On a quest to know Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, also featured in “Slumdog Millionaire”

In the few hours free time I had in Mumbai between classes, I surprised myself by choosing to do a tour of Dharavi as opposed to taking part in “Bombay Heritage Walks”, which happens to be in my list of ‘must-dos’. Seriously, at no point can I imagine myself carrying a backpack, walking into a slum by myself to see the place without inhibitions. So, when I came across the guided tour of Dharavi by Reality tours and travels, I thought, this is it!

When you think of slums, what comes to your mind? Overcrowded alleys, unhygienic living conditions? What you need to know about Dharavi is the enterprising nature and unbreakable spirit of its residents.” were the introductory lines of our guide.  With an estimated annual turnover of 500 million USD from the industries in Dharavi, I don’t doubt it for a second.

Oil can recycling in Dharavi

Oil can recycling in Dharavi

We started our tour at the Plastic recycling unit. Contracted with cruises, hotels, companies from across the country, the unit receives enough load to keep them occupied throughout the year. Point to be noted: the machinery used for the process is built by Dharavians themselves and gets exported to Australia and New Zealand. Do we need any more proof of Dharavians’ skills and capabilities? I was bowled over.

Our next stop was the Leather factory, popular among locals for the leather goods available here for shopping. We walked past oil/paint cans recycling unit and Jeans, T-shirts manufacturing unit and Cardboard recycling units.

Cardboard Recycling in Dharavi

Adding to the above are innumerable small-scale units: Pottery units run by Gujaratis, Papaddam making units run by Hindu women of Tamil community, tailoring units assisting the textile industry of Dharavi and more.

Paint recycling factory

Paint recycling factory

“This largest slum of Asia with high population density, within its premises has one private hospital, a police station with 45 constables, a movie theater for recreation, a government school, a bank and an ATM, a vegetable market and towers for mobile and TV networks.” explained our guide.

If I stop talking about Dharavi right here, the picture you get is probably of a small town with efforts to sustain itself, hardworking people with never-say-die attitude. But then, what makes this place any different?

Working and living Conditions in Dharavi: Most factories were dark rooms of not more than 100 sqft each cramped with machinery and men-at -work behind them. Workers had to compete with goods for space, which had to be moved now and then. The only source of light to these rooms was what came through the front door, insufficient even to recognize the person standing next to you.

On spending a little more time, we realized that there was no chimney to let out toxic smoke that was rising from the debris. A casual remark from our guide saying with no chimney, toxic wastes are turned back into the room, was a horrific revelation! As we walked past, the number of such factories multiplied.

Animal blood flowing in the open gutters, dye wastes in the drainage from Jeans manufacturing units, slaughter houses – the sights were shattering. For a while I avoided looking at either side, fearful of what I might see and what might register in my memory.

To my horror again, the factories and residences were not far apart. At times they shared a common wall. Most houses are enclosures of 100 sqft made with plastic slabs. Open spaces were and are still used for urination and defecation. As you might have guessed, with no proper sewage system in place, all wastes get diverted into Mahim creek which till date remains heavily polluted and source of epidemic diseases. Dharavi’s location and poor drainage systems also make it vulnerable to floods during the rains.

From what I saw, It is clear that the spirit of people here is challenged by their worsening physical environment every single day. The more I saw of the place, my heart sank and I was hopelessly lost in thoughts.

That is, until we came to the end of our tour and halted before a building that read ‘ASHAYEN COMMUNITY CENTER.’ As the group climbed the steps, I could hear the cheer of children.  Ashayen community center is an NGO run by reality tours. They educate children of Dharavi, offer a conducive environment for learning and do much more.

The trouble of initiating ‘the task of providing hope’ has been taken care of. So what is that we can do? Blaming the present conditions of our nation and moving away from it will not change the conditions in any way. If we want to see our country a better place, we need to be part of the change, however small that is. I am part of that change. When there is real progress as a result of my efforts, as always you will be the first ones to know.

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13 thoughts on “On a quest to know Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, also featured in “Slumdog Millionaire”

  1. Very interesting article. Always wanted to visit Dharavi, heard a lot about it. But first time reading a first hand experience. It was a great read. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    • The irony is I saw expensive cars like Benz and BMW. The contrasts were surprising. My friends in Mumbai explained different reasons. But whatever said and done, I agree that the need for sanitation improvement is undebatable. Thanks for reading Emily…

  2. The fact is it is the place that shapes the people in the first few years, eventually people become the ones who shape the place in the long run. William Faulkner’s view has stood its ground over the years, I hope, Dharavi too will shine like a super star, soon. Thank you Gypsy, for taking us along, it was one heck of walk indeed.

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