Dharavi: A city within the city

After a restful break in Dubai, we landed in Mumbai on October 2nd for 4 weeks in India.

Alan had met Emily Harrison, founder of Innovaid, a consultant to companies for their CSR initiatives and to high net worth individuals for their philanthropic endeavours, through the preparation of the Wheel2Wheel second project that is scheduled to take place in India. We made contact with this high-energy and passionate Australian lady as soon as India came back on our itinerary. As an 8-year veteran in Mumbai, she had a wealth of recommendations for us; she helped us organised meetings and visits of some local charities. Those proved to be the most memorable part of our Mumbai experience, far more than any monument in Colaba or lunch at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

She recommended a visit of the slums with Reality Tours. Given her recommendation and the profile of the company, we didn’t hesitate a second and felt none of the controversy that often surrounds visits to poor areas or orphanages in developing countries. (For those interested in this topic, I found these 2 articles focusing on Cambodia and Nepal informative and thought-provoking while we were thinking about getting involved in some charitable work on the ground in Nepal).

Reality Tours was founded in 2006 by a British and an Indian man. The original purpose was to offer tourists visits of Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, with 80% of the profits redeployed into that same community. They have since then grown and now offer tours across Mumbai and several states in India; at the same time, they have also formalised the charitable focus of the company by creating a sister-NGO Reality Gives. One of the motivations at the outset was to change perception about the slums.

And indeed it blew to pieces the preconceptions and expectations that I had about the slums (often translated, inaccurately so, in French as bidonvilles).

I expected a terribly poor residential area, where people live in tin and tarpaulin shelters and lean-tos, where sanitation and utilities are inexistent, where we would be assailed by beggars. Alan and I prepared the girls for what we might expect, to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

And a surprise it was, but for unexpected reasons. As our wonderful and engaging guide Nilesh said from the outset: “poor people in Mumbai don’t live in the slums, they live on the streets”. We indeed found no extreme poverty, but a city within the city, vibrant with dignity, a strong sense of community, resourcefulness, creativity and entrepreneurship.

We saw more children in neat school uniform than ones with no shoes. There was not a single instance of begging or asking for anything – actually, quite the opposite, and in one instance we received a present from a resident. We met many smiling people, most of them amused at our children (Louisa in her trekking backpack on Alan’s back was a hit!) and some of them keen to engage in conversation.

Now, some facts about the slums in Mumbai and Dharavi in particular:

  • Slum means housing built on government land illegally. Nothing to do with the French translation of bidonvilles or taudis. Actually, the majority of houses are 2-storey concrete buildings.
  • There are 2,000 slums in Mumbai, with Dharavi the largest. Actually 55% of the Mumbai population live in slums (it used to be 70% only 20 years ago). 40% of the police force live in slums.
  • First slums were built in early 1660s after the surge in population encouraged by the then-ruling king led to lack of housing. In the 18th century, many Mumbai slums were destroyed under the British rule when endemics like plague erupted. But they kept re-appearing like mushrooms.
  • In 1995, the Government decided to legalise the property ownership of people living in the slums; then the period for legalisation got extended until 2000. So if you had been living there before then, you were basically given free “land”.
  • With this, the Government ensured access to utilities and sanitation. So now all houses have electricity and running water and residents have access to community toilets.
  • Nilesh’s statement then made a lot of sense. One is not poor in the slums: most actually own their own home, however small and cramped it may be. A 10 m2 house rents for US$50 a month and would cost $30,000 to purchase.
  • On the population density front, no other place could rival Dharavi: 1 million people live in 1.75km2. That is half of Central Park in NY. That’s more than 500,000 per km2: roughly 25 times the density of Mumbai, and 10 times that of Manila, which itself is the highest density city in the world. And if anyone thinks that Kowloon is crowded, imagine 11 times that density and you’ll get an idea of Dharavi!
  • Half of the houses are smaller than 10m2 and 40% are between 10 and 20m2 for an average household of 4.5 people.
  • Density is not just in houses, but in the toilets as well: Times of India reckons that there are 700 community toilets – make the calculations: that’s a toilet used by 1,440 people a day!

