Dharavi: Visiting one of world’s largest slums, in Mumbai, India

For the most of you that have seen the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, Mumbai’s slum areas have become a symbol of poverty and misery. That is exactly the reason that I made a great effort to visit Mumbai’s largest slum during my first day in Mumbai, my first day in India…

I wanted to see with my own eyes, what is like to live in such a place. I was lucky enough that my hotel’s concierge had contacted the company Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai. Those people have started from within the slum, trying to attract visitors to see how is life inside the slums. Tour guides are people living in the slum, so they can give many information and also know what are the safest paths within those very densely inhabited areas.

_dsc6278sWe entered the slum area from this small alley in the middle of the picture…

My guide was Sunmohan Rajlu (asked me to call him Sunny), a 23 year old Indian, who was actually living inside the Dharavi slum. According to what he told me, Dharavi slum is considered the third biggest slum in the world (about 1 mil people) and it hosts one of the biggest recycling industries of Mumbai. How is that, I was about to discover…

For all of you thinking: “disgusting, he entered this filthy area”, I would like to ask you take a step back and maybe reconsider…

Indeed, when we entered the first alleys of the slum I was very cautious, that maybe something bad would happen to me. Actually, the only bad thing that happened to me was the fact that I had to agree that no photos are allowed. This was the only restriction, but I understood very well the fact that the identity and the private life of those people had to be protected.

_dsc6276sThis image showing the water pipes as seen in the famous movie “Slumdog Millionaire”

The first area we visited was the recycling area. Paper, plastic, aluminum, iron were extracted from Mumbai’s waste areas and brought to Dharavi in order to be prepared and recycled. Everything was done by hand! Safety and health precautions were at level zero, but somehow it seemed that the whole area was working effectively. Some tens of tons of garbage were processed everyday (imagine that Mumbai’s population is around 20 million) and a lot of the material was either prepared for re-use (ex. Cardboard boxes) or for recycling.

dharavi-cardboard-recycling_15027880962_oCardboard recycling – Photo: Courtesy of Reality Tours and Travel

Two examples were the most impressive for me:
1.Plastic recycling area. All plastic material regardless of quality were put through shredder machines (all shredder machines were home built inside the slum). After plastic was transformed in small pieces then was transferred to another area to melt and then produce the small particles that industry needs in order to use for making new plastic parts.

_dsc6279sThe center of the plactic recycling “factories”

2.Aluminum recycling area. All aluminum material was melted in ovens, inside the slum(!) and then producing large bars of aluminum, to be used by the industry.

In this, recycling area, I was told that every year there is a turnover of about $650mil! Not so bad.

can-recycling_14923695462_oIron Recycling – Photo: Courtesy of Reality Tours and Travel

However, the problem is that people live and work at the same place, they sleep most of the times on the ground and possibly next to boiling hot ovens. Most of the workers of the recycling area, come from poor agricultural areas that can only provide work for a couple of months. So, workers come to the slum to work for the rest of the year, sending biggest part of their $150 monthly salary, back to their families.

industrial-area_14841716897_oGoods are coming to the recycling area – Photo: Courtesy of Reality Tours and Travel

Next part we visited was the part of the slum that inhabits most of the local people living in this area. This, was not inside the itinerary of the tour, however Sunny, my guide, asked me if I wanted to see how those people live…

narrow-dharavi-lane_14841642638_oBuinding façades just a few centimeters away – Photo: Courtesy of Reality Tours and Travel

Well it was a very interesting experience, since I realized that 1 million people have to survive using about 70 toilets and showers. You can do the math and reconsider next time you fight for who is to get first in your house’s bathroom…

_dsc6303sLiving in the slum

One more thing I realized was that families in the slum, call home an area of about 10 square meter,s in ground flour or in 1st flour and the construction of each house is out of metal sheets welded or screwed on steel beams that act as a frame. Very few buildings have a 2nd flour, only those that are made of bigger steel beams…

_dsc6340sLiving in the slum

No toilets inside those buildings, no showers. Electric power is 24/7 but fresh water only comes for 3 hours per day, so every family has to be prepared and keep water in large plastic tanks!

_dsc6296sLiving in the slum

Impressive also that the distance between the façade of the buildings is sometimes less than 50cm! So there are small dark alleys. Keep in mind that in the alleys are used, besides humans, by dogs, goats, turkeys, chicken and pigs quite often…

_dsc6383sLiving in the slum

To Community Center we visited, was also a very interesting place. In small classrooms, about 300 young men and women for 3 months each group, get some education (English language, computer usage, life skills, sports, dancing etc.) so, that some of them can even go to college!
This program is financed by the  Reality Tours and Travel and this is a very good reason to use this company for your tour…

the-reality-gives-youth-empowerment-program-yep_14737368959_oThe comunity – Photo: Courtesy of Reality Tours and Travel

While leaving the Community center and while walking through a broader alley, we ended at a place the women dressed in intense colored dresses, were preparing the “popaddoms”. Some kind of flat bread, made by hand and left to dry in hemisphere shape bamboo constructions. The view was amazing, but I was strictly ordered not to take any photos…

Our visit lead us to the leather area, where raw leather is prepared and formed in clothing, bags etc. Many famous brands are using leather material from Dharavi to make their, very expensive, products…

Last area we visited was the pottery area named “Kumbharwada Pottery Colony” (est.1930). Clay and water are being worked and many different kinds of pottery are produced. After a few days left to dry, they are put in open ovens to complete the pottery procedure. I was impressed that ovens were burning next to houses and people were exposed to smoke full of carbon oxides. OK I was not walking through the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital, but in this area it was hard to breath from the smoke. Imagine that some ovens were burning for days…

_dsc6286s“Kumbharwada Pottery Colony”

_dsc6285s“Kumbharwada Pottery Colony”

_dsc6291s“Kumbharwada Pottery Colony”

_dsc6289s“Kumbharwada Pottery Colony”

My 3hr tour at Mumbai’s Dharavi slum tour was over while in the office of the Reality Tours and Travel inside the slum. The experience was strong and unforgettable.

I walked through narrow alleys, through recycling areas (native people call them factories, but they are far from what we call factories), I stepped though water that undoubtedly had human and animal sewage in it. I saw people that lived in very harsh conditions. Imagine also that I visited this area in October, just a few days (not weeks) that monsoons have ended. That means that the area was relatively clean from the rain. However there was one thing that struck me more: Most of the people I met were smiling, they seemed relaxed and happy and they did not complain, they did not even begged for help!

I am not implying that I envy their life, but I was impressed how they were dealing with the given conditions. We are not able to handle with much easier problems…

local-kid_14924043795_oPhoto: Courtesy of Reality Tours and Travel

Food for thought…

I would like to sincerely thank my company KTM South East Europe SA, also KTM AG and Barbara Kennedy and Ilia Condou, that contributed the most in order for this trip to become reality.

© Kostas Kalantzopoulos

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating & I have found the same about the really poor ! they always smile, laugh and ask so many questions, but never seem hostile if one shows empathy but not disdain of their situation.
    Visiting people who have none of the trappings of modernity is an experience not to be missed, in fact should be a prerequisite of ones journey through life.

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