A visit to a slum

In the heart of Mumbai, squeezed by the V formed by the Western and Southern trainlines is 175 hectares of some of the most densely populated land on the planet. One million people live here, in one of Asia’s largest slums – Dharavi. For the past seven years, companies such as Reality Tours and Travels have been guiding tourists through the slum.

Reality Tours and Travel states that “a tour through Dharavi’s narrow alleys is quite an adventure, and you will leave with an enlightened sense of the purpose and determination that exists in the area.”

Chetan Dewar, our 22 year old guide, knows Dharavi intimately. Over two and a half hours on a hot Thursday morning he shows us the slum where he grew up.

Mumbai is India’s city of opportunity, Chetan tells us. As the centre of the Bollywood film industry, it is a city of dreams. Migrant workers from across India flock here in search of a better life. Many end up in Dharavi.

“If you want to succeed in Mumbai you have to be very strong, very clear, and very smart,” he explains.

The story of Dharavi is a story of margins; the pursuit of profit margins, and of people living on the margins. Dozens of industries operate within the slum, many of which focus on extracting value from discarded refuse. Recycling in a word, yet with none of the ‘clean green’ associations the word carries in the West.

From the rusted roof of a building we gaze over a sea of corrugated iron, scrap metal and smoke and see evidence of the dozens of different industries within the slum.

Scrap aluminium is smelted into ingots in basic forges. Plastic is broken down, melted into pellets and made into new products. Used paint tins are refurbished by burning the paint from them and then cleaning them. Vegetable oil cans are cleaned for refilling, when they are too rusted to be reused they are flattened into sheets for roofing.

As well as recyling we are shown tanneries, pottery kilns, soap makers, tailors, bakers and more.

The margins are narrow for these workers. For a ten hour day they can expect to earn 100-120 rupees (around NZ$4). An improvement on the 30-40 rupees they might have made in their villages farming, but hardly the dream life they envisaged when they came to Mumbai.

Unsurprisingly many of the industries here involve working in extremely hazardous, unsanitary and toxic conditions. Men weld, operate lathes and cut steel without safety equipment. Elsewhere they work around toxic fumes and chemicals without respirators or protection. Chetan tells us that working in these conditions has serious health consequences for many of these workers.

Despite the poverty and the conditions, the slum is a community and many inhabitants continue to live here even when they find work elsewhere. For example Chetan tells us that 55% of Mumbai’s policemen are slum dwellers.

The 10,000 odd enterprises operate within the slum generate an estimated 30 billion rupees per year (around NZ$775 million).

“There is even a BMW in the slum,” Chetan points out.

“It is owned by the man who owns the leather factory. He doesn’t live in the slum though, he just visits sometimes.”

Despite its productivity the threat of ‘re-development’ hangs over Dharavi; it sits on prime real estate. The Government owns the land on which the slum is built. It has plans to transform Dharavi into a “modern township” as a way of easing Mumbai’s chronic land shortage.

The inhabitants of Dharavi oppose redevelopment. They fear they would be left worse off under plans which only allocate housing to longterm residents.

With its one million inhabitants, politicians see Dharavi as an important “vote bank” to be called on at election time. The construction of a public toilet, or the promise to look after the interests of the inhabitants can be counted upon to win a significant number of votes. Houses now have metered electrity, water runs for three hours per day and there are schools and hospitals within the slum.

As a result Dharavi has better public amenites than other slums and the status quo is maintained, at least for the time being.

Chetan describes Dharavi as “a five star slum, maybe even six or seven stars.”

Even so, there is on average one public toilet per 1500 inhabitants. Open sewers run through many of the alleys. During the monsoon there are outbreaks of dystenery, typhoid and malaria.

Reality Tours and Travel prefers not to focus on these aspects of slum life, aiming instead to challenge to negative image of the slum as being a place of unabated misery and poverty. They try to show Dharavi as a vibrant heterogenous community living peacefully together.

“Here a muslim man works making Hindu shrines to sell,” Chetan shows us at one point, “there is a strong sense of community.”

Reality Tours and Travels also supports an NGO which provides a kindergarten and community centre running computer literacy and English classes to the inhabitants.

However the success of Reality Tours companies running tours in Dharavi can be seen in another light. Chetan says around 150 tourists per day take their slum tour, each paying 500 rupees (around $12.50) for the experience. Consider that another four or five companies also operate tours within Dharavi and it clear that slum tourism is another important revenue stream for Dharavi. In this light the tours can be seen as a testament to the entrepreneurial spirt of the slum dwellers to create wealth out of nothing.

Chetan himself is the personification of this entrepreneurial spirit of the slum. He has moved out of Dharavi and now lives in south Mumbai. In addition to working as a tour guide he is also in his last year of studying towards a degree in business management degree. Afterwards he would like to study for an MBA, “perhaps in UAE, perhaps in Australia.”

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7 Comments on “A visit to a slum”

  1. Neha says:

    Camp , if you get an opportunity , look up this book called Shantaram , you will really connect with Dharavi and Mumbai .

  2. Terence Hayden says:

    Bravo, Campbell. Good accurate, factual report of an inspiring place.

  3. Chris says:

    Sounds like quite a unique tour. Is there any feeling of voyeurism in it? Did the slum surprise you in terms of being better or worse than expected?

    • nzcampbell says:

      There isn’t really a voyeuristic feeling beyond the feeling you have travelling in India generally. For one thing you aren’t allowed to take photos on the tour so it’s not like you’re poking your camera at them like a zoo. The other thing is everyone is hard at work – it’s not like visiting a refugee camp. I think what surprises most people about the slum is the industriousness of the people – everyone is busy doing somehing, they’re not lying round feeling sorry for themselves.

  4. samcwallace says:

    Well written young man. I like the angle you’ve taken – a healthier cry from our post tour conversations.


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