The City of Dreams

I am sitting in our hotel room in Mumbai. I am not very good at working out its square area, but there is plenty of space to move around the double bed.

Since I got back here after visiting the Dharavi slum, I have been looking at the space I have here, something which doesn’t even start to compare to what I have in my own house back home.

If this was an area in the Dharavi slum, it would be divided into two or three smaller units and likely house two or three families of five or six.

It’s been a mind-boggling day, visiting the slum with Reality Tours & Travel. We chose them because they promote responsible tourism and put 80% of profits back into social programmes. They were running slum tours before the film Slumdog Millionaire.

‘Slumdog’ was loved by millions around the world, but not in India. Here, they thought it portrayed the Dharavi slum only for its negative side – filth, squalor, dirt, crime. The term ‘slumdog’ is also derogatory, suggesting that the residents here are the lowest of the low.

Dharavi 1
Picture: Reality Tours & Travel

Reality Tours have a strict ‘no photography’ policy so as to preserve the dignity of people living here and so they don’t feel exploited or invaded by tourists gawping at them. Admittedly this is strange at first but totally understandable. You really don’t want this to be like a human zoo.

One million people live in an area of just two square kilometres. Just to put that in context, in the (relatively urban) parish where I live (St Saviour, Jersey), there are 13,500 people in nine square kilometres.

As we arrive, we can see some high-rise blocks of flats (within the slum area) called, with no hint of irony, Evershine Meadows.

Our tour starts with a walk through the commercial district. Dharavi has its own vibrant economy. People are working in dark rooms in what to us look like Dickensian conditions. Recycling is the biggest industry. Here, they recycle plastic bottles, they sort plastics into different colours before melting them down and selling off the new components.

The fumes from burning things like paint pots are acrid. The heat in the semi-basement where bakers are churning out breads and biscuits is intense.

Most factories around the world are proud to put their label on, ‘Made in XXX.’ You don’t see ‘Made in Dharavi’ because people wouldn’t buy the foodstuffs if they knew it was made here.

Many immigrant workers arrive here, the City of Dreams, having left wives and children behind in rural areas, and they work long hours in a dark dirty room. What shocked me most was hearing that they all sleep in this same room.

The hide-tanning area is distressing for someone who has only this year turned vegetarian. Another penny drops and I know that I will never again buy leather. Most of the skins here, from sheep and goats (not cows as they are sacred) feeds the European and American market in the form of bags, purses and jackets.

In another area potters are at their busiest, preparing for Diwali next month by churning out thousands of little clay pots to hold candles. They will be sent around the country.

As we walk past the open sewer, our guide explains that sanitation is the biggest problem here. Very few homes have their own toilet. Some neighbourhoods have public facilities but the people have to pay each time.

There are sleepy dogs and skinny cats. Surprisingly we see only one rat and that is a dead one.

Some homes are made of concrete, others are more ‘shanty’ with corrugated roofing. The eye-opening part is walking down alleyways where the sun will never shine. They are so narrow that they are one-person wide. No room for passing someone, you just have to wait, or give way to the man who has a sack of concrete on his head.

There is mud and rubbish on the floor, water pipes to trip you up, and cables dangling overhead. A ragged piece of cloth serves as a front door.

Electricity and water supplies are available but are often limited to certain times of day.

Some people are doing quite well. Those who arrived here first have a bit of extra space, and many rent out upstairs rooms for a bit of extra income.

Women are washing clothes, scrubbing them on the floor, or cleaning out their stainless steel pots and pans.

There are stern-looking barefoot children, in grubby clothes, but there are also children in pristine school uniforms running around playing and laughing, and saying hello.

Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum and one of the densest populations in the world. 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in slums – by which is meant they illegally inhabit land owned by the government.

This visit was certainly not about taking selfies in the squalor. It was much more about the fascinating economy of a city within a city. There are about 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi.

The slum is the most literate in India, with a literacy rate of almost 70%.

Our guide said that people here are considered middle class – many men commute to work in other parts of the city. No, he explains, the poorest people in Mumbai are the ones who are homeless on the streets.

*More reading here.

*We are very aware that we can only just touch the surface here. There are two other fascinating parts of life in Mumbai which we have witnessed this week – the dhobi ghats and the dabba-wallahs.

The ghats, built during the British Raj, are where all of Mumbai’s commercial laundry goes. 7,000 people handle half a million items here each day. They pride themselves on not losing an item. All the hotels and restaurants send their sheets and table-cloths here.

The dabba-wallahs, about 5,000 of them, are the men who bring homemade lunches in to the city. They collect them from outside the city and bring them in on the train and can be seen at a couple of stations, emerging to transfer the lunchboxes onto bicycles and on to offices. A mistake is made about once in six million deliveries! If you haven’t seen the film The Lunchbox, I recommend it.

More reading here.

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