Mom & Kids

A Tour Of India’s Most Infamous Slum, Dharavi

What kind of mental images come to mind when you hear the word slum?

I presume nothing good comes to mind. And this slum in particular, Dharavi of Slumdog Millionaire fame, might conjure images of nasty men coercing children into begging.

But, as you can imagine, the story is more complicated than that.

Dharavi is home to between 600,000 and 1 million people, yet is only 0.67 square miles / 1.7 square kilometers. It’s dense! But all of Bombay is dense. It used to be called Asia’s largest slum; now some estimates say that there are slums on the outskirts of Bombay that have even more people. It’s hard to know which estimates are true, but in the end it really doesn’t matter.

Dharavi is in the north of the city. It used to be a marshy swampland and was settled by laborers. Over time, the monstrosity that is Bombay enveloped the slum and it became a part of the city.

I should note that I explored the slum on a tour. I think they gave a realistic glimpse into slum life, but I concede that there may be much more beneath the surface. I was also not allowed to take pictures on the tour. I think it could be possible to take pictures in a respectful manner while there, but yes, I presume many tourists treat these people’s homes and their community like a zoo.

As I walked down the stairs and entered the slum it smelled amazing. Given that India often smells like one big urinal, this was the surprise of a lifetime. The wonderful smells were coming from a bakery inside the slum. The nice smell didn’t last long, but it was nice to ease my way into the slum.

Dharavi is divided into four sections, namely Hindu, Muslim, Tamil, and Gujarati sections. The first two are obvious. Tamil refers to people who came to Bombay from the South India state of Tamil Nadu and the Gujaratis are from the state of Gujrat, just north of Bombay.

The Gujaratis tend to do more of the artistic work in the slum, such as making the clay pots people use to store water. Such pots are called “the poor man’s refrigerator” since they naturally keep water cool and, supposedly, bacteria-free. The Muslims tend to work with the animals, slaughtering them for food and for their skins for example. The Tamils have the tannery workshops to turn the skins into finished products. This is just a very broad, rough guide though.

Across all religious/ethnic divides, Dharavi is an economic engine. There are thousands of businesses, an estimated 15,000 single-room factories alone. Many of the employees for these businesses, often earning $3-$4/day, come from other parts of India. Workers come to work for 10 months per year and go home during the rainy season. They live on-site, thus saving them money, ensuring they show up to work on time (Indians have issues with punctuality), and ensure stores/factories are not robbed overnight. From what we were told on the tour, the actual residents of Dharavi tend to work in the city in “higher-class” work.

I saw the huge garbage recycling efforts there, specifically aluminum and plastic recycling. The plastics are grouped by color. They then put the plastics through a machine that was not designed by engineers, but was created by hand by a resident of Dharavi. The machine chops the plastic into small pieces. These are washed, dried, and then further refined into pellets. These pellets are then sold to manufacturers to turn back into plastic.

They also recycle paint cans. They wash them, burn the insides to ensure no paint or other foreign bodies are there, remove the labels, and sell plain, empty cans back to paint manufacturers.

There are many more examples, but you can see how the residents of Dharavi work very hard to make the city of Bombay more sustainable and clean. The work they do is hard, but benefits themselves financially and society environmentally.

A job I saw some women doing was making papadums. Papadums, or papads, are a fried circular bread that can be made of flour from a variety of sources. The women ground the flour, add water and whatever else is necessary, and then put the dough out in the sun to dry. Once dry, they are cooked. Most of these papads are then sold to restaurants.

I didn’t see anyone begging in the slum. On the contrary. I only saw people working hard, engaged in some kind of activity. By no means was it perfect. It seemed like a lot of school-aged children were around, but there are only two schools there and I’m sure there is a morning and evening shift.

The ratio of public toilets to residents is something like over 4,000:1. There are some bathrooms in the slum you have to pay 1 Rupee ($0.025) to use. They are cleaned regularly and are generally more hygienic. There are also free public toilets. That said, I saw many children (let’s say between the ages of 3 and 10) popping a squat in the garbage pits or over a sewer drain and unleashing their bowel fury without a second thought about shame or awkwardness.

The economic output of Dharavi is estimated to be around $665 million. When you divide that by the number of residents, it’s not terribly impressive. But the point of the tour I took and the point of sharing this article is to dispel the myth that slums are full of lazy people looking for a handout. This is not at all what I found in Dharavi, nor was it what I found in Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa.

On my trip I’ve seen the horrors of urban poverty. Dharavi is not immune to these horrors, but it’s not as bad as it seems either.

Below some pictures of the slum courtesy of Reality Tours & Travels.

9 replies
  1. Ash Clark
    Ash Clark says:

    I LOVE that picture of the factory man, actually I love all those pictures!
    I remember hearing a TED talk that raised similar points about slums in Asia. 1.7 square kilometers! That blows my mind!

  2. Josie Leung
    Josie Leung says:

    I’m so glad that their lives are improving. just the thought of the slum smelling like bakery makes me smile. as I’ve walked through slums in tanzania and smelling like a bakery would be the last thing in my mind.

  3. Greg G.oodman
    Greg G.oodman says:

    This post made me long for a return to India. I never made it to the slums when I was there, but it’s still on a very long Subcontinent to-do list. My favorite part is all the smiles you captured.

  4. Fran
    Fran says:

    Have you read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts? It’s a pretty gripping read, and definitely taught me to change my perception of the slums!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] clay pots filled with water is something you see throughout Myanmar. During my tour of Dharavi Slum in Bombay, they said a clay pot is like a poor man’s refrigerator. It keeps water cool and bacteria away. […]

  2. […] The thing I liked most about Pondicherry was the evening walk. At 6pm every night the road next to the sea is closed. I think it’s closed all weekend too. Everyone goes out to walk, shop at the market, and socialize. It’s nice and breezy next to the sea, which is welcome after the hot, hot days. People walk and jog. Sounds normal, but you don’t find a whole lot of exercise happening in India. It was just a nice atmosphere, and a far cry from the chaos and insecurity in places like Delhi and Bombay. […]

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