocks of which there are 70 in total. Not nearly enough for such a massive population.
There are severe public health problems and a long history of epidemics and other disasters. Life expectancy is only 55, compared to 67 elsewhere in India.
Our guide pointed out that it no longer carries such a stigma in Mumbai to say that you live in a slum. We’re not sure how true that is, we only have his word for it. He also mentioned that the wealthier slum inhabitants don’t always want to move out, because they enjoy a certain status within the slum that would disappear in the outside community.
We were worried that our presence would be met with hostility from the locals but that didn’t seem to be the case. The tours have been run for 10 years so I suppose they’re accustomed to seeing foreigners walking around. They seemed to be getting on with their day and didn’t pay us much attention at all. Only the young children were curious enough to wave at us and speak with us.
We were glad we had the opportunity to witness life in the slum and happy that our tourist dollars will contribute towards programs that will benefit the residents.
* Images provided by Reality Tours & Travel