A Look Inside Dharavi – The Biggest Slum in the World (Mumbai)

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Out the 21 million people that live in Mumbai, a whopping 62% (or ~13 million people) live in slums around the city.

Most of these people survive on less than $1USD per day, and spend their entire days working long hours in the blistering sun, using rivers as toilets, sleeping on sidewalks and scraping to find shelter under bridges.

This is the real Mumbai.

When I was in India, I took a 3 hour guided walking tour of the biggest slum in Asia and one of the largest in the world called Dharavi.  You may already be familiar with Dharavi from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, because this was the exact slum that Jamal (the main character) lived in and much of the movie was shot here.

Seeing live unfold inside of Dharavi was the most eye-opening and real experience that I’ve had throughout all of my travels to 105+ countries. It’s so densely populated that it felt like being a city within a city, filled with narrow alleyways, open sewers and more trash than you can possibly imagine.

Here is a shot of the slum as we were entering.

The walking tour, put on by Reality Tours, was very well organized. Our group consisted of 6 people along with 2 educated tour guides who took us through many parts of the slum, and provided us with detailed explanations of what we were seeing.

Before I explain to you what was going through my head when I was inside Dharavi, I will first give you some facts about the slum that will put things into perspective.

– About 1 million people live within 1 square mile, making it the most densely populated area on planet earth
– The average wage is between $1-2USD per day (not per hour)
– Dharavi is the most productive slum in the world. It’s over a billion dollar industry by itself.
– There is an average of 1 toilet per 1,450 people
– 60% of the families have lived in Dharavi for 60+ years
– The average life span is under 60 years old, due to disease and health concerns
– The slum is divided into communities by religion, with 60% Hindu, 33% Muslim and 6% Christian and 1% other
– Many businesses generate million dollar incomes (USD)
– Only men are allowed to work in the factories

What surprised me the most about Dharavi was how incredibly organized and productive the slum was.

Dharavi is by FAR the most productive slum in the world, with the annual turnover of business valued at $1billlion+ USD per year.  The slum produces goods that are exported all around India and the world.

When I looked beyond the stereotype of it being the “largest slum,” I began to realize a successful settlement with a vibrant community and economy. The people are as hard-working as they come – some working 20+ hours per day – and life didn’t seem so bad for some residents beacuse they don’t know what else exists out there.

The slum is split up between the industrial part and the residential part.

The industrial part is chaotic, hot, dirty and smelly. There are over 7,000 different businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in the slum that are filled with thousands citizens working their butt off without air conditioning.  When I was walking through the industrial part, I only saw men.  Men were everywhere.  When I asked my tour guide why there are only guys working, he said that women are forbidden to work in the factories of Dharavi.

The most common businesses in the industrial part are pottery, leather, plastic and steel.  But there are several smaller industries that reuse EVERYTHING to produce something else.  I’m talking about every kind of material that you can think of is somehow reused in Dharavi.  You know all of that waste that we throw away in the West?  It all ends up in a place like Dharavi and reproduced into a new product. It was amazing to see this happening with my own two eyes.

I’m not just talking about paper, plastic, leather, aluminum and glass.  Those are the obvious things. I saw factories that were using parts of old-school cassette tapes from the 90s. I saw workers extracting pieces from beat-up VHS movie tapes (remember those). I even saw one entire factory that was dedicated to reusing the leftover bars of soap at hotels and remade into clothes. It was truly amazing to see how hard these people work, and how much they save from all of our waste.

The work environment for nearly all people is extremely hazardous and unsafe, which leads to diseases and fatalities. During the tour, they took us into a room where workers were burning coal over a running fire and I could hardly breathe; I had to stick my nose under my shirt to gasp for air.  It must have been 150 degrees Fahrenheit inside the room, and the workers didn’t even wear a mask because many couldn’t afford one. Their lungs must’ve been completely black.

Perhaps the most unique characteristics of Dharavi is the extremely close work-place relationship.  Every square inch of land is used to produce something.  They don’t waste any space.  And all of the work is done by hand which is moving opposite of the hi-tech society that we live in today. It’s almost like time doesn’t pass in Dharavi.  I picture the slum being the exact same 30-40 years ago.

