Monday, May 27, 2013

A Slum Called Dharavi

Dharavi is Asia's biggest slum, and fills 1.75 square kilometers of Central Mumbai. It is the one featured in Slumdog Millionaire. It is also home to around 1 million people, and generates a huge amount of industry.

I signed up for a walking tour of the slum, based on the recommendation from the Lonely Planet, about the socially responsible practices of Reality Tours. Reality Tours pours funds from the tours, and their profits, into their NGO within the slum, which runs schools and a community vocational training centre.

One of the main tones of the tour was to dispel the negative perception that Hollywood painted in the movie. Mumbai and India are openly critical of the movie; my guide was quick to mention that Danny Boyle and his crew used a small outside pocket of the Slum for filming, and did not touch on many of the positive aspects of the community.

The first half of our tour was to see some of the industry within the slum. Recycling is the significant and most popular form of making a living within the slum, with plastics sorted, melted down, dried, and then moulded into a usable material for sale to be remade into something else. Mobile phone covers, for example.

We walked through some questionable safety practices, indeed, as well as some pungent and toxic arounds for this very process. We also visited a tin rooftop to see the drying materials, and get a sense of the density of the slum area.

Tanners, embroidery and textile mini-factories, potters, and bread and pappadam makers were also part of our tour, as a sample of the array of skills and work being done within Dharavi.

The other portion of our tour was the residential area. Walking through the tiny paths between people's home (which was indeed like that displayed in the opening sequence of the movie), we learned of the ethnic and religious communities within Dharavi, and how the Hindu and Muslim people work together now within the business of industrial life. 

The living conditions were confronting, and surprising. Families had small spaces for their homes, but managed to make it their own. Indeed, it was explained that many people from Dharavi now work outside of the slum, in the downtown areas of the city in good jobs and earning normal wages, but have chosen to remain living within the community life that the slum has afforded them. The sights of waste areas, sewage runoffs, and the discussion that there is one toilet for around 1500 people in each area, was the reality of Dharavi also.

Our guide was knowledgeable and sensitive to the fact that he was touring tourists through people's lives. No photos were allowed to be taken on the tour, our of respect. We also visited a couple of the projects that Reality Tours have on the go, which reinforced the work they are doing and the difference they are making to the generations through education and training opportunities.

We were a bunch of Foreigners walking through the slum in a group, but we were a small group, and our guide interacted with the people we encountered along the way, or about whom he was referring to when pointing out a task within the industry steps, for example, and the locals did not seem hostile towards our presence. They often greeted us, and seemed to have a bond with our guide.

This tour had such a powerful impact, and was something that stayed with me long after I left Mumbai, and is still something I think about today. A special glimpse into the lives of the people, and the ways of a living slum.

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