I recently visited the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, which is home to somewhere between 300,000 and one million people. Having read Shantaram and seen Slumdog Millionaire, I had an idea of what slum life might be like before going there, but I was still in for a shock. I left my camera back at the hotel so as not to offend, and snapped only this photo from outside before entering on my phone.
It was as I was entering that I looked around while sipping a chai under the warm afternoon sun, and aside from the oversized rat looking at me from three metres away, there was little to suggest that one of the largest slums in Asia lay just around the corner. Coffee shops and bakeries line the streets outside, commuter trains jammed to the rafters with all sorts rushed up and down the 8-tracks running parallel to the street. All typical sights in any Indian city, as those dressed in a shirt and slacks with brightly polished black shoes are to be found sharing a bench with those who get around without the aid of shoes.
A local was showing me around with a few others. I had intended on going alone, but the evening before I came across an organisation which run tours and donates 80% of profits back into the slum, so I reserved a place. With the slum covering 217 hectares, I knew I’d get access to places within the maze that I’d never get to otherwise.
It’s an entrepreneurial place if ever I saw one. Any impressions I had of these people having a good dose of learned helplessness were quickly washed away as we wandered through the narrow streets. It seems they recycle just about anything. Masses of plastic, metals and other forms of junk collected from around the city are stacked high in the narrow alleys. It’s bought cheaply before being processed and resold. I quickly found myself asking just what the waste problem in Mumbai might be like if it weren’t for the slums.
We were taken into several buildings where locals were hard at work. One such place recycled aluminium and consisted of two men working in a small room emptying sacks of shredded aluminium into an open furnace. The aluminium is melted and formed into bars which are resold with a markup. The fumes were overwhelming and extremely toxic I was told. These men work for 100 – 150 rupees a day – less than 2 euro – for 8 hours work. Lung cancer is a huge problem and the average life expectancy of such workers is 55. The men themselves didn’t look healthy, and I assumed they had been doing it for a while. 5 minutes in the room and I was already worrying about the effects the fumes would have on my own health.
While this was one of the extreme examples I came across, the low wages and long hours are unfortunately commonplace. I was told that many people come from the poor, rural parts of India to try and make it and many end up in the slum, too ashamed to go back home and admit they’ve failed. Many workers are given a large sum of their wages in advance, an almost obscene amount of money for them, which is sent back to the family, but which then takes them far too long to earn back before they are free to leave. This way they are forced to stay in a dangerous, unhealthy job for longer than is good for them.
With open sewers and toxic smoke to the foul smell of fermenting goats skin as it is prepared for transportation to the tannery, conditions in some parts of the slum are a little shocking and overwhelming. The vast majority of it however is probably quite livable, in fact vast swathes of it are just like many parts of a large Indian city, with large markets and narrow streets lined with small shops, their stalls set out with all sorts of foods.
Bakeries are common and I was interested to find out that many of the treats that many Mumbaikars enjoy for breakfast are manufactured in the slum. We walked into one such establishment where they were being prepared on a large scale. Interestingly, on the packaging they write “Made in Mumbai”, being careful not to mention the exact location!
People are extremely friendly, shaking my hand and making chit-chat as I wandered the streets, and come evening cricket matches are taking place on just about every corner. Whether the people who actually live here are happy, I can’t say. I can’t imagine they all are, but I got the impression that the slum works, it serves a purpose. It may seem strange, but overall it was an enjoyable day out. In fact I’d much rather spend a day in the slum that wander aimlessly around the upper class areas of Mumbai. Afterall, 54% of the Mumbai population live in the slums, so seeing it first hand is definitely a worthwhile experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone visiting Mumbai. Just leave the camera at home!