The second part of the tour took us through the residential part of the slum.

I learned that the residents of Dharavi are made up people from all over India, who migrated from rural regions as well as locals from the Maharastra state. The entire residential area lacks any sort of infrastructure such as roads, public conveniences and toilets.  It was, by far, the dirtiest and most hectic living conditions that I’d ever seen.   The residential area is also the only place in Dharavi where I saw women, and most of them were housewives.

The housing areas were split by religion. All of the Islamic people conquered one area, while the Hindus has a different section and the Christians has their territory. The slum has numerous temples and churches to serve members of each religion in their respected areas.

Each home and living area is extremely crowded and small.  As I was peeking into houses, I saw some tiny rooms with up to 8 people living inside. The rooms were so tiny that when all 8 people were laying down side-by-side, their bodies were covering the entire width of the floor space. And nobody had any pillows, mattresses or blankets. No kitchens, living rooms, or toilets either.

There is, on average, 1 toilet for every 1,450 people living in the slum.  To me, this is the craziest fact about Dharavi that really puts things into perspective.  Most people use the alleys and the river as a toilet.

Our tour guide told us that about 90% of all housing units in Dharavi are illegal.  There are hundreds of thousands of makeshift homes, that are so fragile that they can collapse at any time by the weight above it.

Nothing that I saw around the homes were clean. Pipes were broken and pouring dirty water into the kitchens and the streets. Kids were walking barefoot on top of dumpsters. Stray dogs and goats and cows were pooping on people’s doorsteps. Mothers were doing laundry on the dusty sidewalks. People were drinking contaminated water. Everywhere.

But somehow, despite all of this, life in Dharavi just worked. And it worked well.

It’s hard for me to convince you that living in Dharavi isn’t so bad for the people who live there. But it’s true.  The slum locals don’t know any difference, because they’ve never seen the outside world.  They only know and understand life in Dharavi.  Once you see and experience the slum, and then you will understand what I’m talking about.

I did manage to take a few Go pro videos when I was touring inside the slum, even though they said no photographs or video is allowed. I put together this brief video of random clips inside, which will give you a better perspective of what I saw. All videos were taken with the Gopro by my waist. Check it out below:

To be quite honest with you, if I was a poor person living in Mumbai, then I would definitely choose to live in Dharavi as opposed to any other slum. Especially in this expensive city and financial district of India, where rent prices are among the highest in the world.  The rooms in Dharavi are very cheap (as low as $3USD per month) and each room is equipped with electricity and gas stoves for cooking – which are provided by the government. Many rooms have TV’s as well. The slum is also centrally located in the city between Mumbai’s two main suburban rail lines, so many people who live in Dharavi can easily commute to work. Our tour guide told us that 20% of Dharavi’s population is made up of government officials like police officers and fire fighters, due to the affordability of homes.

There are current redevelopment plans in Dharavi to refurbish the work places of existing factories, construct new schools and roads, and build brand new apartments for the residents. But this project, as you might imagine, is a very difficult one to approach and it may take decades see a difference in the society.

As for now, Dharavi will keep pumping on, producing things in bulk and establishing itself as the most productive slum in the world.

My Lesson Learned

Like I said at the beginning of this post, touring Dharavi was the most eye-opening and real experience that I’ve had in all of my travels.

The #1 lesson that I learned was to appreciate everything you have in life.  I will never take these things for granted anymore.

It was a wake up call for me.

I think that everyone should see how people live in Dharavi, and then they will begin to appreciate how lucky we are to not have been born into this.

So take a moment to realize all of the material things that you have – cars, houses, computers, cellphones, internet, ipads – and just think that no one in Dharavi has the privilege to own these things. We are very lucky to live the life that we live.

Imagine what it would be like to live for just 24 hours inside Dharavi.  Just think about it for a second.  And then realize that people spend every breathing second of their life inside this place.

