Kadama 50: Walking through Dharavi

Trip Start Jul 12, 2012
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Trip End Dec 01, 2012


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Flag of India  , Mahārāshtra,
Saturday, October 20, 2012

Today I was on a guided tour through Dharavi Slum. It is the largest slum in Asia and was also featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

The media has created this image that Dharavi is a dirty, disgusting area and all who live there hate it. The point of the tour is to change this image because honestly, I have never seen such a busy, happy, locale where all worked together in sweet harmony.

I have learned a lot about Dharavi while visiting and I would like to share some of my findings with you. First off, it is important to see how Dharavi is seen in the eyes of many after the media expressed it in such a negative manner. This slum is seen as being an awful place to live because of the high poverty levels, unsanitary living conditions, and strong government control over wage and working conditions. People think that Dharavi is the last place for people to go to find work promising a small wage to survive off of when in reality, people from all over India travel to Dharavi as their first choice for work.

You see, Dharavi has a commercial area and a residential area. Migrant workers from all over India travel to this slum for work because it is easy to find, the government pays a decent wage of 100 rupees (approximately $2 USD) for a days work (same wage for men and women) as well as free housing in the residential area. People will work for a few months in Dharavi, save money and then travel back to their villages to provide for their wives and families. Now to an American, the very low wage for a hard days work seems ridiculous, however, India's economy is not the same as the United States and for a migrant worker, this is a very good wage with housing also included.

Before I take you on my route through Dharavi, here are a few facts about this town:

1. Dharavi is the Heart of Mumbai - not only is it in the center of Mumbai but the view from the sky, this slum is shaped in a heart like figure
2. Dharavi's exports are worth 650.0 million USD annually...
3. There is one public bathroom per 1,400 residents
4. Water is provided 4 hours per day
5. Electricity is rationed yet residents will use most of it powering their TV - Indians believe that entertainment comes before anything and everything
6. A home in Dharavi (180 sq. ft.) is shared by about 8 members. There is no kitchen or refrigerator. To rent a home, it would cost 1,500 INR or $30 USD

To begin our tour, we took the train from Churchgate to the Mahim stop. This was my first train ride in India and I loved it! We met our Reality Tour tour-guide at the station and he explained to us that we were not allowed to take photos during the 2.5 hour tour of the slum because it is their strict policy. With that being said, if you are interested in seeing a few photos of Dharavi, check out this one day tour of Dharavi that CNN created.

First we visited the recycling area in the commercial district. Plastic scraps from all over the world come right here to this port for separating of colors and textures which is all done by hand for 10 hours per day, everyday. The plastic is then washed and put out on the roof for the sun to dry it. I had the opportunity to walk up the steep metal staircase and stand on the metal roof overlooking the plastic drying area. Men were walking on this plastic to spread it out for faster drying. While looking out into the distance, there were piles of broken lawn chairs and gallons upon gallons of empty oil and detergent bottles. Once the plastic pieces are clean, they are melted and turned into small plastic pelletes. Large companies such as Sony, Apple, Barbie, Chinese toy companies, and many more travel to Dharavi to purchase these pieces to be used in their products.

Following the "13th Compound", we passed through the paper recycling area where piles upon piles of cardboard and papers were stacked nicely for purchase by these large companies once again. Our next stop was the oil can recylcing area. This was really interesting because any type of tin was washed, labels peeeled off and stored for crushing. This was taking place in a large warehouse-type area. The washing section was a large tub with boiling water, and two men without gloves were dunking the tubs in the water, swooshing them out and then passing them on for label removal. You may be questioning the safety of these workers because of the lack of head and hand protection. The answer to this tragedy is that the government did try to enforce this. They wore the protection for the first couple of days and then retired it. Turns out that the people of Dharavi are not aware of the risk that this causes on their health so they see no need to follow through with it.

