MUMBAI, India — Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is located at the heart of India’s bustling financial capital, Mumbai. It is home to over 1 million individuals who live under varying degrees of poverty and spreads over 2.02 kilometers (500 acres).
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a full tour of Dharavi accompanied by Slum Tourism Group Slum Gods, who also work collaboratively with local NGOs to reinvest profits to help local children.
Dharavi is nearly 150 years old. Its history dates back to the late 19th century, when the area was a mangrove swamp. It was a vital fishing ground for the Koli fishermen of Rajasthan, but its degradation culminated when they lost their land. Following its decline, the Kumbars from Gujrath, Tamils from the south and many from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar migrated to the area and began living in Dharavi. They became the earliest settlers.
The rapid influx of people soon gave way to pressure on space. India’s independence in 1947 exacerbated the issue. ‘Informal housing’ or shanty settlements in the area soon became dominant. To this day, Dharavi remains a religiously and culturally diverse community living in a harmonious throng.
On our tour, we learned that the Slum Rehabilitation Program that was set in motion by the authorities would combat the sanitation issues that has plagued Dharavi for decades.
There are only 1,400 toilets for those living in Dharavi. Nearly 700 people are forced to share a toilet every day. Many, must pay to use toilets or are forced to defecate out in the open because of the long queues. However, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) has made significant progress with regards to improving housing and infrastructure for those living in Dharavi.
Living in Dharavi, often dubbed a ‘city within a city’ is a remarkable experience in itself. There is more to living there than the customary Tarapulin sheets that blanket the houses.
A majority of the children living in Dharavi receive a good education. There are over 10 private schools and 20 government schools. Many youth play sports and have access to social media, as parents can now provide more for their children. English is taught from a very young age and government schools provide experienced and skilled teachers. Books, bags and meals are also free of cost.
The emerging small-scale and household industries — namely recycling, paint can, leather, pottery, garment and food, that churn out $600 million in revenue every year — revitalized the economy and the lives of residents. As a result, there has been an increase in entrepreneurship and economic self-sufficiency.
Recycling is one of the key industries in Dharavi and locals are well aware of its vitality. Old clothes are used for burning in the kilns as wood burns too fast. There are nearly 10,000 aluminum and plastic recycling workshops in Dharavi.
Furthermore, trash is first collected from all over the city and separated according to quality and color. Manual laborers can earn up to Rs 300 ($4.46) through these collections. After the crushing process and formation of pellets, it is exported.
“We work hard here. Owners take care of us. I am a migrant. Many of us are. I go back close to monsoon to my village and spend time with my family,” says a young man I interviewed at the compound.
Moreover, the leather industry is important for Dharavi as it contributes up to 30 percent of the leather in the city. Goat, Buffalo and sheep skins are collected from slaughter and butcher houses. Specialized machinery is used for the process.
Dharavi exports leather to local and international brands. The leather industry has its own brand now called Dharavi, which is especially popular among tourists and online markets.
My talented tour guide, 21 year-old Pavan Saudha who is also an inspiring rapper, explains, “I see the love between people. When I went out into the city I heard people telling me my place is not good. When I was growing up I never saw that. I will never go out of here.”
Despite the hardships, many people living in Dharavi have carved out their paths in life to support one another. At the end of a hard day of work, they are satisfied and content with what life has offered them.
– Shivani Ekkanath