“What do you think when you hear the word slum?” our guide asked us on our way to Dharavi. We scrambled to be as politically correct and as sensitive as possible, but she coaxed the usual stereotypes out of our small group of five. Dirty. Unsanitary. Poor. The answers kept coming.
“In India a slum means something different,” she added, “It just means something that’s build on government land without permission. You could build a luxury mansion, but it would still be called a slum.”
After a whirlwind trip to India this month, one of the places that stays with me is Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. There a lot of debate around the ethics behind slum tourism, and for a long time I deliberated about whether I should include Dharavi in my Mumbai itinerary. Dharavi in particular has fascinated me for years, after hearing about the industrious spirit of this complex after diverse community. Contrary to popular belief, Dharavi is an economic microcosm, that’s home to some 10-15,000 businesses and has an output of approximately 1 billion USD a year. Although living conditions are terrible, higher estimates say there are 1.2 million people are squeezed into a 2 square kilometer area and share 700 toilets, making Dharavi the most densely packed part of Mumbai. It’s also a place that is truly unique. I came to see a community that has grown up organically from a small fishing settlement, which despite the odds has become a city residing within a megacity.
However, Dharavi is not a place I wanted to just wander into unaccompanied, so I wanted to find a company that handled the visit with sensitivity. I came across a Dharavi-based tour company called Reality Tours & Travels, who don’t only hire local guides from the community, but also give 80% of their profits back to their NGO Reality Gives. They also have a strict no photos rule to prevent the tour from becoming a voyeuristic activity, which was another reason I liked their approach. All the photos included here are their images.
We began from the company’s branch in Colaba, and would make our way to the slums by car with our guide Swathi, a young student who was just two months away from finishing her masters in clinical psychology who lived in Dharavi.
The bus stopped on a dusty patch on Mahim-Sion Link Road, dropping us off next to parked lorries. The slums rose up, with shops and stalls residing under the shade of corrugated tin roofs.
“Are you ready?” Swathi said with a smile before she led us into the narrow lanes leading us away from the morning heat into the shaded alleys winding into Dharavi.
First the culture shock hits. The buildings look makeshift and delicate. Cats scrambled along the rooftops and among the electrical cables that hung above the alley; beneath our feet we had to watch out for open channels of water and uneven surfaces. Small doors on either side revealed small workshops and further ahead the smell of freshly made chapatis came from the street vendor a few doors down. On this edge of town, recycling is the main business and 80% of Mumbai’s plastic waste finds its way here ready to be reincarnated into a new life.
“Do you see them burning the drums there? They burn the paint from the metal drums, flatten them and then they can reuse it in the houses. See the metal sheets on this house here, that was made from a drum like this.” Swathi said, touching the metallic wall as we followed her through the labyrinthine lanes. Nothing goes to waste in Dharavi. Piles of what appears to be rubbish is actually waited to be recycled, either made into something new or reused within the slum. Yet, as we came out to the canal by 60 Feet road, rubbish peppers the murky water running below.
“Sanitation is the biggest problem in Dharavi, the sewage comes out here untreated. We need to cross here,” Swathi pointed to the busy road that cuts down the middle of the slum. She held out one hand to motion the cars to stop and walked into the traffic, “This is how you need to cross the road in Mumbai,” she said with a grin, as she leads us down another alleyway.
Dharavi feels like a town within a city. Its narrow winding roads follow little logic, having organically sprung up around the houses and industries built here, yet there is a sense of structure. Dharavi is a multicultural hub whose residents populate a demographic with 30 languages and 6 religions; and the green flags flapping above us sporting the crescent moon mark that we were in a predominantly Muslim quarter, but the aroma of freshly baked pastries also partitions this section based on its industry. Glancing left and right, between the ladders leading up to tenements and the odd goat balancing on a disused oil drum, the open doors and windows revealed a network of bakeries, some where papads are being hand formed on stone slabs, or others where rows of biscuits and pastries were hoarded in and out of huge ovens on an industrial scale.
“Dharavi is one of the largest pastry producers in the city. We don’t list where it’s made on the packaging, but pastries, cookies, and papads from Dharavi are exported to many Mumbai restaurants and cafes. Now, we’ve reached the most interesting part of the tour,” she said as we stopped by a very narrow alley. “Make sure you keep up with me, I’ll tell you if there is a hole or anything to watch out for but tell the person behind you. It’s very easy to get lost in here.”
