Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Inside Dharavi, Asia's Largest Slum

Courtesy of Reality Tours

If you've ever flown into Mumbai you'll know that there's no avoiding the third largest slum in the world, Dharavi, a sprawling mass of corrugated tin, cardboard and blue tarpaulin running alongside the international airport. Spanning more than 550 acres with a population of over a million people, an average of 15,000 of them share a single toilet, infectious diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis and malaria are rife and there are no hospitals. Many visitors choose to look the other way, disgusted by the perceived squalor and poverty.

Chowpatti Beach, Mumbai (January, 2016)

After reading Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts' stupendous semi-autobiographical novel I was captivated by the tales of protagonist Lin's time in Dharavi and watching Slumdog Millionaire years later only served to increase my interest. On the many occasions we've visited Mumbai we've seen the children of Dharavi enjoying themselves on Chowpatti beach and heard the squeals of delight from the rooftop kite fliers when we've driven past the slums but never thought of venturing inside. 

We're on the train!

When I first heard about slum tours I thought they sounded rather tasteless, imagining over-privileged Westerners ogling the living conditions and poverty of those much less fortunate from the comfort of an air conditioned car. How wrong I was! Reality Tours are award-winning, ethical tour company run by the residents of Dharavi with 80% of the profits going back into the community.

Churchgate Station

Joined by Brit couple, Tim & Annie, Emmanuel from Marseilles and Lucy from Paris we met a representative from Reality Tours at Churchgate railway station and were accompanied on the train to Mahim (the closest station to Dharavi). On disembarking we were introduced to our guide, graduate Raj, who had moved here with his family from Goa as a child. Together we crossed the railway bridge and entered Dharavi for a two-and-a-half walking tour.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Despite the poverty Dharavi has been described by the Observer as "One of the most inspiring economic models in Asia". Hidden amongst the maze of dilapidated shacks and alleyways so narrow you occasionally have to walk sideways, are around fifteen thousand single-room factories employing around a quarter of a million people and turning over an estimated £700 million annually. 


 Most of the small businesses in Dharavi are based on waste recycling. Slum dwellers of all ages scavenge waste materials from across Mumbai and haul them back in enormous bundles for reprocessing. Aluminium cans are smelted down, soap scraps from schools and hotels are reduced in massive vats, leather is reworked, unwanted oil drums are scrubbed and repainted and waste plastics are broken down and remoulded. I'll never forget one man rinsing out a mountain of Head and Shoulders shampoo bottles and shuddering at the ridiculous amount of waste plastic us humans create.


Over ten thousand are employed in the recycled plastic sector.


 Ranging from three thousand to fifteen thousand rupees a month, wages are well above the national average and although Dharavi has no health centre it does have banks and an ATM.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Reality Tours ask that visitors refrain from taking photos, although we were given permission to take a few pictures from the plastic sector roof, after being the subject of about a million selfies in Gujarat I could completely understand this. Most of the photos I've used in this post were either emailed to us from Reality or scanned from a set of postcards I bought from their head office. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Don't expect Dharavi to be all abject poverty, depression and deprivation. Unlike the favelas we encountered when we visited Brazil, here the atmosphere is positive, friendly and industrious. Every day up to five hundred economic refugees arrive in Mumbai, often escaping a life of crushing rural poverty. Most new arrivals have to sleep on the streets, to find a home in the slum is a step up the ladder. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

At every tiny workshop we passed we were greeted with welcoming smiles, namastes and cheerful waves. Raj seemed to know everyone. We'd ask what they were up to and he'd translate, bringing out everything from colourful plastic vegetable racks and bathroom tidies, wheelie suitcases, exquisitely tailored waistcoats, rotis and poppadums and probably some of the most gorgeous quality leather bags I've ever set my eyes on (find them HERE).

Courtesy of Reality Tours

I chatted to the manager of the leather shop and was delighted that, after I mentioning where we was from, he told me that Walsall was home to the finest quality leather in the world. If you're wondering, the leather produced in India comes from buffaloes and not the holy cow!

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Among the first to make Dharavi their home were the Kumhar (or potters) caste, originally from Gujarat.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

While we stopped to admire a large number of freshly made pots drying in the sunshine a large ginger tom decided to walk straight through them, causing two to topple over and disintegrate. That's the twenty-first pot he's broken this week, one of the potters told us, picking the cat up, placing it on his lap and lavishing him with love.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

And what of the living conditions within the slum? Homes consist of two single rooms, one on top of the other, with the upper storey accessible by a ladder on the outside. An entire family live in one room with cooking, sleeping and living all taking place in that single space. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Those rooms are immaculate with scrubbed floors and highly polished tin cookware neatly stacked on the shelves. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Running water is available to Dharavi residents for just an hour twice a day and is saved in large plastic vats stored outside each home.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

There's tiny hole-in-the-wall snack bars and tea stalls, barbers shops, fruit and veg vendors and corner shops.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Wherever we went bright-eyed, barefoot children would greet us, some high-fiving us & shaking hands, others shyly following us and running off giggling when we said hello. Outside one house were three little boys each grooming a tiny white kitten, they were thrilled to bits when I went over to look, excitedly offering me each pet in turn to kiss.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

The profits from the slum tours are ploughed back into Dharavi, funding education & recreational facilities for both boys and girls and have also built a community centre for residents of all ages to use.

