What I learnt from going on a tour of Mumbai’s Dharavi slum in South India

When I read about the Dharavi Slum tour I really wanted to go, which sounds like an odd thing to do as a tourist but let me explain why I visited India’s biggest slum in Mumbai and what I learnt from it.

Being a tourist in India can mean many things, it can be about exploring spirituality, investigating historical ruins, experiencing the food spectrum, boating the backwaters and bumming about on beaches. You can do all that and have a great time, but you cannot ignore the poverty, or the pollution that you see every day.

India has a poverty problem, and for years it had the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world, until it was overtaken by Nigeria in 2018. Extreme poverty is defined by people living on less than $1.90 per day and 70.6 million Indian people live that way, but the number is falling. Incidentally, that only constitutes 5% of its population, whereas nearly half of Nigeria’s population live in extreme poverty and their gap is widening.

Whilst India is seen as very poor, it’s also very middle-class and 45% of its 1.3 billion residents are considered to be in this category. We were approached by and interacted with middle-class people everywhere we went, so it’s easy to see this demographic as a traveller. The people that ask foreigners for selfies are generally middle-class and speak English so in many ways, it’s those people that you remember because they’re so much a part of your experience.

Seeing poverty as a traveller often means seeing people begging on the streets but I felt like there was a swathe of people that I didn’t see or know anything about. This is why I wanted to go on the slum tour, in order to see beyond the beggars, the middle-class and the rich in order to know more about Indian life.

We went to Mumbai towards the end of our 3-month trip around India, so we decided that we wanted to more of real India, beyond the tourist traps that we’d seen. It seems like ‘poverty porn’ but ultimately it was one of our last attempts to see India and contribute to the place where we’d spent so much time.

There are a few tours now, but we went with the ethical and charitable Reality Tours as recommended by the guidebook. It is effectively a donation to the development of projects in the slum with a free tour attached (80% of the fee goes to their charity and the rest pays for staff and the office). You meet at the Mahim Junction train station and two guides take you on a two and half hour tour and you’re not permitted to take photographs which is fair (I bought the one I’m using).

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai
Dharavi Slum, Mumbai

One thing I know about India, which helped make a decision about the tour, was that there is no expectation of privacy, for anyone. We weren’t afforded much privacy while we were in India and there is no issue with asking ‘personal’ questions. I was filmed and photographed by people with and without my consent for the whole time I was in India. It wasn’t a concern of mine that I was offending people or invading their privacy because culturally that isn’t a concern for most people in India.

What I saw in this slum wasn’t particularly worse than other living conditions I’d seen in big cities, purely because I had been in slums before and not particularly realised it. This in itself is a good thing, because I travelled around South America and the slums or favelas there can be very dangerous as they’re run by drug cartels and crime rates are sky high.

This is not so in India and crime rates are low in the slums compared to the high murder counts of Rio de Janeiro . I’ve been to the Rio favelas and the guide is on a walkie-talkie to avoid taking tourists into such dangerous confrontations. I thought that the conditions in Rio were worse in many ways, especially with regards to crime and the dangers of electrical problems. That is my opinion as a tourist so I may be wrong.

What impressed me about Dharavi, and the reason that people visit this one in particular is that it is a powerhouse in terms of the industry of around 5,000 businesses that goes on inside. We saw craftspeople (mainly men sadly) making suitcases, tailored clothing, baskets, goatskin leather and pots in small rooms in back alleys and the work was great quality even if the materials weren’t necessarily. Some of the clothes are made for global brands but they couldn’t disclose which ones, I had a close look and as a dressmaker myself (albeit more of an amateur) I could appreciate how good it was. There’s a reason so much is made in India as there are so many skilled workers here.

Another big industry is recycling, and plastics are sorted then manually shredded and washed to create pellets that are sent away to be melted. They are not permitted to use them for food or drink but it does mean that 80% of solid waste gets recycled, including metals and electronics which doesn’t necessarily happen elsewhere in India.

The circular economy is the only way that we can create a better environment to live in, even if the recycling system is rudimentary. Ultimately, there’s nothing to stop these plastic fragments polluting water systems but it employs 250,000 people and prevents rubbish piles the likes of which are building up all around Asia and the world.

Dharavi makes a billion dollars a year which means that its residents make 350 rupees per day on average, which is over double the minimum wage of 150 rupees with the ability to make more for skilled jobs. No small feat but other slums will suffer from not having this industry to keep them afloat, as it exists here because there are 1 million people who work together in the city and constantly create.

Every year residents do leave the slum for blue collar jobs, as Dharavi is the most literate slum in India but that doesn’t mean that people want to leave. Many people have everything they want here, though one of the biggest issues is poor sanitation and lack of toilets, and while some improvements have been made there is nowhere near enough.

We were also there at election time and one political party was giving away free stuff to residents, which almost felt manipulative to me and I very much hope that isn’t the case. Things like politics and religion can really derail communities that live in such close quarters and it has caused problems in the past with the Bombay riots.

Another issue is that while Dharavi’s prime situation in the heart of Mumbai means more opportunities, its also prime real estate for developers who keep a beady eye on it. Let’s hope that it never comes to that, as it would be an injustice to demolish such a productive community that is also the heart of the city in the metaphorical sense.

All in all, I’m glad I visited Dharavi on a tour, mainly because it meant that I could understand what was going on and give back to the community in a small way, as well as being able to see tailors at work as sewing is such a passion of mine. Dharavi is a hive mind and further proof (as if we needed it) that India has the power to solve its problems as many of its residents are ultimately pushing against poverty every day.

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