She turned into the narrow lane, a width of a person, that carried us past tiny doorways leading into one-room homes, some on the ground level and others up a ladder. It’s a disorienting maze and it took a lot concentration to keep up and avoid the odd hole in the ground. The narrow alley we twisted down releases us into an open, dusty patch known as the Wadi Ground Hussain Nagar, one of the few open spaces where kids play cricket and games. Above, dilapidated grey high rises look decades old with cracks, flaking paint and rusting window bar, but they are in fact quite new.
“This is the issue with redevelopment. They move people into apartment blocks like this that are not cared for, but what’s worse is they lose the space they had for their business and their livelihood,” said Swathi as she led us away into another lane where clusters of leather workshops burst with hides from goat and sheep. At the end of the alley we teleported into a surreal boutique.
At the heart of the slum, the Dharavi Brand occupies a spacious shop where the walls have been freshly painted and air conditioning is on full blast. Bags and leather jackets of designer quality line the shelves, some unmarked and others sporting a cheeky Dharavi logo. One of the girls in our group spotted famous designer brand styles, but no one confirmed or denied that the Dharavi Brand makes goods for more recognizable names.
A few lanes away from the leather quarter, a main road cuts through the slum with shops, ATMs, banks, temples, and schools. In this part of Dharavi you forget about the corrugated tin roofs and cramped living quarters. Instead trade is in full swing and it looks like any busy street you’d find in Mumbai. A cobbler’s shop burst with quality leather shoes, while a vegetable cart on the road side filled the air with fresh coriander leaves and the delicate scent of green chilies. At the heart, a small private school was session, while a little boy sat under the playground tree playing with his fancy calculator watch.
“Has he been naughty?” one of the ladies in our group asked. Swathi chatted with him in Hindi for a few minutes.
“No, he’s here early,” she said.
Education is the way up for those residing in Dharavi. Although many residents work in the local trades like leather or recycling, many want their children to get a leg up and get a higher education. As we walked through the slum, people greeted us with smiles, but are used to foreigners coming to their neighborhood daily.
“When Reality Tours started doing tours of Dharavi the locals weren’t sure what to think of it. But after a decade of working with Dharavi and offering free English and computer classes to children in Dharavi through Reality Gives, people realized our tours gave their children a chance they didn’t have. Now people are happy and welcome foreigners here. We also want to break down the stereotypes. A lot of people come here expecting to see the world of Slumdog Millionaire, but it hasn’t been like that for 20 years. It’s a safe place – you could come here and walk around Dharavi and you’d be safe, but your main risk is getting lost.”
It’s in the final quarter, Kumbharwada, that Dharavi’s old history comes to light. This part of the slum is around 180 years old and home to a community of Hindu potters. The houses here are built out of brick and made to last. Its lanes are clean and wide, but are filled with pottery or mounds of clay brought here from Gujarat. Thousands of clay vessels dry in the sun, some big, some tiny and made to hold festival lights or cups of chai. Brick kilns spout smoke into the air. Generations have worked here and continue to work here. Children played with the clay, as their parents worked to form or bake pots, or carried them through the alleys. For over a century Kumbharwada has made vessels to supply Mumbai’s demands for Diwali or Eid. It’s areas like this that are in danger if redevelopment should occur, and the smoke from the kilns carries an environmental hazard.
Dharavi is a place that’s fascinating and inspiring, but it’s one whose future is still uncertain. The slum lies on some of Mumbai’s most expensive real estate and talks of redevelopment have been taking place for decades, and since my visit it seems a Dubai-based developer has landed the project. Dharavi plays a significant role in Mumbai and India’s economy: it’s more than just a shanty town, it’s a place that’s become a case study for urban planning, has held its own TEDx event, and has endured for over 100 years. However, it’s wrong to gloss over the living conditions, the cramped quarters, lack of sanitation, and electrical wires that dangle like confetti over the allies. But Dharavi’s beating heart is its residents, who are intelligent, spirited, passionate, and have a strong sense of community. It’s a truly fascinating place I find hard to put into words.