Courtesy of Reality Tours
Although I didn't take these photos, the smiles we encountered on our tour were no different.

Courtesy of Reality Tours
Courtesy of Reality Tours


Courtesy of Reality Tours

Raj told us that moving to Dharavi was the best thing his family had ever done, the community was strong and supportive and it was impossible to feel sad or lonely with so many friends around. After the warm welcome we were given it made us reflect on who was actually better off, us Westerners with all our home comforts and space or the slum dwellers who existed in a single room with no running water but surrounded by people who cared for them.  

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Reality Tours run walking tours for groups of six or less at 9.15 am and 12.45 pm daily. 
Cost is 900 rupees per person (approx.£10) including return train tickets. More information can be found HERE.

If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll know how much Jon & I love Mumbai, the mere mention of the place gives me butterflies. The Slum Tour is honestly one of the most uplifting experiences we've ever had. 

58 comments:

  1. The people look so happy ! x

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    1. They really were. It's ridiculous when you think how much we have here in the West compared to the residents of Dharavi yet most Westerners walk round with a miserable expression on their faces!

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  2. Who knew? I'm guessing you only saw what they wanted you to see? But I loved seeing what you DID see through your "eyes" and explanations. It sounds like a most worthwhile experience.

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    1. It's understandable that the residents wanted to show Dharavi in a positive light but, with a million people crammed into such a tiny space, it'd be pretty impossible to completely stage manage our visit.
      Glad you enjoyed the post! x

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  3. Wow. This sounds so enlightening. It certainly wouldn't be my first choice when visiting India but understanding how they play such an integral part in recycling for the world is so important for all of us as a planet.

    Suzanne

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    1. I know we're all starting to worry about the amount of plastic swamping our oceans but that mountain of Head and Shoulders bottles sent a shudder down my spine especially when the guide told us it was gathered in just a day! xxx

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  4. What an amazing and thought provoking experience this must have been. The amount of plastic waste we produce is vile, but at least here it has found its use by being recycled for the benefit of the community. The very word slum conjures up the most appalling living conditions. Your visit to Dharavi is teaching us not to judge a book by its cover! xxx

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    1. I know, slum sums up beggars and unimaginable squalor. I think it's such great testimony to the Indian people, whatever the situation they find themselves in they never just accept it, they continually strive to improve their lot - a lesson so much of the West could learn from! xxx

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  5. At the end of Pather Panchali Apu and his parents leave the grinding poverty of rural life behind, although the book is set many years ago the same forces must be behind the people coming to live in Dharavi. I have watched some documentaries on happiness and it some of the people who lives like as in this place are the happiest. What a wonderful post about a wonderful place.

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    1. Yes! Apu and his parents' lot was appalling. That's the impression I get whenever I go to Mumbai, there's real optimism, the air positively crackles with the energy. I didn't find that in Brazil. It must be the Indian people. xxx

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  6. I'm so glad you and Jon went to Dharavi and had such a positive experience!

    It isn't that long since working class people in the UK lived in such type of conditions. It was common where I grew up in London for families to live in two rooms and a share a toilet (outside) with dozens of other people in the 1950s and 60. Where I lived was considered a slum but it was a fab place to grow up in. Everyone looked out for each other and each other's children. People shared what they had and a lot of life was lived on the street; people sitting at the top of their area (basement) steps and chatting to their neighbours on summer evenings, for example.

    What was very striking about Dharavi was the emphasis on recycling - hooray!! I do feel so ashamed of us Westerners and how profligate we are with the world's resources. One of the most humbling things I have ever seen was a documentary on people living in an Indian slum with the scarcity of utilities we take for granted. I'll never forget a young mother fill a small plastic jug with water and proceed to bathe her baby most thoroughly with just that amount of water not wasting a drop...

    I have got this on my Kindle and haven't read it yet but this was book seems to echo exactly your experience of Dharavi. 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum' by Katherine Boo.

