Dharavi slum

April 22, 2015

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I was really apprehensive about seeing the biggest slum in Asia. An apprehension I fully feel ashamed of now I’ve seen how the people of Dharavi slum live.

It seems to be split into roughly 3 sections, the commercial section where they deal with plastic and aluminium recycling, and garment making. Wait.. Stop.. Plastic recycling, garment making, in a slum. Are you as surprised as I was? Actually Dharavi slum has a rough annual turnover of $665 million from all of it’s industries. Of course, none of that income filters down to the people who live in the second part of the slum, the residential area. These people do however work in the city of Mumbai as doctors, engineers, bankers and many more. The area is a hugely convenient part of central Mumbai and the land is premium real estate. It can’t be sold to developers though, not unless 70% of the residents of Dharavi agree to it. The other industry in the residential part is the tanneries. It was unclear whether they actually make leather accessories for big brands in the western world but I think it was suggested.

The third part of the slum is the pottery makers, they’re from Gujarat and they don’t allow anyone outside their community to work for them. They supply the clay oil lamp holders to the festivities of Diwali. They basically work all year to supply enough for one of the biggest festivals in India.

The questions that were being asked before the tour by the foreigners like: “There won’t be any pick pockets will there?”, And: “Will I need a scarf for the fumes?” Seemed so largely based on our perception of wealth, on material possessions. We imagine people that live in shanty houses built with sheet metal to be callous and ruthless. Although I’m not naive or idealistic enough to dismiss that this happens in some communities, Dharavi is a different model.

Without seeing it for ourselves we wouldn’t believe that industry, organisation and efficiency could happen. However it is to our shame that we feel this way because actually these people work as a community, they are selfless and they look out for each other. The lack of resources makes them more resourceful, the lack of material items makes them more focused on the community. Each person in this world has their own possessions, it is these possessions that are cherished above all else. Sometimes it is those possessions that push you away from experiencing life, experiencing community. Instead of looking at your phone the whole time on the tube, or the bus, try dropping it in your pocket and looking around you. Maybe even try and smile at a stranger.

Back to the slum, I was surprised to learn that there are 3 police stations, schools, a hospital, a market. This place is a city within a city. We toured the slum with a really great organisation called ‘Reality Tours and Travel’, basically they started to run tours in Dharavi to try to dispel the myth of overall violence and cruelty within the affluent cultures of India and tourists. It seems to be working for tourists as business is good for the tour company, Indian nationals are still not interested and cling to the perceptions that they get from films like ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ and old views which paint a negative image that existed 40 years ago, according to the guide. They wouldn’t allow you to take any pictures inside as a sign of respect to the residents. All of the guides are Indian and all of the employees of the tour company are too, except for the CEO and cofounder who is from the UK. The company have a sister organisation called ‘Reality Gives’ which 80% of the profits from the tours go to to help the slum community. They take you round their community centres where they teach children English, but also offer other opportunities such as dance lessons from Mumbai’s Bollywood choreographers.

Interestingly, they were saying that they need people to provide a deposit of up to 500 Rs, depending on what the families can afford, as previously people were not showing up to classes. It is interesting to see even when education is offered in a deprived community, it is still not sought after unless there is an incentive to keep them there. They were also saying that the perception of the company in the slum was one of apprehension to begin with, as you’d imagine, but now people in the slum are more familiar with them, they are more accepted.

It’s hard to form an overall opinion of the slum itself, workers still die younger than they should, because they are forced by their situation to work amongst toxic aluminium fumes and amongst poor conditions, the bosses of these businesses live in affluent areas and come by in their BMW cars to check up on their workers daily, there is filth and open sewage almost everywhere that you go. On the other hand there is community, and markets where goods are reasonably priced, I bought some tasty cashew nuts there, there’s real supply and demand based on people’s needs, there’s also a company that are trying to educate the young people who have a hurdle to climb in this world of the have and have nots. I think it’s a really great way to spend your time and I’d recommend everyone to do it. If it drops your preconceptions like it did for me, then it’s worth it.