I leave the safety of the cab by exiting at the Mahim railway station, surrounded by the typical craziness of Mumbai traffic: thousand of honks and near misses. The tour guide meets me at the ticket counter and we head down to the Dharavi Slum, the largest slum in Asia with more than 1 million inhabitants. We walk across a filthy, trash-filled creek. Little kids taking a shower in the middle of rubbish, people digging through dirt.
Before we enter the lively, residential area I take this shot. Out of respect for the inhabitants, the tour guide requests of me not to take pictures inside. We walk into the slum, maneuvering carefully to ensure we do not step in anything nasty. We learn that of the 1 million legal residents (about 1.4 million if you include illegals) 100% have electricity and running water, 90% have a television and 15% own a computer. 1 toilet is shared with 2,000 others.
We see the remains of our lifestyle: plastic cups, plastic spoons, plastic bottles. And we experience how the slum residents use these remains to make a living. Our first stop is the plastic recycling district, where discarded plastics are sorted by color, crushed, melted and then dried.
We go deep inside a small shop, climb up three flights to end up on the roof of this shop. That’s the place where huge mounds of plastic are being dried for hours, dragged back down and then cut into tiny pellets. Just to transform into toys your children might play with every day. In the middle of this picture (Ok, I took one picture from inside.) you can see the cell phone tower, one of many that helps people stay connected to the world. On the left is one of the numerous apartment buildings of the luxurious suburb of Bandra, bordering the slum, with a price tag of $50,000-$150,000 for a studio.
The next few hours touring Dharavi slum are upsetting and make me feel uncomfortable in my white, affluent skin. But they are also the most inspirational moments of my life.
I expected misery and destitute people. Instead, I experience a community filled with entrepreneurs and small business industries not accepting the odds or destiny. They didn’t give up or went the route of begging, being dependent on others. They took life by the horns and thrive against all odds.
(The following pictures were taken at the outskirts of the Dharavi slum.)
We crouch through corridor-like pathways between houses made from reclaimed trash as the blue sky turns into darkness inside the tight living quarters. We see houses where women weave baskets while their babies sleep on dirty mattresses. Little kids touch me, say “Hi” and “Bye”, trying to connect with me. Nobody asks for money. We just look at each other: curious, two worlds colliding. Everybody is busy working, washing, cleaning, getting on with their lives. We see bakeries that make snacks for the outside world. We see the pottery district where thick smoke covers a whole block, turning everything in its path black.
Here is the final product, diligently cleaned by this women to sell to the outside world.
The majority of this work is dangerous, there are no rules or regulations. And, it’s incredibly dirty. Filthy. But it’s a living, an income. That counts for a lot in a city of 14 million where half of its residents live in a slum, many of them just surviving by begging on the street. Dharavi is home to around 15,000 small businesses (ranging from recycling, pottery, and embroidery to bakeries, soap factories, and leather tanning) and generates some $700 million each year.
Reality Tours offers various options to explore the amazing world of the Dharavi Slum. 80% of the proftis from the tours are put into a slum kindergarten and education center through Reality Cares, a non-governmental organization. Residents can acquire basic computer skills (PowerPoint, Excel, Word, etc.) for free in a 15-week course. The company also offers bike tours, overnight stays in villages and combos of sightseeing/slum tour.
This might not be for everyone. It’s heart-breaking, inspirational, upsetting and invigorating. It will change all your perceptions about slums and poverty. Most importantly, you will leave a changed person.