My visit to Dharavi slums today is one that I’ll never forget; it will go down as one of the most memorable, shocking and valuable experiences of my travels so far. Gaining an insight into how people live in these slums was fascinating, it was a real eye opener and left me questioning many things as well as appreciating how lucky we really are.
What are Dharavi slums?
Before I delve into my experience, let me tell you a bit about the slums. First of all, to my surprise, living in a slum is actually part of normal life for the majority of Mumbai’s resident’s. Of the 21 million living here, 60% of people are forced into life in the slums, that’s 13 million!
The slum that we visited (Dharavi) is the most densely populated place in the world with 1 million people packed into a single square mile. If you’ve seen Slumdog millionaire, this is where it was filmed. The rise of this slum, and many others, occurred due to the British moving residents out of the Colabo area in Mumbai way back the 1880’s. This left them homeless and so they used a huge area of marshland and began, by hand, to build homes for themselves. These homes were not what you and I would call a home; they were merely shacks with tin roofs.
Working in Dharavi
The Dharavi area is split in two, one being the residential area and the other commercial. In this commercial area workers spend their days recycling and carrying out other labour intensive jobs. Some of the main trades include production of leather goods, pottery, clothing and steel. As for the recycling, they recycle everything, and I mean everything!
Around 85% of waste in Dharavi is recycled, when you compare this to the UK’s 44%, it’s quite amazing. Apparently waste not only from India but around the world ends up in Dharavi for recycling. We saw tiny factories each dedicated to different materials, one was piled high with paint tins and solely recycled them day in day out. Whilst others specialised in plastic or aluminium production for example. It was fascinating to watch, I just couldn’t believe how much was going on in such a small space, how many workers there were and how much waste must pass through this place on a daily basis.
There are over 7000 businesses and 15000 single-room factories in the commercial area of Dharavi. Some of these businesses actually make very good money, some turning over millions of dollars a year. This is all well and good for the owners but the workers are earning around £1 per day. Seeing with my own two eyes what these workers do for £1 was shocking. Many work 12+ hours per day in conditions that are hot, stuffy, smelly and polluted. I was blowing black soot out of my nose all evening (after being there 2 hours!) so I dread to think what their lungs look like.
Many of these workers are not residents in Dharavi but instead come from villages in the North of India. They come to Dharavi for 9 months of the year, earn their £1 a day working continuously whilst sleeping in the factories at night and then return to their families with what is probably under £300. What a way to live.
Towards the end of the tour we visited a leather production factory. I use the word factory loosely as the reality was far from what I would associate with a factory. Here workers were seen amongst piles of leather hind in cramp congested alleys, some were seen dying leather whilst others were cutting or stitching it as part of the bag/wallet creation process. Leather production is one of the most lucrative trades in Dharavi, we learnt how the owner of this ‘factory’ is Dharavi’s first millionaire.
Visiting this part of Dharavi will leave you never wanting to buy an expensive designer bag again. As if we didn’t all already know, designer bags are merely just leather bags with a logo plonked on the side to justify the £1000+ price tags. Our tour guide claimed that these workers made bags for Gucci (amongst other big names) and the real cost of production for one bag is… wait for it… £30! So think about that next time you fork out £100’s for bag.
I found it a little hard to believe a company of Gucci’s stature would send a sales representative to these slums to negotiate a deal. After a little digging online I found a few articles that claim many high end brands would negotiate manufacturing with legitimate Indian factories but unbeknown to them (or maybe known to them, who knows!) the work would get sub contracted to places like Dharavi. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the things we use back home, and pay a fortune for, are made in slums like Dharavi.
Living in Dharavi
Walking through the residential area of Dharavi was equally as shocking. It’s a huge maze of tiny alleys, it’s dark, dingy and dirty. As we walked around I could peak into these ‘houses’, they were merely rooms measuring 2m x 2m. There was no bedding, no furniture, no windows, nothing. These rooms often sleep up to 8 people and whilst they do have electricity and stoves provided by the government, there are no toilets. If you need the toilet you may have a long wait as apparently there is one public toilet for every 1400 residents!
I didn’t fully understand the housing system in Dharavi. But from what I gathered from our tour guide, some of the residents own their own home whilst the majority rent them at a cost of around £3 per month. The government did build high rise apartments to try and help the Dharavi residents move out of the slums. These apartments however were priced at £50 per month and according to our guide the Dharavi residents chose to stay put as they couldn’t afford this price tag. Instead these apartments are now lived in by the more wealthy doctors and lawyers of Mumbai, I found this hard to believe as they looked terrible and overlooked the open sewers and slums.
The best way I can describe Dharavi is that it’s a city within a city. The residents have no need to leave their community as over the years they have successfully built everything they need to survive. Within Dharavi there are shops, schools, churches, markets, etc. It’s astonishing that all of this was once a marshland and over the years, with little money or help from the government they have had the courage and determination to build something they can call home.
What surprised me
It’s quite amazing how well organised Dharavi is; this is what surprised me the most. Having seen the homeless sprawled out on the streets of Mumbai close to our hotel, I was expecting something similar. But instead, everyone was hard at work, there was no begging and everything appeared to be running in a highly organised manner.
The living conditions, as expected, were horrible, dirty and unsanitary. But to my surprise they didn’t smell. People were not seen moping around feeling sorry for themselves but instead they were just going about their normal daily lives. They may be living in terrible conditions, but taking a trip to the market to buy ingredients for that nights meal or walking kids to school is part of their normal day. The people were friendly, they looked happy and the kids in particular were keen to say hello and ask what our names were.
I thought I would walk around Dharavi and would feel really sorry for the people there, the kids in particular. And whilst I did have sympathy for them because nobody should have to live like that, I actually left the place astonished at just how well things work in Dharavi, how the people just get on with it and how they still look to be enjoying life. I had to remind myself that the majority of these people do not know any different, they were born in the slums, grew up with friends there and this is just their way of life. They haven’t experienced anything else, this is normality.
I’d highly recommend taking one of these tours if you’re in Mumbai. No amount of pictures or reading can really compare to what you see first hand and how it’ll change your opinions.
The tour group we used was Reality Tours who I’d recommend as they give 80% of your ticket price back to the Dharavi community. They’re the only tour company that do this and it was great to see how their work is currently helping kids in Dhavari. We got to see one of their computer lessons in progress and it’s great that the money is being pumped into the root of the problem and helping kids gain a decent education. Obviously, it will take many years to help these people but the work they’re doing is a very good starting block. Good job Reality Tours!
Nb. Pictures courtesy of Reality Tours