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Mumbai’s Reality Slum Tour

April 26, 2012

While I was in Mumbai I was fortunate enough to experience the Reality Slum Tour of Dharavi.  Not only is it the largest slum in Mumbai (and trust me, there are many), but it is the largest slum of Asia.

When I was first recommended to go on this slum tour while in Mumbai, I was skeptical.  What was it – a tour so tourists could stare at poverty and be astonished by how people could live on so little and in appalling conditions?  It felt patronising, belittling and wrong.  But since I was recommended it by people who had either been on the tour, or were local (both non-Indian and Indian), I was curious.  When I mentioned to some friends in England I was planning on taking this tour they laughed, finding it hilarious.  Yet they, like I, were ignorant to what the tour actually held in store.

Man carrying recycled bags

Man carrying recycled bags

The tour started at Mahim station – a young man called Nilesh was our guide.  His initial talk explained in short what the tour was about and laid all my negative misconceptions of the tour to rest.  He explained that the tour was to show the positives, not the negatives of the slums.  He proudly told us that the slum alone produces $665 million worth of revenue a year and promised to show us all the places of industry and production.  I was amazed.

Of course Nilesh warned us we would see poverty, and that it was much more confrontational than the poverty seen from just strolling along the roads in Colaba or Bandra.   We would see shocking squalor at times and at points the stench could be unbearable.  But he asked us to respect those who lived and worked there; to not scrunch up our noses and to just walk quickly past any sewers or unpleasant smells.  I liked that he said that.  He’d probably seen it happen far too often.

Plastic

How plastic is recycled

Nilesh explained that the slum was divided in half – one half was for industry and production, the other the residential part.  And so, for the first part of our tour we were led from industry to industry, factory to factory. First we arrived at a place where plastic was recycled.  Then we saw how leather was made, after which we passed the embroiderers.  And lastly we watched how men recycled oil cans, by washing them in boiling water (with bare hands) and then passing the cans on to the women to dry.  It was clear that working conditions were extremely dangerous and risky.  However, the men who worked here were the poorest, and did not have much choice  Nor do they have a ‘house’ in the slum.  They sleep in the factory since they cannot afford to sleep elsewhere. Factory owners don’t mind this as they act as guards during the night, so come in useful to them.  These men will work incredibly hard and long months for the majority of the year to collect enough money to bring back to their families in the far away countryside villages.  It is a tough way of life, but in most instances, the only way of life.  I have huge respect for these men, always smiling as we walked passed,  never it seemed disgruntled or angry with life.

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recycling oil cans

Recycling oil cans

Nilesh also interestingly told us about the split in the slum of Muslims and Hindus.  Years ago, they lived together in peace.  Until the 1992/3 riots, when around 900 Hindus and Muslims were killed in Mumbai (and many more outside the city) as a consequence of the Muslim backlash to the demolition of a Muslim mosque by the Hindus and the developments which followed.  Since then, the slum became divided.  The Hindu area is a lot more affluent on the whole, and when we asked why, it was explained because the Muslim men will not let their wives and children work.   On the whole relations are much better now between the Muslims and the Hindus in Dharavi.

Embroidery

Embroidery

After the industrial part of the slum, we wandered around the residential areas.  People live here who don’t work in the slums, most are in fact taxi drivers or even doctors and lawyers.  They either choose to live in the slum because it is where they have grown up and where they feel comfortable, or because they cannot afford the extortionate accommodation prices in Mumbai.  Even within the slum, prices to rent or buy a house are surprisingly high.  This is all because of the immense competition for limited space and an ever-growing population. We were shown inside a house (one room, where often at least 5 people live), shown where the slum inhabitants do their daily ‘business’, shown the ‘recycling’ heap.  I loved walking around the quieter, more open parts of the slums, where children play contently in a corner, chickens dart around and the women in beautiful colourful saris make papadams and leave them to dry in the sun.  And everyone is just extraordinarily friendly.  These were the wealthier parts of the slums but they too showed a remarkable sense of community and togetherness.

Friendly, smiling faces

Friendly, smiling faces

We were not allowed to take our own photos, another way of showing respect to those who live and work in the slum.  The photos I have used were a select few taken by the Reality Tour organisation themselves.  I found the tour very worth while, it showed me a completely different side of the city, something I think I really needed after enjoying the luxuries of the Marriott.  It could not have contrasted more to cocktails at the Four Season and I found it much more impressive.   It has certainly stayed with me.

‘Reality tours and travel’ (http://www.realitytoursandtravel.com/) are a wonderful NGO and the 500 rupees per tour is spent on education and sanitizing projects in the slum, among other things.   Don’t miss it when you are in Mumbai.

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