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The International Writers Magazine: India

Dharavi Slum Tour
• Ellen Besso
Thursday morning we go downstairs for the buffet breakfast, Indian breakfasts are heavy on carbohydrates and on offer today are: paratha breads, (flatbread stuffed with vegetables), juice, yoghurt, fruit, tiny omelettes, (good but always cold when we arrive), instant coffee and tea.

I’ve rallied from my cold, determined to go on the slum tour booked for this afternoon. The first to arrive, we chat with the guide for a while, then others trickle in, until the assembly has swelled to twenty-five people. Small groups are formed, each with its own guide; we’re fortunate to be assigned to the last one, with the tour organizer as our guide, along with a British couple, newly arrived in town. They’re jetlagged, dressed inappropriately by modesty standards and are wearing flip flops instead of enclosed shoes, as advised. They hang in for the whole tour, but ask no questions and utter barely a word, quite different from Don and I, who are full of curiosity about everything.

India’s slum population has risen 20 percent since 2001 as more people migrate to the city to find work. At over 20 million residents, Mumbai is India’s largest city, with close to 2,000 slums. Nearly two thirds of Mumbai’s population - 12 million people - live in these communities, euphemistically referred to as “informal” housing, in one of India’s richest states, Maharashtra. Only 36 are legal, owned and run by the government; some of these are better organized and have sewers and electricity.

Slums are defined as “Poorly built, congested tenements with inadequate infrastructure, lacking in proper sanitary and drinking water facilities”. There is lack of safety, and, in the illegal settlements, the constant stress of eviction and confiscation of goods by officials. Young children are at high risk of undernourishment through poverty and/or dysentery.

We enter Dharavi via a walking bridge over a busy roadway, after a five minute walk from the train station. The co-operative spirit our guide speaks of is evident in the busy streets and laneways and the smiling faces that greet us. In a city where house rents are among the highest in the world, Dharavi provides an affordable, convenient option for many.

Dharavi Dharavi is one of the city’s government-sanctioned slums, housing up to one million people at times on under 500 acres in central Mumbai, an area half the size of New York’s Central Park. Hindus, mostly Dalits, Muslims and Christians live there side by side, peacefully for the most part, at roughly ten times the population density of the rest of Mumbai.

The film Slum Dog Millionaire highlighted only the negative aspects of the community, depicting it as “a feral wasteland” lacking both order and compassion. Dharavi, like the country as a whole, experiences corruption in many forms as a way of life. When the majority of the population is forced of necessity to live in slums such as this, criminal activity, child labour and dishonesty are a way of life for some people.

The inhabitants have made efforts to nurture strong collaborative networks, often across lines of caste and religion. Resident co-ops help compensate for the inadequate government services by partnering with grassroots organizations to provide basic services such as healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, even addressing issues like child abuse and violence against women.

It would be easy to get lost walking through seemingly unending stretches of narrow lanes, dense mazes of alleyways, open sewers and cramped huts. Roads and laneways and are made of dirt and sand for the most part, few are paved. Buildings are no longer made of plastic and cardboard, most are now cement with a few metal structures here and there.

Dharavi is a recycling community: computers, cardboard, oil drums, paint cans, plastic, it all ends up here to be recycled. Small and medium sized industries export an astonishing 650 million U.S. dollars’ worth of recycled plastic, leather, pottery, fabric, clothing and aluminum blocks each year by truck and railway, to be sold in domestic and international markets. Dharavi

Many residents, like our guide, are second or even third generation inhabitants. Fahim is proud of his slum, he was born in Dharavi and plans to be here always. “Why leave, you have everything you need?” he says. Currently a university student, he plans to get a Masters degree in business and eventually start his own company, either inside or outside Dharavi. As we pass through various parts of the settlement, we stop frequently while he exchanges greetings with friends.

There are 10,000 small factories in Dharavi according to estimates, most illegal and unregulated. We watch a family hand-making chapatis outside their home, to be sold to restaurants, and I read about the recycled footwear business, where women clean piles of used shoes in the heat of a windowless room.
Residential homes are not part of the tour, but to reach the plastic recycling business, our guide leads us through narrow warrens of alleys two to four feet wide, past ground level row houses. Each column of houses backs onto another, leaving the homes with small windows on one side only. No sunlight reaches the area.

A typical house is 10 by 10 feet, some with a sleeping loft. An average of 4.5 people live in each home, Fahim tells us, from villages all over the country; when they retire they return to their rural home.
We pass the open door of a home shining with bright yellow floor and wall tiles, its single room bare of furniture, rugs, gas stove and cooking pots at the moment. Even the smallest homes have continuous electricity and many have cable television and sometimes a video player, according to my research. Pictures are not allowed during any part of the tour at the stipulation of the residents.