    Hope you're keeping the snow at bay!
    xxxxxx

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    1. Thank you for reminding me about Katherine Boo's book, Vronni. I read it a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. I must dig it out and read it again now I've seen Dharavi for myself.
      How you described your life growing up in the 1950s and 1960s sounds exactly like Don Mccullin's photos of post war London and the North. Funnily enough, a lot of older Westerners we meet in Goa (people often in their 70s and 80s) tell us that the reason they keep going back is that life is like Britain was in the 1950s - everyone looking out for one another.
      Hope you survived the snow, too. xxx

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  7. It's odd isn't it - I went to a similar slum in the Philippines and have never felt so welcome anywhere. Quite humbling and unforgettable.

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    1. It really is. Sometimes it feels like the more people have, the more dissatisfied their lives become.
      I'd love to visit the Philippines. xxx

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  8. I really enjoyed reading this. Once again you've imbued it with your love of India.
    Have you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? It's one of the best books I've read, I wish she'd written more, if you haven't already read it, I really recommend it. xxx

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    1. Thanks, Sally. Both you and Vronni have reminded me about Katherine Boo's book. I absolutely loved it. I need to read it again now. xxx

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  9. What an incredible experience. I loved Slumdog Millionaire, this gives more insight into those slums. I am so glad you decided to take that tour after so many times to India

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    1. It really was. I loved Slumdog Millionaire, too. Have you read the book it was based on, Q&A by Vikas Swarup? Even better than the film! xxx

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  10. Thanks Vix for sharing your experience. The resilience and ingenuity of people is extrodinary. Really like the 'no photos' policy - establishes the privaledge of being there as a visitor. As always have so enjoyed the diversity and richness of your India posts. I may well email you - Mr JP, who has been very resistant to India is being slowly won over! xx

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    1. Hello JP! I'm delighted that you enjoyed the trip and thrilled to hear that Mr JP is slowly being won over. The no photos policy was a good thing, we felt very privileged just to have been welcomed into Dharavi, it would have felt very wrong to be pointing cameras into people's faces.
      Feel free to email me! xxx

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  11. Thank you for doing this post-it certainly wasn't what I expected when I saw the post title, and I've learned quite a bit.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Goody. I bet did seem an odd choice of thing to write about. xxx

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  12. What a wonderful glimpse into a world that is so different from ours, and for providing the understanding and optimism that we can always count on you for. This was the most uplifting and interesting thing I've read today!

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  13. The greatest Poverty is indeed loneliness and it seems to me this vibrant Community is Rich in ways many more privileged of any Society can only Imagine. It was such an Uplifting and educational Post, thank you for taking us along on your Tour!

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    1. The greatest Poverty is indeed loneliness - that's so very true. Despite the conditions the people of Dharavi live in, it's impossible not to be heartened by their community spirit and kindness to one another. xxx

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  14. So many things are being produced in Dharavi I've heard there's even a shopping tour now! I've heard others that go on tours in Dharavi remark how tidy it is (despite the stereotype) with rubbish bins about. I am always amazed at the lack of violence in the slums of India.
    xox

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    1. We were told to wear closed in shoes so I was expecting all manner of unsavoury conditions underfoot but you're right, Dharvai is incredibly tidy and the homes and factories we visited were immaculately clean and tidy and yes, considering how closely people of different castes and religions live, violence is extremely rare. xxx

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  15. i´m very impressed and moved!!
    i wish all the unsatisfied people of the western world must go on tour there! the people of dharavi can teach us so much!
    thank you vix for that post!!!
    xxxxx

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    1. I wish everyone could visit Dharavi, too. So many westerners moan about their lives yet do nothing, these people have nothing but manage to make a good living and care about their community, too. xxx

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  16. This really is a testament to the human spirit. It's not what I expected at all. I saw slums in Kenya, and I did look away, not because I didn't want to see or acknowledge it, but because I didn't want to make people feel like an exhibit by observing them. Does that makes sense? I hope I've explained it well enough.
    These tours are a fantastic idea, especially with so much going back into the community. Thank you for sharing.
    xx

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    1. I think it's human nature to look away, I felt the same in Brazil. Their situation seemed so hopeless and looking at people living in such a way made me feel utterly helpless.
      Dharavi was a wonderful experience, not just because the residents were so enterprising but that our money was doing such positive things. Maybe in a few years time they'll get water 24/7 and a hospital. xxx

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  17. we explored some of the slum areas of Mumbai, but some 30 years ago! it hasn't changed, that's for sure. What I remember most is how accepting everyone is of their situations, they weren't offended by us 'rich' tourists coming to see how they live and work, but were in fact I think more curious of us than we were of them! We were privileged to be invited in a market there to join a wedding celebration (orange squash only) for two fourteen year olds, one of the most exciting things I have ever done I think! Your photography is award winning and I can't wait for more posts!

