Dharavi – the largest slum in Asia

We had heard that it is possible to do a walking tour through the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Initially we hesitated, but as 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, we thought we should see for ourselves how “the other half” lives. Dharavi was created on a large rubbish dump, which was covered with mud before people started erecting shacks and houses on the site. It is now the largest slum in Asia, housing over one million people in an area of just 1.7 sq km.||

Neither of us had really been to a slum before, and we had many negative preconceptions. We felt uneasy, imagining we would meet desperate unemployed people living in shacks, dirty children begging for money, and thieves roaming the streets.

We were met by a guide from Reality Tours (who also lives in a slum) and took the train to the slum area. Reality Tours has been running these tours for the last five years, working closely with the slum dwellers. They donate 70% of their profits to their charity arm, Reality Gives, which has a kindergarden and cricket academy in Dharavi, as well as running a community centre with English, IT and Social Skills classes for young people. It’s great when tourism contributes to such a positive development in a community.

To show respect to the people, no photography was allowed, so unfortunately we don’t have any photos in this post. The first thing we saw was a group of ladies making wicker baskets on the foot path. We were told that there are over 10,000 businesses in Dharavi, generating an annual turnover of $650 million. Amazingly, two thirds of Dharavi’s inhabitants are actually economic migrants from other parts of India, who have come to the slum to work and send money home. In Dharavi, they are able to earn 3-4 times as much as in their own villages. However, their wages are still pitifully low, starting from around $2 per day.

The slum is organised into different parts, according to the businesses that operate in the area. The first area we visited specialises in plastic recycling. Plastic bottles, tubs etc are collected from Mumbai and even shipped in from Europe, sorted by colour and quality, washed, shredded and formed into pellets that are then sold to companies to produce new plastic items. Most of this work is done in sheds made of corrugated iron. Plastic canisters and bottles are everywhere, stored on the roofs, in the buildings and on the streets.

The workers usually sleep in the same place where they work, or on the roofs. If they find a group of friends, they may rent a room together. Developers are trying to convince slum dwellers to let them build high rises in the area. They would offer some ground floor apartments for free to the slum dwellers and sell the apartments in the upper floors. Some of these projects have happened, but for many of the slum dwellers this is not an option, as they would lose their business premises.

We then visited an area where paint cans are recycled. They are placed into a furnace where the remains of the paint are burned and scraped off. The cans are cleaned and can then be repainted with a new company logo. It was amazing to see so much recycling and reusing in action; everything has a value, and nothing is wasted. Unfortunately, the working conditions are not particularly good, as there is not much ventilation in the shacks, and heavy paint fumes hang in the air. Our guide told us that he had talked to some of the workers to convince them to wear masks and gloves, but they were resistant to change. “We have always done it like this, why change now?”, they said.

There is also a thriving leather industry where goat, sheep and buffalo skins are salted and spread out to dry on top of a large rubbish dump (the only place available where they can dry in the sun). They are then coloured with spray paint and turned into shoes and hand bags.

Entering a residential area of the slum, we noticed that the houses were quite well looked after. Many are made of concrete and look quite clean inside. Most houses don’t have doors, just a curtain for privacy. They are provided with electricity by the government, and running water works for 3 hours a day. Most houses have a fridge and a TV. The biggest problem is the sanitation: the roads are not cleaned by the government, so there is a lot of rubbish around. There is no plumbing, so many people have to go to the loo in public places, or use government toilets, which they need to pay a small fee for. As our guide told us: “We are six people in my family. If each of us goes to the government toilet once a day, it costs us 12 Rupees, and it really adds up if someone has to go twice a day.” Unfortunately this leads to diseases like malaria and typhoid becoming a problem in the area.

Many of the local women make poppadums in the mornings (crisp flat breads). The dough is rolled out on a little plate in front of their houses, then the breads are dried in the sun for 2-3 hours by placing them on wicker baskets in the alleys. Then, they are packaged up and sold to companies. (Might this be the origin of the poppadums we buy at our supermarkets?).

One area where people seem particularly settled is the pottery area. Here, families collect sand and stamp it with their feet to turn it into clay. They then make pots of various sizes, either with a manual wheel or an electric wheel, and heat them in kilns, which are located between the houses, before glazing and selling them.

The people in the slum were all quite busy, even though it was a Sunday morning. The children looked reasonably clean and were pretty cheerful, greeting us with waves and shouts of “Hello! What’s your name?” Two little girls were sitting in an alleyway playing cards. Some young men were busy with a game of cricket. Nobody asked us for money and we saw no beggars. The conditions in the slum are far from perfect, but people are making the most of their situation, and many seem to have found a sort of happiness in their close knit community. In fact, since the violent riots between Hindus and Muslims in the 1990’s, things have moved on and they are now living together quite peacefully. We even passed a shrine covered in icons from many different religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Anyone can come to pray at the shrine, no matter their religion. What an inspiration!

At one point, we heard some singing and, turning a corner, saw a procession of women walking through the street. They were beautifully dressed in colourful saris, their hair done up, but many had no shoes and were walking barefoot in the mud. The women were on their way to a wedding, which was taking place in a small house nearby. It was great to see such a cheerful event taking place, with everyone wearing their best outfit and having a good time.

Our preconceptions about the Dharavi slum were smashed by the reality of it. We certainly would not want to live there, but we were impressed by the spirit of the people and by the thriving business community.