In Mumbai, Dharavi slum tour


After leaving Bangladesh, I headed to Mumbai to meet up with a former colleague of mine, M and her daughter who have been living in Chennai for the last two years.  We spent the evenings enjoying the snacks at the hotel; the snacks at the Mumbai Grand Hyatt are excellent and they have non-Indian wine.  We had one day in Mumbai, during which we explored a slum (more on that in a minute) and played around in the pool.

Our slum tour with Reality Tours (we did the long one) involved a taxi ride across the city to the old town (neat because there is a lot of Victorian architecture) to meet our guide for the day.  We got into the tour car and drove through the red-light district where we saw a police station right next to the area where, of course, nothing is going on.  Because we went through in the early morning, there weren’t many women on the street looking for work, but apparently they are out in full force in the evenings beckoning men into their rooms.

The next stop was the Dhobi Ghat, which is the world’s largest outdoor laundry.  The people (men) who work there contract with nearby laundry shops to get their cleaning.  They get paid something like Rs 10 (about 20 cents in US$) to wash a shirt, and the shops charge about Rs 30.  It’s backbreaking work (put laundry in bag with some soap, slam it against a stone slab, rinse, repeat) and the place where it’s done stretches pretty far ahead.  If you look closely at the laundry, you start to see work shirts and hospital scrubs among the items put out to dry.

A view from above Dhobi Ghat, the world's largest outdoor laundry
A view from above Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry.

Then we headed to the Dharavi slum (made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionnaire).  Having both seen the moving and having lived in Bangladesh (and seen some semi-slums) I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there.

First we visited the industrial area of the slum.  Many industries exist in Dharavi, including the recycling of plastic and aluminum and leatherworks.  (You apparently can buy designer leather jackets that retail for $600 or so in the U.S. for about 1/4 of the price nearby).  By leatherworks, I mean both the processing of animal skins and the sewing of leather items (tanning is done elsewhere).  It’s smelly there, but there is a lot of work being done.  We also learned that most of the workers (men) in the slum are from rural parts of India.  they come for work, live in the building they work in, and eventually return home with their money to get married.

As we headed toward and through the residential areas, we saw where many different snacks are made, as well as where pappadum are made in the slum.  Interestingly, none of those items are labeled “Made in Dharavi” because it got such a bad reputation from Slumdog Millionnaire.

In the residential part of the slum, we visited a unit that is kept available for tours.  The room was about 15 x 20 ft in size and includes a cooking area, living/sleeping area, some storage space, and a bathing area (for women).  Most of the people we saw in the slum were women, and they were doing their housework– washing, cleaning, cooking.  We walked through the narrow alleyways (just big enough for a not-too-tall adult  to walk through) and above all needed to keep moving so as not to confuse foot traffic in the area. It was interesting to see how so many people live in Mumbai, but I am glad I have a little more space at home.

We then headed back via the commuter train (in the Ladies car of course– something for another post) and relaxed at the hotel.

My overall impressions:  The people in the slum seem to work really hard, whether in the industrial or residential area of the slum.  The slum was remarkably clean (cleaner than the area near the 16th and Mission BART station), and didn’t at all fit my stereotypes of what a slum is.  This makes some sense since a slum in India is just a place where people built houses on top of land that they don’t own.  Houses that now cost around US $50000 and have doctors, lawyers, and merchants among their owners.  Houses that are something like 15 x 20 feet big.  And still it works.

Note: there are no pictures of the slum because we were not allowed to take photos on the tour; that would be making a spectacle of the slum and how people live there.  The tour company we used donates 80% of their profits to a related NGO that provides educational and sports programs for children living in the slum.  I recommend doing the tour if you have a chance to.

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