Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

Controversial activity of the day….an organized tour of Asia’s largest slum. Now you can throw out words like ‘bad taste, voyeurism and the evils of poverty tourism,’ but in actual fact you would have to take them back. It wasn’t really any of these things and if the similar one in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro taught me anything is that they can be really interesting ways to learn about a city and see a side you wouldn’t normally get to see. The company; Reality Tours  & Travel donate 80% of the profits to a community education centre which we visit, and all photography is strictly banned, which you have to admire really.

We walk for 2 to 3 hours, stopping at a number of industries and residential areas in the 1.7 sq km mass city within a city. Dharavi is often cited and studied for it’s innovation in businesses, with an annual turnover of around $600 usd. We visit the huge Dhobi Ghat open air laundry. If we dropped the contents of our backpacks into any given hostel or hotel in the whole of Mumbai, chances are our smalls would end up here to be scrubbed by hand and returned pristine the next day. The whole system works on colour coded tags which are sown into each garment, and mistakes are rarely made.

In Dharavi’s alleys themselves we visit tiny warehouses that are at the heart of most of the worlds recycling clean up. China and USA export vast quantities of their waste here. Go figure/insert you own scathing political comment here. We peak into dimly lit rooms of 5 generations of families working to sort plastics into piles for 12 hours and day, 6 days a week. As you could expect, conditions are harsh. This is however one side of it, like anywhere there is a hierarchy of jobs, the women baking poppadoms seem to have it best, as our guide Ganesh puts it “gossiping about everyone within the 1.7 sq km radius all day long.”

I had read about plastics and metal work, soap and pottery businesses, but perhaps the most shocking one is food. There are bakeries that export thousands of kg of puff pastries a day, sold to huge fancy bakeries across India and abroad. It’s all made here, which is something to think about when it reaches us in our fancy coffee shop on a shiny white square plate with a side of organic fruit on. Similarly is the leather industry. I won’t name the brand names just in case I one day get sued, but basically your $2000 designer wallet/handbag has been made here. And no doubt for pennies.

The residential areas are interesting, as Ganesh talks about housing programmes, and the lobbying of NGOs to change government polities to better protect the rights of long time residents. He also jokes about the fact that Muslims and Hindu’s live side by side in neighbouring quarters, and that bigger than religious differences, or the sacredness of using cow leather is something more important; the sacredness of money!

We see the expected and the unexpected. We walk through grime filled alleys, we visit houses that are only slightly wider than phone booths that are home families of up to 10, Mark accidently drenches his flipflop in a drain of very suspect waste. On the flip side we drink Chai at thriving communal coffee stalls, we shake hands with eager 10 year olds that are all in school uniforms and actually go to school, and see family homes with TV’s and recognizable signs of wealth. Everyone says hi, nobody begs. Of course we are definitely seeing the edited Disney version of life here. The tours have been operating for 6 years with the permission of residents and on the same fixed routes, but still you go away with a redefined notion of what a ‘slum’ is, and feeling of “it’s not what you think.”

Numerous newspaper articles and documentaries have said it before, and Ganesh himself leaves us with numerous similar stories. Those of Dharavi residents that work as cabin crew for huge international airlines, that own appartements that they rent our all over Mumbai. In other words, with means of escape. Except they don’t, they chose to stay and live in Dharavi. The sense of community, is seems, is hard to replace.

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