A review of our visit of Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum

When we arrived in Mumbai we hadn’t planned to visit a slum, we thought of it as a kind of ‘poverty tourism’ and it didn’t appeal to us. Then we overheard a couple enthusiastically telling of their visit to Dharavi at breakfast, and were intrigued. We had a spare afternoon before catching the overnight train so we did some quick research and signed up for a tour with Reality Tours.

Reality Tours, guided tours by Dharavi residents

Reality Tours was founded in 2005, with the main objective “to show the positive side of slums and to break down negative stereotypes about its residents”, it says on their website.

At the company’s office in the centre of Mumbai, Sunny introduces himself as our guide for the day, a young economics student with a big smile, who grew up in Dharavi. He wants to dispel the myths of Indian slums and showcase the industrialism, workmanship and, most of all, unique sense of community of Dharavi.

Dharavi is the beating heart of Mumbai, Sunny explains proudly on the way. Pulling up outside a café he suggests a quick loo break, with the warning that we wouldn’t be able to use the toilet in Dharavi. This kind of pressure makes me nervous at the best of times but certainly when in India!

First stop: Dhobi Ghat

Our next stop is Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry. We watch from the bridge above as washermen, ‘dhobiwallahs’, scrub, wring and hang countless sheets. The scale of the operation somehow at odds with its simplicity, Dhobit Ghat serves some of the largest hotels and hospitals in the Mumbai area.

Entering Dharavi – home to 1 million inhabitants

A few minutes later, the car drops us off outside Dharavi, and we enter the slum through a narrow alleyway, stepping over scrap metal and a whole lot of rubbish. We have been warned about the smell, Sunny has asked us not to show our disgust too openly to not offend the people whose home we are visiting.

Dharavi turns out a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and shacks seemingly build on top of each other, so very claustrophobic. Buildings are small, windowless and seem almost cave-like.

Dharavi houses approximately 1 million inhabitants and consists of two parts, a residential area and an industrial area. Dharavi industries turn over approximately $665 million a year, Sunny explains not without pride. We just gasp at these statistics.

Dharavi’s recycling industry

First Sunny takes us to the recycling industry. Plastic and metal rubbish is shipped to Dharavi from all over the world, including Europe, to be sorted and washed.

We climb onto the roof of one of the buildings where the recycling waste is dried in the sun before being melted into tiny pellets, which are sold back to global industry. We get a full view of Dharavi from the top, Asia’s largest slum stretching out all around us, squashed neatly in between Mumbai’s railway lines.

Firmly in the hands of big business, property prices in industrial Dharavi have soared, Sunny explains, a vicious circle slowing down the redevelopment to the detriment of the people of Dharavi.

Extreme working conditions

Next, we come past the aluminium industry, where men are feeding a large fire, no children are allowed in this area due to the toxic smoke.

Around the corner, a group of men are stirring an enormous pot of boiling hot fabric dye, trying to match the tone of the small piece of fabric they received with their work order. The conditions these men work under are appalling.

We walk straight through what seems a hot welding workshop to reach a small sweatshop, where a couple of men are bent over sewing machines, stitching suitcases and backpacks. The floor is covered in undefinable dirt, the smell, the desperation ingrained in the workers’ faces, it is grim.

Dharavi as opportunity

Sunny explains the opportunity Dharavi presents to so many ‘immigrants’ – Indian farmers who struggle to make a living come to Mumbai in the hope to create a better life for their families. Dharavi provides them with work, shelter and community. Most men sleep in the workshops, next to their machinery, and send the few rupees they earn home to their families.

It seems ironic that many consider the shamelessly ostentatious Antilia tower overlooking the slum, home to India’s wealthiest business man, a symbol of the opportunities Mumbai provides to people of all backgrounds.

Global leather export

Suddenly the stench worsens, we have to try hard not to cover our noses as we pass a pile of sheep cadavers. We have entered the leather tanning industry where high quality leather products are manufactured. Sunny takes us to a tiny little shop, a clean, air-conditioned piece of heaven, where tourists can buy leather goods straight from the source. They are unbranded, the proud shop keeper explains, as they are exported to big retail chains all over the world, who stamp their own trademark on the bags, belts and purses before they land in our high street shops.

We reach a little cul-de-sac, a little enclave, stuffed with pots and kilns. This pottery is one of the oldest industries in Dharavi Sunny explains, and has been in the hand of the Kumbhar family for generations. They keep themselves to themselves and maintain their very own techniques.

What fascinates me most about industrial Dharavi is the productivity and professionalism behind the chaos, the diversity and scale of businesses hidden in this maze of tiny workshops.

Living in the Dharavi Slum

We cross a bridge into the residential area, the atmosphere changes instantly. Laughing kids playing cricket in the dusty roads, smiling mothers watching them from their tiny homes. Poppadoms baking in the yards, friendly chatter everywhere. It is obvious that our guide is a popular member of the community here, sharing warm hellos and friendly banter as we walk through the streets.

Hygiene remains a real problem he tells us, with several hundred inhabitants sharing one toilet. The queue is longest in the mornings, he says with a smile.

A tightly knit, diverse community

We pass various places of worship, Dharavi residents are proud of their cultural diversity. The Dharavi community is one of a kind, Sunny says, so strong is the bond that many people choose to live in this neighbourhood over the modern apartments in the city.

Apparently, many inhabitants rejected the city’s plans of replacing shacks with new high rise buildings, despite the promise of a real water and waste infrastructure. Especially those who’ve lived in Dharavi all their lives depend on the safety this closely knit community offers, and fear the loneliness and anonymity of self-contained, high rise flats.

Reality Gives community work

Our last stop is a little building in the centre of the residential area, where we climb the stairs to the top floor. This is one of the three Community Centres in Dharavi run by Reality Gives, Reality Tours’ foundation, directly funded by the proceeds of visitor tours like this. Reality Gives provides education, classes and experiences to children and young people in the slum, giving them a chance to build their own lives and break the cycle of poverty.

We finish the tour at a souvenir shop where we are asked to fill in a short survey and given the opportunity to buy gifts or simply donate to the charity.

An unforgettable and highly recommended experience

After half a day in Dharavi, we are in high spirits, full of new impressions and food for thought, but also knackered and in urgent need of a shower.

Contrast to my original hesitation, I would now strongly recommend anyone visiting Mumbai to take a tour of the microcosm that is Dharavi. The honesty, passion and pride with which guides like Sunny talk about Dharavi, its difficulties but also the hope it represents for many, make for an unforgettable experience. A visit of Dharavi challenges everything you think you knew about Indian slums and will stay with you forever.