17 March 2015

Life in a slum in India

While I was in Mumbai in January, I took part in a walking tour of one of its biggest slums. I remember reading about these tours of Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s most population-dense neighbourhoods, when they started a few years ago and spawned a debate on ‘slum tourism’. “It’s voyeuristic to peek into poor peoples’ lives,” slammed some. “This is a reality of Indian cities, and how 55% of the population of Mumbai lives,” pointed out others. My take is that slums are certainly a facet of every Indian city and ignoring them won’t make them go away.  But I don’t know if I would have chosen to go one of these tours if I wasn’t researching a travel article on ‘off-beat’ walking tours in Mumbai...

As we began our walk, our guide Dinesh from Reality Tours shared a few pertinent facts about Dharavi. This is the third most densely populated slum in the world. It’s home to one million people who live in an area of 1.75 square kilometres. This means each Dharavi resident has less than 2 square metres of living space. “Poor people do not live here,” Dinesh told us. “Poor people live on the streets. Everyone in Dharavi works.” There are over 10,000 industries operating here with an annual turnover of approximately US$665 million. People living in Dharavi have migrated here from all over India in search of a livelihood. A neighbourhood like Dharavi represents the history of Mumbai, a city of migrants. There are 100 distinct ‘nagars’ with people from different regions, religions, castes, classes.

The streets and houses of some parts of Dharavi looked very similar to other ‘modest’ housing I’ve seen in many Indian cities. Though homes here are certainly modest in size, they are mostly permanent structures made of cement and brick. But other parts were definitely more squalid, with narrow lanes and cramped dwellings contrasting sharply with other sections of Dharavi. The huge plastic drums lined up in the alleys are used by each household to store the water only available for a few hours a day.

We passed barbershops and small provision stores, and fruit and vegetable vendors. Dharavi also has its wide ‘main roads’ lined with shops and small businesses. It looked like a self-sufficient community where everything is available. Dinesh took us to a variety of workshops and small businesses in the industrial area, where we saw bakers removing huge pans of puff pastry out of wood-fired ovens, sewing, batik and embroidery workshops, others making machine parts, leather bags, and even burqas for the Middle East market. 

But it was the plastics recycling unit in what is called the 13th compound which made the biggest impression on me. The air here was thick with the toxic smell of burnt plastic. There is where the city’s plastic garbage ends up. The workers here sort, clean, crush, shred, dye and melt plastic waste into small pellets which are sold to manufacturers and then made into things like umbrella handles and buckets. The workers squatted on the ground, sorting shampoo bottles and plastic food containers into neat piles according to colour and the type of plastic.

We carefully climbed a narrow metal ladder up to the roof where a panorama of Dharavi’s rooftops of corrugated iron stretched all around us. A mosque dominated the skyline. Photography was not allowed on this tour, but this is a view I’ll remember for a long time.

Photos courtesy of Reality Tours

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