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59 thoughts on “A Look Inside Dharavi – The Biggest Slum in the World (Mumbai)

  1. Yesterday the Divine Mother Prithvi announced that the name Dharavi would henceforth be her name. In its Sanskrit roots the name Dharavi means “She who holds the Sun”. Dharavi Maa says that you will find her in “the least of these”. Her new name expresses her concern for poor people in every country and her intense desire to end human suffering. The formal name of the goddess Prithvi is now Sri Mataji Dharavi.

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  3. Your video was very interesting, however you opened up your comments with the monetary value that this country generates. Where is the money going?????

  4. The dharavi kids get lesser diseases living under sun and rain, barefooted in filth compared to the well off ones in clean homes with a solid roof above their head. Those are some of the toughest and resilient people you get to see in the world.
    They do not belong to a materialistic culture. Survival of the fittest is the norm. You need to be strong enough to stand upto them and to digest their reality without being shocked like the writer was.
    And nobody dares intrude the dharavi world, leave alone all those planning advises.

  5. We were taken round Dharavi by one guide. His father had moved to Dharavi as a young man from the country. Our guide was studying for a degree and had been educated in one of the many schools in Dharavi. I was impressed how industrous everyone was and all the recycling of plastic, cardboard and metal. The residents kept everything as clean as possible. Conditions were very cramped both for working and living but there was a feel of community in the area. We were on a Meet the People tour with Traidcraft from the UK with a small company in India called Kolam resonsible tours and soft travel. We went onto meet the producers who were given fair wages and other benifits for their work so lived in much better conditions.

  6. Hello, I stumbled across your post as I am travelling to Mumbai. Very disappointed to learn that somehow you thought it was ok to take a video, when clearly the tour operators have designed the experience to ensure a responsible and respectful interaction with the residents.

    Wondering why you thought that was ok?

  7. Same issue with 90 percent of indian cities. One side there are skyscrapers rising another side slums getting bigger everyday. It’s the ever growing population. One day it will all burst into nothing .!. Govt should take some serious step, now there comes worlds shittest politics. No one will do anything . No one knows what this country needs to be saved from this maybe awareness of the citizens.

  8. I must admit that I’m too blessed to what kind of living i have right now. True! it’s really an eye opening for everyone. I salute you Sir for making and sharing your one of a kind experience. For this, I want to shout “Please help Dharavi clean and green!”

  9. I am just back from Mumbai, where I visited the Dharavi Slum as well. We spent some nights contemplation whether to do it (slum tourism, poverty porn…) or not, but decided to do a tour eventually. For me it was an eye opening and awareness thing. My perception was as exactly as Drew describes it, far worse than what I could have imagined from my standard European living perspective. I am still shocked about the extremely challenging working conditions in the commercial part, and the living conditions overall, that are daily normality for thousands (millions?) of people there. Children seemed happy, although playing sourrounded by dirt and rubbish, which showed me (again) that my perspective is not the ultimate measurement. The few women we saw in the residential part were beautiful and nicely dressed (in Indian Saris), which was a bit in (positive) contrast to all the rubbish an dirt. They were all watching us walking through their habitat, but they did not really care about us. This made us less uncomfortable with our tour. Overall, if you have the opportunity, visit such slum – it is necessary to confront us (here I mean everybody who had the luck to be born in rich countries like Europe and US, Australia, etc.) with such reality. Not that I can do a lot to change the Dharavi-Slum (or any orher slum), but we should at least be aware of it.

  10. I visited and worked in different slums of the world, such as Bombay, Rio de Janeiro: Parke Uniao, Jakarepagua, Nova Holanda, Baixa de Sapateiro, Mare, Villa de Joao, Rosinha, and so on. There are very good people and bad people, loving and helping even in poverty and in utter misery.
    Drug, violence and mafia -traffickers- many were my friends, but they never rob me nor attacked me. I loved them and they recognized and appreciated my work. But we have to ask this question, why they are poor ?. What & who made them poor?

  11. wow! I really want to visit Dharavi! I’m going to use Dharavi as a case study in my geography essay to look at problems facing cities.