Dharavi is not only a place to live in, but also a bustling business and industrial area. There are around 15,000 small businesses here. The turnover generated in this area is around $650mio; that’s the official number according to tax revenues, but in reality it is more like 2 to 3 times that. The “factories” are tiny but recently, one of those small businesses sold for USD 100,000.IMG_5401

One of the big ‘industries’ of Dharavi is recycling. Out of the 10,000 tons of recyclable rubbish produced in Mumbai every day, no less than a staggering 80% gets to Dharavi for processing, brought there by rubbish scavengers who earn a meagre living that way. As the recycling activity itself is not exactly approved by the Government – but only tolerated – there is no subsidies or public support for this. Every tiny object gets a second life here, from plastics, metals, glass, paper and cardboard.

We saw the production line of recycled plastic pellets: the washing, crushing, cutting, washing again. Even the crushing and cutting machines are hand made in the area.

Aluminium ingots are made by melting down drink cans in minuscule open furnace facilities.

Metal paint cans get spot cleaned and reconditioned so that they can be reused about 5 times. Then eventually, when they can no longer be reconditioned, they are cut down to sheet metal for construction.

The workers are industrious and hard working. The working conditions and pay are generally fair, although safety standards are not: we saw factory workers on machine tools and arc welding with no eye or body protection whatsoever.

Nilesh told us the story of visiting school children who decided to raise funds to buy protective glasses to exposed workers after they were touched by the working conditions. A couple of weeks later, the guide saw the same workers had stopped wearing the protective gear: they argued it was slowing down their productivity!

Workers are often men coming from the countryside, working here for 6-12 months to earn money before going back to their home. They often live on the premises for free: it saves them the rent and the commuting time. Daily wage is 250-300 rupees a day (approx. USD 4). To put things in context: The World Bank has just revised its global poverty line to $1.90 a day which happens to be also roughly India’s national poverty line.

Nilesh assured us that there was no exploitation. Certainly, the wages are low and both the working and living conditions are hard, but walking through the area didn’t invite pity. The workers seemed content and happy to see visitors. That was the most striking part of the tour for us: the sense of pride and dignity that permeated the whole area.

It seems that having a job, however hard it is, provides a chance to have a decent life and as a result, gives the dignity that was palpable as we walked around.

Nilesh himself was pretty critical of the begging “industry” that is prevalent in Mumbai. Locals call the city “the City of Dreams” because, as we were shown in Dharavi, “here you can make money from rubbish”. Resorting to begging (with disgusting techniques such as renting babies from extremely poor families, intoxicating them and using them to inspire pity; or begging for food, asking an unsuspecting tourist to a shop to buy some rice, only to return it later and get a cut from the price from the shopkeeper) seems to draw despise from a large part of the population, as we witnessed on numerous occasions. Apparently, a beggar working a busy intersection could make thousands of rupees a day while a factory worker would make 250-300 rupees.

Coincidentally, I have been reading the captivating and instructive autobiography from Ghandi – The Story of My Experiences with Truth – in the recent weeks. In his writings (from the mid 1920s), the topic of begging came back numerous times and he is highly critical of the practice, in an implacable tone: “The grinding poverty and starvation with which our country is afflicted is such that it drives more and more men every year into the ranks of the beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect. And our philanthropists, instead of providing work for them and insisting on their working for bread, give them alms.” 

A slight digression: these warnings shaped our approach during our visit. However hard it was to look at beggars in the eyes and refuse to give them money, we decided to encourage the working people instead, tipping as we never had before and trying to support the “smaller guy” (rickshaw rather than car, owner-driven car rather than tour company car, self-employed guides rather than company ones). That led to interesting conversations with Angélie and Améline, and it was helpful that some of the locals we spoke with reiterated the point to them.

In the residential part of Dharavi, we visited both the Muslim and the Hindu areas, fairly well separated (though as we understand religious tolerance is pretty good in Dharavi). We spent some time in the potters’ quarter. Those 1,200 families originating from Guajarat were the first settlers in Dharavi and some houses there date as far back as 1874. This is the only source of clay products in Mumbai.IMG_5413

As we showed a clear interest in the technique, a worker interrupted his lunch to show us his skill: incredible dexterity that allowed him to produce thousands of ceramic cups a day. The most touching was that he gave us a set of little cups. We offered to pay but got a flat refusal; it was a present.

