Slum Dog Billionaire: Dharavi – the brand from the Mumbai Slums

27th Mar 2018 by

I had mentally prepared to witness some difficult scenes. Cramped living spaces, lack of hygiene and malnutrition were some of the things to be braced for. Mahim Junction train station was the location and I was about to embark on a walking tour of Dharavi – the third largest slum in the world.

One of the largest slums in the world

Dharavi is home to over 1 Million people, cramped into a mere 2.1 square kilometres making it one of the densest populated areas on the planet. Founded in 1883 when the British drove people away from the city centre on the tip of the peninsula, it is now home to an incredibly diverse group from many different regions and religions.

I signed up for the tour as Mumbai is a city of extremes and I was keen to see every side of this complex place. It was a delicate balance, however. Slum tourism has a dubious reputation as being exploitative of poor neighborhoods; wealthy tourists gawk at the plight of local communities with very little, if any, of the tour profit staying in the slums. I must admit that I didn’t fully understand these issues before booking my tour but in hindsight, I was extremely happy that my guide was himself a young man from Dharavi.

Meeting my Dharavi tour guide

Muhammed spotted me and strode across with a big smile and a hand outstretched. He wanted to show me a side of Dharavi that is rarely seen or understood. He came across as a vibrant, enthusiastic and educated young man and after brief introductions, we headed towards the slums.

I had given some thought about whether I should, or more importantly, whether I had the desire to take photos. On a personal level, it felt wrong. How would I feel if strangers routinely walked down my street, peered into my life and even worse, took photos? But I was drawn, in a blogging sense, to record what I saw to share here. I was in two minds, so it came as a relief when I was asked not to take any photos within Dharavi.

I think Muhammed must have sensed my trepidation, either that or it’s just part of his normal spiel, but as we crossed the bridge he assured me of my safety and that although things would be hectic and crowded that I’d be perfectly safe. It felt a little strange to be reassured by someone a whole foot shorter than myself but I was grateful.

Slum definition

“Slum” – a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people. Well, the dictionary definition was certainly true. As we descended the steps from the bridge across the rail tracks, it was evident that there were a huge number of people bustling about their daily business. It was dirty, piles of rubbish stacked up high and the buildings looked ready to collapse.

The scents of India had already assaulted my nostrils from the moment I disembarked the plane a few days previously. Mostly good, but sometimes foul, there was rarely nothing to smell in Mumbai. Here in Dharavi everything seemed amplified, so as we wandered slowly through the streets there was a constant circulation of spices, incense and sewage.

Muhammed was keen to let me know that the main reason he runs these tours is so that the wider world can be re-educated about the word ‘slum’. It’s not a nice word. It’s degrading and brings with it plenty of associated baggage. It makes me think of desolation, despair; a place without hope.

I was expecting a lawless mass of people without infrastructure or organisation but in reality, this just wasn’t true. I was shown Police Stations, Fire Stations and Hospitals along with many supermarkets. Dharavi, a city within a city, could look after itself, there is even a trade union to protect the workers against unwanted changes that may degrade conditions or pay.

It’s easy to be cast as a collective when you live in a slum. Grouped together with all the other low-income families and individuals. Seen as one entity of poorness and impoverishment. However, that isn’t the case in Dharavi and there are a number of reasons why.

Identity and integrity in Dharavi

The dwellings are thrown together incredibly closely and stacked two or three stories high. It’s a mass of small spaces for families to live in, but each dwelling does have it’s own address and postcode. This means that it has identity and validity. Every address also has its own 24hr electricity supply which allows a higher standard of living than would be outwardly obvious.

Water supply is currently limited to 3hrs a day, but there are plenty of water storage facilities and careful daily planning means that although this is far from ideal, people can certainly cope.

The most dangerous and sad lack of infrastructure is the complete absence of a sewage system. Residents must queue for the public toilets which, as I’m sure you can imagine were not in their first flush of youth. The odour near the river was occasionally overpowering as raw sewage seeped its way towards the water via open drains.

Dharavi industries

People travel from all over India to work in Dharavi. They know they can find a job even if they are uneducated and unskilled. The pay is derisory but they prefer to have a job and be proud to earn a living as opposed to begging on the streets. The conditions are awful; cramped, dirty and the hours are punishingly long but the alternative is worse. Having a job gives people a sense of pride and identity and also allows them to send money home to their families in rural India.

Families live, work, eat and sleep in tiny houses and often all these activities take place in the same room. It’s a minimal existence that must be a huge strain.

Dharavi has built a collection of cottage industries that service Mumbai and all of India. But it doesn’t end there, Dharavi also exports goods around the world. This economy is now widely reported as being worth in excess of $1billion a year.

