What is it really like inside Mumbai’s biggest slum?

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Similar to the idea of a township tour whilst I was in Cape Town last summer, a slum tour in Mumbai, an espionage into a poverty-stricken area, seemed like an uncouth thing to do.  Taking part in Reality Tours’ Dhavari slum tour was far from that, however.  What I saw was a tight-knit community which worked hard, earned their living honestly, operated with sustainability in mind, and quite possibly, some of the most enterprising groups of people I have encountered.

Our ‘tour guide’, and a Dhavari slum native, Jitu, greeted us at Mahim Station just a little after 2:30 pm one Sunday afternoon.  He introduced us to the slum, its surrounding areas and the city of Mumbai.  It was astounding to learn that there were 2,000 slums in the city of Mumbai, with Dhavari being the largest one of those.  Having travelled in and out the main areas of Mumbai (Colaba and the Fort area) via the Eastern Freeway most times, my friends and I barely noticed any slums in and around the city.

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We passed through under the flyover into our first stop: a plastic recycling factory.  The word ‘factory’ should be used lightly.  At first, I thought it would be on an industrial scale, but it was merely a small warehouse.  Jitu  explained the recycling process: many people would collect plastic rubbish around Mumbai in plastic sacks.  These would then be sorted by colour and brought to the appropriate recycling factory.  The plastic undergoes a meticulous process of cleaning and being broken down, before being sold to many companies.  Food, medicine and some cosmetic products do not use recycled plastic for obvious reasons.

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A soap factory was introduced after.  Dregs of soaps found in hotels were collected and mixed with animal fat and other chemicals to create a translucent brown soap used for washing clothes and dishes in the slum areas of Mumbai.  The Dhavari slum factory produces an astounding 3 tonnes of soap a day, to be distributed within the area and other slums in the city; as Dhavari remains the largest one, this initiative made sense.

The soaps were all wrapped in brown paper.  There were piles and piles as we entered the ‘factory’: a small, crowded room.

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It was here that we were first introduced into the horrific work conditions around.  The workers slept in their workplace! The would pack up the factory at the end of each working day (which varied from 8 to 12 hours) and would roll out a thin mat to sleep on.  Factory owners preferred this arrangement as it meant workers would always be present, and absences or tardiness would be avoided.

The worst work conditions seemed to be in the metal recycling centres. We passed by an aluminium recycling factory, where workers were grinding down large pieces of metal without the use of a helmet or eye shields – make-do cloth masks were highly prevalent, however.  It was distressing to see, particularly as a Chemistry graduate used to strict healthy and safety rules and regulations back home.

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It was not surprising to hear that many workers suffer from lung and eye conditions later in life. With this bombshell, we were taken to a rooftop of a factory.  The contrast in the city lifestyles were evident from the scenes at the top.  Skyscrapers and housing units towered over the slum.  Some of the apartment buildings were part of the free housing scheme, Jitu explained.

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The living conditions of the Dhavari population was also highlighted by this point.  Something in the region of 1 toilet per 1400 people.  Mobile phones are readily-accessible than basic sanitation in the slum.  Crazy statistics that put things into perspective.

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The latter part of the tour saw our group navigate our way around the commercial and residential parts of the slum.  Some alleyways were very crowded and narrow; standing at 5″1, even I had to duck down in some parts.  Though, taking a peek inside the houses showed very clean and well-equipped living spaces.  Nothing like the scenes from Slumdog Millionaire, that is for definite.

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Speaking of the film, when asked, Jitu spoke for Dhavari when he said that the movie did not paint a sightly picture of the slum and slum life.  We were told that it was awfully inaccurate – “there are no gangs like that anymore” – and misleading.

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A quick tour of the potteries followed, which capped off the tour. 

A stroll around Marina Drive for the sunset was on the cards that Sunday before heading back for a peaceful night in Chembur.

At first, I thought it was another voyeuristic tourist trap, but the ‘tour’ itself was focused on educating visitors on Mumbai’s slum populations and the real Slumdog Millionaire situation.  It was deeply refreshing and empowering to learn about the conditions in the Dhavari slum and re-affirm the idea that Indians remain to be one of the most hard-working and innovative groups I have met.  Though waste remains to be a large problem in India, it was impressive to see the sustainability behind Dhavari’s many enterprises; I was inspired.  The slum community is moving forward into improving their living conditions, but there is still plenty of room for progression.

Thank you Reality Tours and Travel for the photos – all from their archives, as no photographs were allowed during the tour, something which I truly support and would like more travel agencies to encourage!

This article on Wanderlust shares my sentiment – on ‘slum tourism’ – have a read.

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2 thoughts on “What is it really like inside Mumbai’s biggest slum?

  1. I did the eye witness slum tour in Delhi, really liked how it tried to break stereotypes of slums and show the good sides of living there 🙂

    Like

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