As I stand on the bridge over the thundering railway, a maze of corrugated shacks, blue tarpaulin and dark alleyways lies beneath me, stretching out as far as the eye can see. A multicoloured sign fabricated from various pieces of scrap corrugated metal reads ‘Welcome’. Welcome to Dharavi.
Mumbai is a true megalopolis; one of the most populous cities in the world, with over 20 million people. It is the richest city in India and holds the largest film industry in the world.
As Mumbai is the financial and commercial capital of India, it attracts poor migrants from all over the country also looking to make their fortune. Sadly, the reality is that many of these people who flock from the countryside looking for a better life end up living in one of the city’s 2000 slums.
Mumbai is an aspirational city for the modern India but is also a place where the extreme contrasts of rich and poor and the complex contradiction of new skyscrapers and posh offices towering over the slums as people live out their lives in shacks squeezed in by the side of the railway or trawling the beach for scraps is shocking and disconcerting.
With over half of the city’s population living in shanty towns, slums are an integral piece of the fabric that makes up Mumbai. So, in an attempt to try and understand more about the city we took a tour to the Dharavi slum.
Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia with over a million people living there and the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire was based here. Although Dharavi is technically a slum (because it is an unplanned development) it is a fully functioning community which has changed my perceptions on slums and poverty. Unlike other slums the residents and businesses do have some access to water, electricity and some public toilets.
There is much more to Dharavi than poverty. It is an inspiring story about the ambition, ingenuity and hard work by people living in the harshest conditions. Dharavi houses about 10,000 businesses that export worldwide and make an annual turnover of around $665 million dollars per year.
As we weaved our way through the narrow alleyways we saw people making pottery, baskets and soap. We saw ladies making poppadoms and laying them out in the sun to dry. Small, dark factories were a hive of activity: baking bread and cakes, embroidering textiles and tanning leather. The cakes they make are sold all over Mumbai and the leather is apparently used by Gucci.
Dharavi also handles waste from all over the world and recycles everything from plastic bottles, bags, pens, cans, cardboard, computer parts, car batteries, wires, metals, paint cans and oil drums. Women crouch in filthy shacks, sorting and picking through the bags of trash strewn out on the floor that the rag pickers bring in from the city’s dumps.
The buzz of industry around Dharavi is inspiring. Everything here is recycled; nothing is wasted, even soap used by guests in fancy hotels is collected, recycled and reused. All this certainly serves an important environmental purpose in a world that is literally heaving under the weight of rubbish.
All around me the sounds of hammering and drilling wafts out, along with the smoke, from dark shacks. There are also heavy industries and factories here within the maze of corrugated shacks. I found it difficult to come to terms with the shockingly dangerous conditions of the recycling and heavy industries that people were working in among the open sewers, rubbish and haphazard electricity cables. I watched people recycling paint and cooking oil tins by putting them in a fire to burning out the paint and oil residues. Choking smoke stung my eyes and make me cough as it bellowed out of the dark corrugated shacks as it released poisonous gases before the men cleaned and repainted the tins to sell on. The smell of toxic chemicals and sewage lingered in the air alongside the smoke and dust.
Some of the shacks were even smelting down metal and making the machinery to be used in the recycling process. Some workers also live and sleep in the factories, to save money and provide security as many of the factory owners now live outside the slum. They earn a daily wage of about 100 or 150 rupees (£1.20 – £1.80) a day and life expectancy is only 50 years old.
There is also a fully functioning, sociable residential area with communities of different faiths, families, shops, schools and public toilets. A wide street serves as a busy thoroughfare thronging with people, smartly uniformed children on their way to school, motorbikes, rickshaws, shops, food and clothing stalls. You can feel an optimistic and determined community spirit despite the filthy conditions. Some of the houses are well built, painted and maintained but the majority we saw were single room, concrete cell like, dwellings housing extended families made from any materials they could salavage. As we walked further through the labyrinth the sewage drains and the street became one, the alleyways became ever narrower until they blocked out the light and were barely passable.
Dharavi is situated in between two suburban train lines in the middle of Mumbai. This is prime real estate and new flats overlook the the maze of corrugated shacks. The guide told us that the government had cleared some of the slum and given residents free apartments. However, he said that many people actually choose to live in the community where they had grown up and had rented out these new apartments. Some residents work in white collar jobs outside the slum and own televisions, mobile phones, computers and even cars but prefer to remain in Dharavi.
Despite the dirty conditions, hardship and the dire smell of most of Dharavi the one thing that remained constant were the smiling faces of the children and the coy but kind looks from the women. Even the men at work in disgusting and dangerous conditions looked happier than the average McDonald’s employee!
I found the tour of the slum very emotional and my first couple of days in India very challenging. India is really a transformative travel destination, I have learnt many things from my trip, most notably to realise and apreciate how lucky I am and to make the most of all the opportunites I have. I’ve never before experienced feeling so many intense and often contradicting emotions all at the same time. Dharavi was depressing and inspiring, beautiful and disgusting at the same time.
I found the way that these people dealt with their situation incredibly humbling and it changed my attitudes to poverty. Most of the people who live in this slum work unbelievably hard. They use incredibly inventive ways to survive and make a living from nothing. The way that people here try to lift themselves out of poverty by working hard and recycling everything is amazingly inspirational.