Updated: May 24
Dharavi is one of the biggest ‘slums’ (now a politically incorrect word) in Asia, population one million. Orangi Town in Karachi has more people but is generally much bigger. Dharavi was popularized by the 2008 blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire.
A lot of people want to see Dharavi, especially since the movie came out, so nowadays you can easily find a tour guide to take you around. I had family visiting over Christmas and figured a visit to Dharavi was a suitable activity. It would force us to look up from our material decadence for a minute and see what much of the world lives like. I also liked the idea that the money spent on the tour would go directly to local organizations supporting education and health in a way that’s more cost effective than we could ever imagine in the western part of the world.
The tour organization, called Reality Tours, provided the photos featured in this blog post. They instituted a strict no-photo policy during the tour to protect some of the residents’ privacy while tourists peek into their miniature houses, food stalls, and workspaces. The tour company also asked for help advertising their tours, for example by writing a blog post--so here we are!
The whole idea of walking through ‘a blighted area’ used to scare me. Being confronted with poverty can be painful. I hate rejecting a child beggar’s request for money, or swiftly walking past a neighborhood because it looks or smells bad. Fortunately for everybody: everything isn’t terrible and hopeless anywhere in the world, and definitely not in Dharavi.
I mean, there are lots of poor people there, skinny children, and animals that probably have diseases. Life in this 'run-down neighborhood' is hard and unhealthy, no doubt about that. But there's also real community and entrepreneurship. Dharavi is filled with playing children and working men and women—though mostly men, who are making a living through small scale production of anything from food, to clothes, to equipment and beauty products, to pay for their own upkeep and that of their families (who often live elsewhere, in a village) and to save up for better housing.
The guide showed us where the residents go to the bathroom (a thousand people for each bathroom takes a lot of organizing) and where they can get free English classes—he’d learned it there himself. He showed us recycling businesses, where plastic is melted and transformed into baskets and chairs. We passed through the narrowest of streets, some completely devoid of daylight due to irregular structures built overhead. I bought a leather purse at a surprisingly fashionable outlet (see picture).
Apparently, Dharavi had just been “sold” to one of the richest men in in India, which has many people worried. Even if he might be kind enough to provide alternative housing for the residents, eviction would be an economic disaster for those running small business from their homes. Jobs in slums might not seem like much to us, but workers there confirmed to me that they make salaries comparable to what the formal economy offers, particularly semi-skilled jobs, like building and repairing machinery.