  12. Amazing!! I stayed at Mumbai in 1989, I am italian…we only passed near the slum, going from the airport to our hotel. Not visited, but now i would like to get there. I read the book Shantaram, it’s really touching. Thank you for your post!

  13. Did the same tour from Reality Tours in November 2015. Really good job by them and their guides – a life changing experience. Enjoyed watching the video, brought back memories of it!

  14. After studying your experiences in Mumbai dharavi. I can say that, the real face of life is not so easy what we see..

  15. Hi, Drew. I appreciate your passion but I’m concerned that you missed what I thought was the point of this tour: dignity for Dharavi. Unlike Erik below, I don’t dismiss all “slum tourism.” I agree with you that this tour–which I took two weeks ago–is paradigm shifting and important. But your effort to “look beyond the stereotype” here gets lost in your sensationalism and pity (what Jess below calls “poverty porn”). You make Dharavi residents sound ignorant (“The slum locals don’t know any difference, because they’ve never seen the outside world. They only know and understand life in Dharavi”) and as if their purpose in life is to help us feel grateful (“Appreciate what you have because you could have been born into this”). When you were in Dharavi, did you notice the stream of neatly dressed commuters heading out as you entered? or meet residents at the community center who have jobs elsewhere in Mumbai but have to lie about where they live because of the stigma? Did you realize that one or both of your intelligent, thoughtful guides was probably from Dharavi? Reality Tours, an ethical organization that returns 80% of profits to the community, an organization you and I both support, is trying to help us respect Dharavi and the people who live there even as we also see the problems. I think you want to do that, too, but many of your flourishes (not to mention your casual violation of the privacy policy) are getting in the way. I agree with you that the living and working conditions in Dharavi are unacceptable for human beings, and I also felt some relief upon leaving, but that’s not a place to stop–that’s a place to start asking about how this injustice arose and how to correct it. You have a voice to call your fans to that questioning and that work. Please use it. Thanks for listening.

  16. Not meaning to be disrespectful to you, but this is straight up ‘poverty porn’. Dharavi is so much more than deprivation, and posts like this just reduce it to just that. It’s a diverse place, a microcosm of Mumbai (or any lower middle income city) really. Filming people without their knowledge isn’t cool, especially with the intention of publishing that footage. There are MANY unacceptable problems in Dharavi without a doubt, and it’s important to raise awareness, but there are more respectful ways of doing so. PS. it’s not the world’s largest slum (second largest in Asia though), but that’s a really common misconception so hey.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The video was for my purpose to show people what it’s like, and I am not benefiting it (financially) or any other way. I wanted to show people that there is much more to Dharavi than what it seems from the outside — including all of the industrial aspects and factories. Thanks anwyays

  17. Hi everyone, I’m a student and my dissertation is about Dharavi slum, as I have been researching I found out that it is one of the biggest slums in the world, however, some recent articles say that it is no longer the case…can someone tell me why is that? and if it is true? my main focus is on sanitation and its impacts in the human health. Thank you.

  18. Our brothers & sisters are living the life in worst in-hygienic circumstances. We talk about more comfort and Bullet trains. The residents in Dharavi are not idling but every house is working. At Least basic minimum facilities must be offered to them. Many recycling ideas can be learnt from the Dharavians. They are living with all odds. Let us know how to live under odd circumstances and still be productive. Entire Dharavi should be subdivided into suitable parts and improved logically by collective efforts. Nothing is difficult,What is required is to take the matter seriously above politics,parties and other walls.

  19. Hey Drew, thanks for this post. I was actually trying to read about slum life coz I’m a student of architecture. But with this I saw this morning got me thinking about a lot. I’ve quite been ungrateful with some things, but this just change my perspective. Thanks again.

  20. Hey drew ,I’m from Delhi & I want to get slum living experience ,so I want to know that ,is that possible to got any room in dharavi slum ? For your kind information I’m a mechanical engineer by profession .

