Recently I took some time off to travel a little in the South for the Dussehra holidays. One of the places I visited was Mumbai, one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in India. My first impressions of Mumbai, as many other first-time visitors’, were the aerial views of massive slums surrounding the airport. The picture of corrugated roofs and small shanties was imprinted on my mind as I left the airport for my hotel. Leaving the airport, I got another impression of Mumbai; one of high-rises, tree-lined cobblestone streets, and centuries old architecture.
I spent two full days in Mumbai exploring the touristy spots, but this image of slums spanning kilometers around the airport never left my mind; it sparked my curiosity. On my last day found myself with a gap of 8 hoursbefore my return flight to Bangalore, and on a whim called Mumbai Magic tours to see what their cheapest tour was. It was their tour of Dharavi–Asia’s largest slum, and the setting for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I felt a little uncomfortable at first, because the thought of a tour itself, at first glance seemed exploitative, or what some people may call “poverty porn.” I wanted to do it in a sensitive way that respected the slum dwellers and their livelihoods–and treat it as a learning experience. After being assured that my money would go directly to my tour guide, a college student born and raised in the slum, and an education non-profit, I decided to do it. I was also happy to know that the agency does not permit photographs once visitors enter the slum.
Dharavi is often termed the “third Mumbai” because when foreigners visit, they only see the ritzy/glamorous spots and conversely, people living and begging on the streets. They do not get a chance to see the working poor and where they live. Many people when they think of slums, think of utter destitution and extreme poverty. However, Dharavi shatters this Western stereotype. It’s a hustling place where almost everyone is employed in some trade. It has paved streets, 24/7 electricity, running water, multiple schools, hospitals, and clinics.
My tour guide Salman, was a Master’s level Physics student who showed me the multiple industries present in the slum–textiles, recycling, and tanneries as well as the residential areas. It has a billion dollar industry and is also considered prime real estate land. Everything in the slum was part of an efficient and sustainable ecoystem residents have created themselves. For example, “rag-pickers” or people who sort through trash, bring recyables to shops in the slums. From there, industries pay employees to sort the recycables by color and quality. These recycables are then crushed, melted, made into pallets, and sold to the factories. Although working conditions were clearly unsafe with heavy machinery and welding occuring in small cramped quarters, it was amazing to see what people have created through frugal innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. This frugal innovation has a special name in Hindi, and its called “jugaad.” Hence, the title of my blog post!
Dharavi differs from many other slums I have visited in the sense that it has paved roads, schools, and clinics all present within the slum. Yes, it is much more cramped, with residential lanes only 3 feet wide, and thousands of more people, but it is actively on the grid, provided with government services, and wields a considerable amount of weight economically. This differs from the slum I worked at in Nicaragua which had no paved roads, was not accessible by cars, and often turned into mud with the rains. In Bangalore, I visited a small slum in which the buildings were made out of temporary materials like tarp, and residents relied on small solar lamps for lighting. Many slums in urban areas are illegal, and people live with the constant worry that the government will come at any time and remove residents.
This is not to say that everything is rosy in Dharavi…I’m sure there are many darker aspects of Dharavi that were not shown to me on the tour. With an estimated population ofabout 1 million people in 500 acres, sanitation is poor. While the government does provide toilets, many residents must pay to use the toilets and they are often kept in extremely poor conditions. Like many parts of urban India, pollution is a visible problem with heaps of trash accumulating on the fringes of the neighborhoods and in waterways.
My tour guide Salman, told me of plans to re-develop the slum area which has been met with opposition and hesitation from residents. Dharavi is located right smack in the middle of Mumbai’s financial district and represents a lucrative area to develop. According to Salman, the government wants to build tower block apartment buildings for residents to live in, and move the industries within the slum to an area on the outskirts of Mumbai. This process of industry relocations has already started, and residents will have to commute 1-2 hours to work which would prove costly and highly inconvenient to their families. Dharavi is designed so that micro-industries can thrive alongside people’s houses, and this new plan threatens to destroy the community they have created.
I did some of my own research, and the plans also only resettles people who have lived in Dharavi before 2000. Tenants will receive 200 sq feet homes for free, but will have to pay based on a formula, for additional sq feet. The plan also does not take into consideration multi-story buildings which may house multiple families.
Overall, what I walked away from my trip to Dharavi, was another reminder that “poor” people are not to be pitied or saved. Poverty is relative to your own individual standpoint and your background. The media often glamorizes poverty and leaves little room for other interpretations of what it means to be “poor.” Yes, problems do exist within slum communities and other low-income areas, but that does not mean that it is not vibrant, thriving, and full of life!
A special thanks to Salman, tour guide and new friend. I admire Salman for working hard to be where he is today and for his passion and commitment to his community. It’s apparent how proud he is of Dharavi and how willing he is to give back to the place that raised him.