Rents in the community are as low as 200 rupees, (about $4), per month, higher in the slightly larger homes and highrise apartment buildings. Residents can purchase their own home for one and one half lac, (about $3500), an enormous amount to a poor Indian; most cannot afford to do so.
The bulk of our time is spent touring aspects of the plastic recycling business, the largest industry; it involves many complex procedures, with tiny, dyed-to-order plastic beads as the end product.

A sideline of the business is the manufacture of equipment to grind the plastic. We’re walked through the hot, dark building where migrant workers fabricate the machines in archaic conditions, using little or no protection against flames and toxic chemicals.

At the leather factory, the smell of animals permeates the air from piles of hides strewn everywhere. Just about anything imaginable is made here, from belts to hassocks to leather coats, most for export.
The pottery studio produces tiny chai (tea) cups; although plastic cups are popular now, pottery ones are still in use. We do not visit the fabric shop, an interest of mine, as Fahim takes us on a predefined route. From the rooftop the plastic factory we’re able to see huge piles of multicoloured garments and fabrics lashed together on the roof of the fabric shop, ready for shipment.

We’re shown only what the tour company is authorized to present, and the information given puts a positive spin on the Dharavi situation. While it is true that Dharavi is a vital, connected and economically viable community, the settlement has a variety of major problems.

Severe public health issues abound due to a colossal scarcity of toilet facilities – one for every 1400 people, according to a 2006 report. Instead the nearby river is used by locals, leading to the spread of contagious diseases such as dysentery and malaria. Tuberculosis is a problem, and the government is studying its incidence in slums. The area also suffers from inadequate water supply and there is no comprehensive garbage pickup service.

Child labour and exploitation are of great concern as there are hundreds of child labour factories according to Reva Sharma; in an embroidery factory the owner turns a blind eye as boys under 18 years of age toil, the BBC’s Tinku writes.
Although Dharavi is a belt of urban poverty, its location next to a high-end commercial district makes it an area with major real estate value. The state government plans to “rehabilitate” the slum by privately redeveloping it into a modern township, with better housing, shopping complexes, hospitals and schools.

The plan is to level much of the neighbourhood in a slum clearance program, then to build a mixture of small units for slum dwellers, slotting them into multi-story housing blocks beside luxury apartments that will be sold on the open market.

This scheme would be a disaster for the poor, says a resident advocate; they cannot afford the massive amounts of electricity needed to pump water to high floors or the maintenance of elevators, cleaning and so on, involved in the upkeep of the free apartments. Consequently many residents would sell and move back to the street.

Development has not yet begun because the people of Dharavi have stonewalled the redevelopment project ever since it was announced, and in early 2011 the plan was sent back for revision. There is a fear that the only people who will profit are builders and corrupt politicians.

In order to obtain lucrative building contracts and to remain a mainstream force in Mumbai, the radical rightwing Shiv Sena party, originators of the Dharavi redevelopment plan in the late 1990s, has come up with a clever strategy. To win the Dharavi votes, Sena is pledging to block the plan, unless residents are guaranteed homes 400 square feet in size, twice that of the original designs.

“We are seeking justice for the poor of Dharavi”, says Baburao Mane, a former Sena member of local parliament. But the residents of Dharavi, a third of whom are Muslims and another third migrants from the poorer north, have difficulty swallowing this, since both groups have been targets of Shiv Sena for decades in their mission to fight for the rights of people born and bred locally in Mumbai.

Slum tours, also called Poverty Tourism are not new; for many years tour operators have been escorting foreign visitors through Rio de Janeiro’s shanty towns, called favelas, and through the townships outside Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, where tourists meet and mix with locals in shebeens, (illicit beer halls).

The concept is a controversial one and the Dharavi tours have been called “an exercise in voyeurism and a sleazy bid to cash in on the ‘poor- India’ image”. This viewpoint sees slum tourism as dehumanizing to the citizens.

That is not the intent of Christopher Way and Khrishna Poojari, who run the tours to showcase the settlement’s economic underpinnings and to challenge stereotypes about the poor. All revenues go to the Community Centre and Kindergarten in Dharavi.

The walking tour is much longer than planned; after three plus hours I’m fading and we tell Fahim it’s time for us to leave. It’s been a case of mind over matter today; my high level of motivation and the engaging excursion helped me last this long.

We emphasize that the day has been a valuable experience for us, and Fahim kindly locates a cab to drive us to Colaba. We arrive at the Leopold Café and Bar, a key setting for Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram epic. The café is crowded and noisy, packed with tourists and middle class Indians but we’re fortunate to get the last table and more than pleased to sit down.

© Ellen Besso - August 2013

2000 travel stories in Hacktreks

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