Today I was fortunate enough to be taken on a private tour of the infamous Dharavi Slum in Mumbai.
I’d heard about it, read books about it, seen it in Slumdog Millionaire and thought I knew what to expect.
How wrong was I.
Dharavi has been around a long time – since the 1880’s, and the relocating of slum residents to more ‘suitable’ premises in highrise apartment buildings has been going on now for over 40 years. What is most interesting is that Dharavi doesn’t really resemble what I imagine a slum to be these days. It’s a crowded, bustling, market, residential, cottage industry area that just happens to be home to perhaps a million residents, perhaps more, in a small area of less than 2.5 square km. I was expecting aluminium sided shanties with tarpaulin roofs. What I found was, solid cement 2 and 3 storey buildings, most with electricity, running water, sewerage and many even with bathrooms and airconditioning. OK, they were crowded together with narrow steep ladder staircases leading to the workshops and residences on the upper floors, but the streets were all paved and I saw hardly any open sewers and it was clean. The old towns of many Indian cities could learn a thing or three from the Dharavi redevelopment organisations.
My tour of Dharavi took me along the main thoroughfare and through smaller streets and alleyways. I visited various residential areas, including a ‘transit camp’ which was created to temporarily house residents who were kicked out of their homes to make way for redeveloped apartment buildings which whey would be relocated to when the building was completed. The ironic thing is that the residents built up the transit camp to such a comfortable standard, with their familiar open plan system where neighbours were part of the living arrangements that they didn’t want to move into the apartment buildings where they would be enclosed in their 4 walls high up above the streets and where they wouldn’t have their neighbour/families around them. They are in the process of obtaining permission from the Mumbai Development Corporation to remain in the ‘camp’ where they can continue to improve their homes.
As we walked through the various sectors of Dharavi, I was shown into many small factories – leather, clothes and pottery make up much of the production from Dharavi, a lot of which is exported overseas. Small rooms would be the workspace for 5 to 10 workers busy for 12 or more hours a day to meet production demands. Much of the work is done on a production line basis, but instead of it moving to another part of the factory, it moves to another building nearby for the next stage of processing.
99 percent of Dharavi’s children go to school, and many of them in English Medium schools (where they have their lessons in English), so education is considered extremely important. Despite their standard of education, many residents remain in Dharavi as it is comfortable, familiar and ‘home’.
Is Dharavi a slum? Sure some areas are less developed than others, some more crowded than others, some people still live in abject poverty, however it is also an area of incredible resilience, hard work and proud people. Many of Mumbai’s immigrants from other parts of India found themselves in Dharavi and still 3,4 and even 5 generations later, they still call it home.
My tour guide was Felix ‘the cat’ and his connection with the people of Dharavi goes back many years through his social work. His access to people, workshops and various areas of Dharavi gave me an indepth insight into the area which has provided a fascinating education to this well-travelled Indiaphile!
If you want to visit Mumbai and Dharavi, I highly recommend Felix (contact us for his email and phone number). He’ll be sure to provide you with an insight into Mumbai like few others.
If you want to join one of our group tours that visit Mumbai, check out our Essence of India tour, our Women-only tour, our Incredible India Tour, our Big Cats of India Wildlife & Heritage Tour and our Heartlands of India tour which all visit Mumbai.
Photography note: As my DSLR was in with Canon getting some minor work done, I only had my phone camera, so images are not as high quality as I’d have liked them to be. But still you get the idea!