Walking around this area with three young children clearly created some interest from the local crowd! We were touched that one several occasions, people engaged in conversation, the older ones using Nilesh as an interpreter while the younger ones were keen to practice their English with us.IMG_5416

With such a vibrant and tightly-knit community, a number of Dharavi adults who get white-collared jobs, from bank employees to lawyers, decide to continue living there, even after they can afford white goods, TVs, cars and new apartments.

Actually, the Government has instituted the Slum Rehabilitation Authority with the view to move slum residents to apartment blocks with better facilities. While this contributes generally to the improvement of living standards, there is sometimes resistance to such programmes: residents are concerned both by the loss of community feeling that stems from apartment living, as well as higher maintenance costs. In the case of Dharavi in particular, the implementation is tricky because of the intertwined nature of the residential and industrial parts of the slum.

At the end of the tour, we visited the Reality Gives community centre which provides training (English language, computer skills) to young people as well as engagement through sports. We were impressed by the success they have had with starting up a girls soccer team for the community. We met with Letizia, who joined the organisation about two years ago as its executive director. She is an energetic lady who has already started to make her mark on the organisation, insisting on accountability and focus on their streams of community activity, and who has ambitious plans for the future.

We continued the day with a visit at the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the largest human laundry in Mumbai. In this restricted-access area, cornered between the rail line and the road, 5,000 workers share about 1000 small cubicles and beat the dirt out of more than 200,000 laundry items, from hospitals, hotels, restaurants or Mumbaikars.

We then spent a good hour at Mani Bhavan, the house where Gandhi used to live while in Bombay. The small museum was excellent at engaging the children, with puppet size scenes of the major steps in his life. It led to very interesting conversations on the untouchables, colonisation and independence fight, non-violence. Ghandi 1

Some posters of the times were promoting religious tolerance – a topic that resonates loudly even today. The religious tensions and underlying intolerance, not just in India, but in many of the countries we have visited so far is something that has really struck me, so I will likely write more of this on an upcoming blog.

We closed the (packed!) day with a stop at the Kamala Nehru Park at dusk, from where we could take in a beautiful view from the Back Bay and Marine Drive or “the Queen’s Necklace”. No surprise that the Portuguese settlers baptised the city “Bon Baya”, or “beautiful bay” that became anglicised as Bombay.

As Mumbai has earned the nickname “City of Dreams”, the place ambitious Indians come in search of fame and fortune. It is the financial and commercial heart of India today, and also the home of the Bollywood film industry. As we drove on Altamount Road in South Mumbai, we were reminded that this is India’s wealthiest city and has the highest GDP of any city in South Asia. It is home to the world’s most expensive real estate, at USD 10,000 per square foot. The world’s most expensive house is right there, a stone’s throw from the poorest of the poor: the USD 1bio home of Mukesh Ambani, a 27-floor (admittedly, architecturally beautiful) structure boasting 3 helipads, 9 elevators, an ice room with fake snow ballrooms, movie theatre, etc. With all of this, employment is guaranteed to a mere 600 staff necessary to maintain the lot!

After a day touring the slums of Dharavi, seeing the contrast in wealth and opportunity from the one end of the social scale to the other was extreme to say the least, and frankly a bit depressing. The “City of Dreams”, I would also dub it the “Wealth gap city”.

But on a brighter note, aside from the annoying touts at the tourist hotspots, we did enjoy catching a glimpse of the colour and chaos that this commercial and cultural capital of India had to offer: the taxis and tuk-tuks; the colourful clothing and characters; grand architecture, museums and art galleries; cafes and cinemas; temples, mosques and churches. The Gateway to India really lived up to its name.


Note: the blog is light on Dharavi photos; Reality Tours has a strict and completely understandable no-photo policy in order to protect and respect the privacy of the inhabitants. For more pictorial illustration of our experience, please visit the company website, well furnished in high quality photos.

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