Out the 21 million people that live in Mumbai, a whopping 62% (or ~13 million people) live in the various slums around the city.
Most of these slum dwellers 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 Bombay, I took a 3 hour guided walking tour of the biggest slum in Asia and one of the largest in the world. It’s called Dharavi. You may already be familiar with it 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. It’s so densely populated that it felt like being a city within a city, filled with narrow dirty alleys, open sewers and more trash than you can possibly imagine.
The walking tour, put on by Reality Tours, was very well organized. Our group consisted of 6 people along with 2 educated 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
– Dharavi is the most productive slum in the world. It’s over a billion dollar industry
– 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 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 finally 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 I’ve ever seen, and life wasn’t so bad for the people who call this place home.
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 Farenheit inside the room, and the workers didn’t even wear a mask because they 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 several Go pro videos when I was touring inside the slum, even though they strictly 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.
Thanks for reading 🙂 Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!