‘Dil hain chota sa, Choti is asha’ (A little heart, a little wish) – The words of this song echoed through the narrow alleys of Dharavi, as I walked through this slum, witnessing an unimaginable reality. The song seemed to signify the spirit of Dharavi which was once considered as Asia’s largest slum.

Flanked in the middle of India’s financial capital, Mumbai,  Dharavi is the best case of the saying ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ .  ‘Ram- shackled  huts called shanties, seven to eight people  and flies packed in a single room multiplied by many tiny rooms, narrow alleys,  disappointing hygienic conditions,  diarrhoea and malaria floating in the atmosphere and the constant odour of garbage and sewage’, are all the characteristics of the region. But, at the same time, Dharavi   runs a huge informal economy of its own comprising of several tiny shops and a huge garment industry.  The market is primarily an unregulated one with migrants coming from all over India in search of work, helping Dharavi generate an annual turnover of more than $665 million .

Curious to understand the manner in which the slum functions, I took a tour of Dharavi. The slum has been famous for crime and gang activities so slum tourism is permitted here only through various organisations like Reality Tours &Travel, Be the Local etc.  The group I went with is called Reality Tours & Travel (http://realitytoursandtravel.com/slum-tour.php). The money generated from their slum  tour  goes to fund their NGO ‘’Reality Gives”  which is involved in education, child nutrition and healthcare, youth empowerment and several other issues of the slum, making slum tourism purposeful.

The Dharavi tour began at Mahim station (a local railway station in Mumbai, near dharavi). We were a group of eight including our tour guide Chetan. I was the only Indian in the group along with others  from Wales, Chicago and Washington. An excited bunch, each of us had a common expectation from this tour. We wanted to experience every little bit of the harsh and challenging reality Dharavi had to offer, which Chetan ensured we would, by the end of the tour.

Entering Dharavi from Mahim station
Entering Dharavi from Mahim station

Dharavi has two main areas – the industrial sector and the residential sector. This pretty much gives you the impression that Dharavi is a city within a city! We started off with exploring the plastic and aluminium industry(forms a huge part of the industrial sector of Dharavi). Workers here work for 10 hours a day and earn about Rs 200(about $3). Their life expectancy rates are very low on constant exposure to the aluminium and plastic fumes . Though the government has put in efforts to provide protective gear to work, the workers prefer working without them on account of being uncomfortable in the hot and humid weather. This irked me as it clearly showed the ignorance of the people. Moreover it is the men involved in the main job. Women are given the job of just separating the plastic pellets, cleaning the aluminium tins made etc. Gender discrimination is still very evident in this slum.

Recycling, embroidery, baking, soap-making, leather- tanning etc are some of the other industries in the region. What impressed us was the hard working nature of the people. Inspite of the harsh living conditions, they were dedicated and worked with a smile on their face.  I guess I will never complain about my work after watching these people work!

Industrial area
Workers in a garage in the industrial area

From the commercial area we moved on to explore the residential area of the slum. Being a slum which began in the 17th century, Dharavi was a victim to the treacherous Hindu muslim riots which began in Ayodhya (A holy city in India, famous in the Indian mythological story ‘Ramayana’). These riots divided the slum into the Hindu and Muslim zone. Sadly this divide exists till date. But the things common to both the  areas were the public toilets provided by the government and a huge open garbage dump. No wonder diseases like malaria and diarrhoea are so common in Dharavi. According to our tour guide, the state health minister did visit the area and made ‘promises’ to improve the hygienic conditions but nothing has been done yet.

The muslim residential area seemed a bit cramped with  where the shanty’s were less than 10 square meters in size and a few inches away from one another !! An open drain was present all along the pathway between the shanties. Plenty of leather industries were also present in this part of the slum. Walking through this area, all I could think about was how the people survived in such living conditions. I am a big fan of the show Man vs Wild where you are taught how to survive in the wilderness but I guess if you can survive in Dharavi, you can survive in any sort of wilderness! Yes there are many slums in India which are probably worse than Dharavi but the manner in which these slum dwellers manage to pull through, makes them heroes 🙂

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The Hindu residential area was spacious with many temples and schools. Densely populated with Tamilians (people from Tamil Nadu in South India) we saw the tamilian ‘mamis’ ( meaning  aunt in Tamil) making poppadams (fried food item made with seasoned dough) as they hummed to famous hindi songs . A big gujarati community was also present in the Kumbharwada region of the slum. This community was involved in pottery and it was a pleasure watching the artisans create all types of pots!

Rooftop view of the surreal reality :)
Rooftop view of the surreal reality 🙂

Walking into one of the shanties and climbing to the rooftop, we got a view of the entire slum! This was magical as at that moment the odour, thatched and wrecked roofs of the shanties, bad sewage etc were all hidden by the spirit of unity of the community. I felt like I’d seen the whole of India in Dharavi . Despite the divide, I witnessed that people from all the communities lived a happy and simple life together.

But at times what you perceive , may not always be right. Exploring Dharavi made me question perception. I feel it is a  namesake slum. People living here are actually millionaires. Some even own BMW’S ! I learned that compared to other slums  electricity and water problems  are not issues here and the rent for one shanty is about Rs 3000 (about $47). Money is a second religion here. This point is evident from the fact that the government did put in efforts to improve living conditions by demolishing a part of the slum into high rise apartments. But the slum dwellers rented out their houses in the apartments to earn a profit and built shanty’s around the high rise apartments. Truly after cricket, money still dominates India. Dharavi has immense potential to contribute to India’s GDP. But there is no use perceiving it as a slum due to government ignorance. A bit of the brunt is also borne due to the ignorance of the people.

Marine Drive, Mumbai
             Marine Drive, Mumbai

On my way back from the tour I stopped by at Marine drive to enjoy a bit of the Arabian sea breeze.I could see the sunsetting in the horizon, but the noise and clutter of Mumbai continued. I  realized  that Mumbai has always been referred to as the city which never sleeps and India’s city of dreams. But it is Dharavi which is like a city within Mumbai, fulfilling the dreams of millions of Indians. I want more Indians to actually go see Dharavi . The experience is over whelming but  sometimes being a tourist in your own city or country can teach you things you have never imagined . Witnessing the life of these slum dwellers will leave you awe-struck making you appreciate humanity in a unique way 🙂