    1. Please consider watching Kevin McCloud’s “Slumming It”, a British series (two episodes), available on youtube. He spends two weeks filming in Dharavi — with permission — and living with a family. Despite his initial culture shock, McCloud gives a sympathetic and insightful view of life in the area. He highlights the challenges people face, including poor sanitation, but emphasizes the intricate and complex social fabric that enables people to survive and, at times, even thrive. McCloud manages to convey the contrast between how residents see themselves and how they’re viewed by outsiders, including the elite of Mumbai . He suggests that in aiming to remove an “eyesore”, redevelopers are set to destroy functioning communities in a grab for land.

      1. I literally just finished watching that documentary for a case study for my ethics class. Kevin really did show ever fascist of life in Dharavi. I completely agree with Kevin. Yes Dharavi needs a major over hall with roads, toilets for every person, and take out all the trash to make it actually livable instead of people dying way to young; but to tear down something that was created organically from peoples need to work and live and be happy is completely repulsive. Progress isn’t always best.

  21. Hey Drew,
    This is an amazing read thank you for documenting your experiences! I am traveling to Mumbai in February with my boyfriend and want to experience slum life as well. I was wondering how you felt in terms of safety. I know it’s a different climate over there for women and my boyfriend and I don’t have too much experience with travelling. However I think it’s a must to experience both sides of the city! Do you have any tips for safety in visiting Dharavi? Thanks in advance!

  22. Let’s hope the Dharavi slum redevelopment scheme sees the light of day and conditions improve dramatically for people living there. Good work, Drew, in bringing international attention to a terrible situation. Ramona, Paris.

  23. Thanks for posting. It is eye opening and the video was good for my kids to see. Part of why I travel with them is so that they learn how other people live around the world and to appreciate what they have.

    1. That’s so great- I love that you show your kids that at a young age! I will most definitely do the same for my kids 🙂

      Cheers from the Taj Mahal (literally!)

      Drew

  24. Wow!!! This post is simply amazing!! in fact its inspiring to see how they live a satisfied and productive life inspire of the tough living conditions..
    I have seen the place only in movies.. In fact the thought about the Mumbai slums always brought me shivers!! But this post is truly a different take!!

  25. Great Post Drew! I lived in Mumbai for several years and passed by Dharavi everyday while commuting to work or other parts of Mumbai. When I was new to the city, I could not help but think how it was even possible to live like that. Slowly, I began to understand that the slum dwellers don’t know any different. But I believe they are better off in the villages and in occupations such as farming. When you live in Mumbai for a long time, you move beyond what is on the surface- like how lively and cosmopolitan the city is, how modern it is compared to other Indian cities and start looking at the many layers beneath. Then you begin to realize the problems rooted in the sprawling of slum colonies- lack of hygiene and sanitary conditions, inadequacy of public infrastructure and better business for the begging mafia.
    It’s really nice to see that you took this tour and attempted to get off the beaten track and explore a side of Mumbai that many would rather not look at. I agree that it really is eye-opening and makes you appreciate everything- the roof over your head, the meal on your plate and the fact that you can choose what to do for a living and not go to bed hungry.

    1. Natasha, thanks for sharing your story and opinions. I agree with everything you said! That’s cool that you lived in MUmbai. I would like to spend some more time there 🙂

  26. Looks like it was an amazing and eye opening experience. Reminds me of my first trip to China as a child and my first experience with poverty. Before that I had never realized that there were people who lived without a home and all the comforts we take for granted in the US.

  27. I’ve wanted to see it for myself after reading the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers which was excellent! I couldn’t begin to imagine living there and just reading the book made me appreciate my life and everything I have.

    1. I was just about to suggest the book! I struggled with attending a slum or not when in India last year and ultimately decided not to. Thanks for giving me a visual idea of it!

      1. No prob, Cat! Next time you go to India, you should visit a slum. After all, they aren’t as bad as you think they are or what society makes them out to be 🙂

        1. This is a disgusting example of slum tourism. Visit a slum (at the expense of the degradation of those whose live’s you are casually visiting) to better about your own circumstances. I am perplexed how such people somehow feel they are doing something humanistic in this. In truth, it is shameful.

          1. I disagree – It was very valuable to witness how millions of people live with my own two eyes, and it has made me more appreciative for the things I (we) have in life. I would recommend everyone I know to have this experience.

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