here, there, everywhere

Dharavi

In Asia, India on October 3, 2015 at 10:20 pm

Dharavi Slum

View of the rooftops, Dharavi Slum

Today a bunch of us decided to take a tour of one of the slums of Mumbai.  It felt kind of awkward, like we are touring others’ misery just to get a glimpse into another life.  But other people said in spite of their initial misapprehensions as well, the tour would be worth it and not as voyeuristic as you might think.  So we caught the train down to Mahim Junction and were immediately identified by our tour guide, Janna.  For the record, ‘slum’ is a derogatory word since it conjures up the idea of dirty, poor, and lazy, but even the guide kept referring to it using the word so unfortunately it sticks.

We grabbed a quick lunch then walked up the stairs and over the train tracks into Dharavi, the largest ‘slum’ in Mumbai, and third largest in the world.  If you’ve seen ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, then you should have an idea of what the slum looks like.

While dirty is self-evident, poor could be argued on a local scale, and lazy is completely wrong; you would be hard pressed to find a more industrious neighourhood in the developed world.  More than one million people live and work in 1.7 square kilometres, roughly 570,000 people per kilometre.  Dharavi is commercial and residential, and the economy generates about $665m per year from plastic and aluminum recycling, leather production, and pottery.  Janna took us to the factories (loose term, could be a single room in an alley) for the different plastic recycling stages from collection to sorting to crushing, melting, reforming, and repurposing.  (It is prohibited to take photos inside the slum so there are very few pictures to share.)

Plastic

Crushed plastic crystals drying in the sun

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View of the slum from plastic ‘factory’ rooftop

Next we went to check out the aluminum section where they take cans and burn the paint off, crush, and do whatever else it takes to turn them into bricks which get repurposed in the slum or shipped to other countries.  The workers in all these factories make about 200-300 rupees per day (~$6 CAD) after working 8-12 hours, 7 days per week; a lot of them don’t have enough money to live in an apartment and so strike a deal with the owners of the factories to sleep there, so basically this is their life 24/7.  Most of them have families in villages across the country and they’ll return home once a year for a visit.  We saw one worker soldering some pipes, no goggles, no gloves.  The guide told us they do try to get the workers to wear protective gear, but for the most part it’s refused as the workers say they can get stuff done faster without.  Both plastic and aluminum recycling are toxic, aluminum works its way into the body’s system in about 2-3 years and manifests itself in different diseases.

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Overheard view of an alleyway

We also checked out the leather factory where they prepare the leathers from goat and water buffalo, the tanning is done in Chennai as it’s banned in Mumbai due to drainage issues or something like that.  I only know if a purse looks nice, I could never tell you if it’s genuine or a knock-off, but I did like the purses I checked out in one of the shops and they looked decent to me.  Lots of Jimmy Choo, Prada, Chanel, etc.

The final section we looked at was pottery which is booming right now in advance of Diwali.  All year they prepare the little oil lamp pots, thousands upon thousands, and those will all be grabbed up in time for the holiday of lights.

On the way out, Janna took us to the community centre the NGO he works for has built for the local kids.  Inside a group of older teenagers were studying English as that’s the language anyone has to learn to get ahead.  A little boy was hanging out in the front reception playing chess, so one of the guys in our group sat down and was defeated by the little guy.  It was not a fair game, in the end the boy picked up a pawn and air-bombed Lamri’s king, but was pretty pumped when Lamri shook his hand in defeat.

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Dharavi’s chess champion

About the poverty aspect of the slums; our guide explained people who live in the slums choose to live there and are better off than those living on the street.  Some parts of the slums are legal, others are illegal.  If you live in a legal apartment, you are supplied with 24 hour electricity and 4-5 hours of water, usually in the mornings so the day’s requirements are stored in buckets.  If you’re in an illegal apartment, the government can tear down your place whenever.  Some of the apartments are on leased land until 2030 at which point the government will most likely tear down what’s there and turn it into a commercial portion, but the people living there at the time will be resettled.  Renting an apartment is about 4000 rupees per month, there are project sponsored apartment towers where the people can live for free, but they do pay a monthly maintenance fee.

Hindus and Muslims live in different quarters but apart from the Hindu gods on display, you can’t really tell the neighbourhoods apart.  We walked through alleyways where shoulders rubbed both sides of the alley, ducked because of wires and other things right above our heads, and hopped over  puddles of mud and other junk in the path.  We came out to a courtyard with government built public toilets next to a giant dump heap.  Flies everywhere and very strong smells whichever way you turned your head.  And yet there is vibrant life all throughout; kids run around and play, mothers yell at them from the doorways as they do laundry or prepare dinner, men drink chai at work or chat with each other in the streets.  There are shops, open cart fruit and vegetable stands, you can get pretty much whatever you need right there in front of you.

It’s easy for us to walk into a place like that and automatically classify it as a dump and the worst of poverty, but after the tour it was apparent there is far more to what goes on inside than what we’ve been told or seen on TV.  I would definitely not ever want to live in something like that, but I have an appreciation for it now that I didn’t have before.  If you’re interested in knowing more about it from the inside perspective, you can check out the Reality Gives website.

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  1. If you wish to explore the satellite city, Navi Mumbai , feel free to contact me. Have a happy stay 🙂
    prakritisingh.wordpress.com

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