Dharavi’s low-skilled industries

The plastic recycling is extensive. It is thought that around 80% of plastic in Mumbai gets recycled. This is due in no small part to the hordes of low-paid labour that sorts everything by hand. I watched as the plastics go through several zones, first removing anything that isn’t plastic, then sorting into types and colours before finally being sliced, chopped or ground into smaller pieces. The plastic was stacked and stored all around us as we moved through the tiny walkways.

Mumbai struggles with garbage issues. The streets are lined with discarded packaging of all types. On the edge of the city, I saw wild pigs rooting through piles of trash trying to find anything worth eating. If Dharavi wasn’t there, processing 80% of the plastic waste, the garbage situation in the city would be in a much worse state.

We then toured through many other industries including aluminium recycling and manufacture, soap which is sold to the hotels, pottery and a huge bakery which supplies pastries to the whole city. Although small, and cramped, the individual premises seemed organised and well run. However, safety was completely neglected. There appeared to be little understanding of what the constant inhalation of fumes can do to humans over a period of time and the lack of safety around heavy machinery and disc saws was frankly terrifying. I was assured that safety equipment is provided for the workers but, because of the heat, they choose not to wear it.

Housing in Dharavi

Muhammed stopped me for another quick debrief. He told me we were about head through a section which was almost entirely residential. The floor would be hazardous, with open drains, different levels, pipes and other unmentionable things. I was told to mind my head, I gave him a look which questioned whether he was being cheeky about my large cranium, to which he returned a look which told me this was something he told all his tourists. He expanded on his original statement by explaining that there will be plenty of low, sharp edges, various pipes and structures and also the high likelihood of some live wires.

He wasn’t kidding. Progress was slow as I eased myself through tiny gaps, trying not to break an ankle, rake my arm against rusty metal or get electrocuted. All at the same time. The number of people in the tiny houses astounded me. Everywhere I looked there were four, five, six pairs of eyes looking back from the dark, dank spaces.

The pathways were very narrow and busy, several times we met people coming the other way. There was no room to squeeze past each other, someone always had to reverse back the way they had come and as the visitor I obliged. Trying not to break an ankle, rake my arm against rusty metal or get electrocuted whilst going backwards was even harder!

The houses we passed were small and crowded but were kept in very good order. There was pride and dignity shown by the residents. Peoples clothes were clean. I mean really clean. How they manage to wash clothes and get them spotlessly clean in this environment is akin to witchcraft. I would not be at all surprised to discover that there is a Buddhist God of Laundry.

Masala Chai

We stopped for tea. It seemed a popular spot, plenty of locals gathered round drinking the small, sweet tea which had a healthy smack of fresh ginger in it. It’s a serious pick-me-up. As we sipped the scolding, sugary liquid, Muhammed pointed over to a group of young lads who were nearby and busy chattering away in Hindi. “They’re talking about you,” Muhammed told me. “They’re saying you must lift lots of weights, they think you could be in the WWE”. I smiled and after we’d drained our cups I gave the lads a wave and did my best Hulk Hogan impression. It was well-received and reciprocated so we exchanged high-5’s before moving on our way.

High-skilled industry in Dharavi

Dharavi isn’t home only to large numbers of unskilled workers, there are also plenty of highly skilled trades. There were huge dye vats being used to impregnate cloth with the vibrant colours of Indian saris. The contrast between the bright colours and drab surrounding was like a pretty petal on a pile of poo.

I saw a man in a tiny area under his house making high-quality shoes. He had to sit down as there wasn’t room to stand and he was working away in his tiny factory with great pride. We stopped at a tailor, the suits were made with precision and class. The head guy was very keen to show me his wares and educated me in the detail and quality of his work. These garments would end up in high-end stores around the world.

The final industry we toured was leather goods. From bags and belts to suitcases and jackets, they really do make it all in Dharavi. The production line was well organised with teams for all the different parts of the process. Again I was struck by the professionalism, organisation and quality of the finished product. However, the leather goods sector had even more to be proud of.

Dharavi – The brand

Firstly, there was a gleaming retail space within Dharavi itself to sell the goods. Bright lights and gloss plastic shelves showed the goods off in fine fashion. Secondly, they have created their own brand. Historically, they would have printed ‘Dolce & Banana’ or ‘Hugo Dross’ on their products before shipping them off to dubious sales outlets.

However, they realised that there was a much bigger opportunity to own the image. Their goods stand up to the competition so they’ve allowed them to compete on their own right and with their own identity. It’s yet another example of pride, passion and integrity.

Final thoughts

I had prepared myself for what I might see before entering the slums, but I had given no thought to how I might feel when I left. I felt uplifted. I really did. It was a lesson in how to make the most of what you have and how dedication can enable you to live your life on your terms even if you’ve been dealt a bad hand. I’m sure at least some of these people are being exploited in some way and to varying degrees but they seemed happy, they seemed healthy and they had dignity and purpose.

These were my observations following a 2-hour tour with one guide. If you’ve been to Dharavi, or any other major slum, and would like to share your experiences, it would be great to hear from you in the comments below.

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