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    1. I often wonder if that acceptance is due to the Hindu faith - they've been born poor in this life but, in their next incarnation, they may be millionaires.
      I love that you were invited to a wedding - with orange juice. Are you curious as to what's happened to that couple 30 years on? That's something to go back for! xxx

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  18. I know I’ve already said it, but this has been the most interesting trip to India yet and I have to say thank you for showing us things most of us only see on tv.
    Thanks Vix, it’s been brilliant xxx

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    1. It's been my pleasure, Lynn - thanks for reading!!! xxx

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  19. My brother did the tour with Reality when he was in Mumbai, he also did the one in Delhi and loved it so much he recommended it to me. As it turns out the CEO of the company Joe was one of the candidates we interviewed in Delhi, we also met their teacher trainer John who was visiting from Mumbai, small world!

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    1. What a small world! I'd love to do a few more of those Reality Tours, I liked the sound of having dinner with a local family. xxx

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  20. Live and learn! I like that your message was "to find a home in the slum is a step up the ladder" ... it really is so! To those who are much up the ladder, it seems shocking to see how someone lives many steps down the ladder, but when you look from the point of view of the particular ladder climber, only one step up really makes sense, and it's good to remember! I also love that the spirit of the community, at least from the sound of it, is kind - it means even more to those who lived a rough life on the streets. And it is so true that in the Western society we live a relatively comfortable life, but so very isolated, and the structure of our society does support individualism vs. sharing of the community spirit.

    Wishing all the very best to all Dharavi people, namaste and lots of love!

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    1. Thank you so much, Natalia. As always, you've summed it up beautifully. xxx

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  21. This was a fascinating read. One of the reasons that India is not on my list of places to visit is because I don't think I could handle seeing all of the poverty, but this sounds like it was a positive experience for you. I agree with the one commenter who said that you probably saw what they wanted you to see, but that said, I understand the importance of having a supportive community around you, and I am impressed that so much waste recycling is done by people living in slums like.

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    1. It wasn't just a positive experience but a feel-good one, too. It was wonderful to visit the school and see what the money raised by the tours had achieved. Like I said to Rebecca, although the tour trying to show Dharavi in a positive light, the sheer amount of people in such a tiny space meant that if there had been squalor and terrible living conditions it would have been pretty impossible to hide them.
      xxx

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  22. Such an inspiring read Vix and not at all what I expected from the title.
    Hugs-x-

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Sheila. Our afternoon in Dharavi was an incredibly uplifting experience. xxx

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  23. That was seriously amazing. You share your stories so beautifully, I almost feel like I am with you. Thank you again.

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  24. Vix thank you so much for sharing this! Reading of all the recycling they do made me very happy and glad to know that there are people who are being innovative with waste! The Slum tour sounds fascinating!x

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    1. It's very humbling when you think that it's the world's poorest people that are trying to do something with our waste, isn't it? xxx

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  25. Really interesting post. It's given me a lot to think about.
    Thanks
    Norma x

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    1. Lovely to hear from you, Norma. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! x

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  26. Hi Vix, thought you might like to know there is an article on leather workers in Walsall on BBC news website under features section.Short but interesting. Alison.

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    1. Thanks Alison! I'll pop over and take a look. Did you see that wonderful BBC2 series, A House through Time? David Olusoga visited Walsall's Leather Museum. xxx

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  27. What an amazing experience! I read "Shantaram" years ago for our Book Club, and it was really quite stunning what people can do in such a small space with so little. We really are so much more privileged than we realize.

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    1. Shantaram's one of those books I can pick up and read again and again, such a page turner.
      I think we all need a reminder of how well off we are every now and then. xxx

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  28. What an incredible, uplifting read Vix, I'm sure that we have all learned something from it. When I was travelling lots, it never failed to strike me that those who had the least seemed the happiest.
    Makes one feel very humble indeed.
    Xxx

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  29. I remember seeing one documentary about Indian slums and the first thing I noticed is that there were not a speck of dust in those 'improvised' homes. Their rooms were so clean, which I'm sure is not an easy task in such a crowded area.

    I'm happy to hear that there is such a thing as an ethical slum tour. It is great that 80 percent of the profits go back to the community. I'm glad to hear that the tour guides respect the community.

    These photographs you shared (both your own and postcard ones) bring that documentary back to mind. It must have been nice to feel so welcomed. I think we have a lot to learn from slum dwellers, from this community that works so hard to survive.

    I read Shantaram (last year, I think) and while I thought the author is a bit too full of himself, I do believe that his love and affection for India are genuine enough. He fell in love with Mumbai, one can feel it in his book. I enjoyed reading his description of the hospitality and friendship he found in a slum community, that part of the novel felt very realistic.

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  30. We were offered a slum tour by our hotel but avoided it for the reasons you mentioned at first - though it wouldn't have been organised by the community themselves, so I'm glad I avoided it. Far better to do a properly ethical tour like you did.

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  31. How incredible. Thank you so much for sharing!

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Don't be shy, if you enjoyed your visit leave a comment, I can come and visit your blog if you do.
Love from Vix
xxx