While standing outside of one of the commercial shacks, I pulled my hair up which showed my tattoo on the back of my neck which is in the Arabic language. I have had this tattoo for about one and a half years so at times I forget that it is even there. Dharavi consists of 1/3 Hindu, 1/3 Tamil Nadu and 1/3 Muslims. About five minutes after standing there, a boy around 16 years old began to smile at me while he was emptying the tin cans. He pointed to my neck and then flipped over his necklace to show me the Arabic writings on it. The front of the circular pendant said number 753, his migrant working number. After I smiled back he said to me "Salam Aleikum" which means "Peace on you". At this moment, I put my Arabic language classes from last summer to the test, returned a large grin, and replied "Wa alaikum Salam" (God Bless you!) He was so shocked to see that a white, blonde female knew his language. Not only did this make his day, but it also made my life! As I sit here and type this moment to you, I cannot help but close my eyes, remember his thrilled face, and relieve this moment sketched into my mind for the rest of my life.

Crossing the street brought us to the residential area of Dharavi. The streets were very clean, little to no garbage, and the water pipes ran through most of the sidewalks. We walked through the city of Dharavi where everyday business was taking place. Everyone was smiling, laughing, carrying on conversations, and simply living their everyday life in harmony. We stopped at a Muslim man's shop where he crafted beautiful wooden Hindu shrines. If anyone had any doubt that Hindu and Muslim could not get along, they need to stop and see this man. He is the spokesperson of all peace in Dharavi.

There is also a large leather factory area in this slum where camel and cow skins are cleaned, cured and turned into purses, belts, etc. You may be wondering how a cow skin is allowed to be made into a product being that it is still India and Hindu's live right next door but yet again it is the acceptance of each religion and the need for production to survive.

Passing through the narrow "hallways" we came to the exact location of where the iconic scene in Slumdog Millionaire was filmed when the young boy is running through the slum. Following the concrete blocks, we ended up at the landfill area where garbage was tossed and occasionally cleaned up by the government. This same area was where the public restroom was located. Next door I saw a father giving his son a bucket bath outside. The grip of his hands on his son got tighter after the young boy noticed our presence and began to misbehave.

Women who live in Dharavi are paid the same wage for making Popadoms which are sold by street vendors all throughout Mumbai. A small dough ball is rolled out with a metal pin and then placed on a straw basket for sun-drying. This area of town smelled so delicious! I also learned that the people of Dharavi do not just live and work there. A large number of men live in Dharavi but travel daily to the south of Mumbai where they are taxi and rickshaw drivers. The women are also maid and cleaning ladies for middle class households in Mumbai.

You may not believe it but the homes in Dharavi are cleaner than any house I have been in. The white tiled floors are sparkling and the bright colored shrines and clothes inside make for an inviting area. The reason for this is because the government has most control on the streets and look of Dharavi. The women of the households have their own personal space inside their home which they keep very clean and tidy.

Our second to last stop in Dharavi was our tour groups NGO. Reality Tours takes 80% of the profit from giving tours and gives it to their school located in the slum. They teach students English and the basic computer skills needed to succeed. Additionally, they have an art and photography program in which crafted pieces are sold to visitors. The profits made go back into the art programs where cameras and supplies are bought for the students use. I purchased an adorable Ganesha painted on a canvas. I will cherish it all my life.

Kumbharwada was our exiting point of Dharavi. This community is based around pottery. Terracotta pots of all shapes and sizes are displayed out on the roofs for drying. Furthermore, fire and cotton kilns are spread throughout the small community where the pots are baked.

To conclude my somewhat lengthy blog about Dharavi, I want to share with you my thoughts and feelings throughout the tour. To be honest, I forgot that I was in the largest slum in Asia. I went into this tour with the mindset that everyone would be begging, sad, and miserable. Turns out, the people and atmosphere was completely opposite. Smiles graced the faces of many, there were absolutely no beggars, and the living conditions are similar to those that I have seen in the town next to my university in Hyderabad. Children were running up to us saying hello, shaking our hands, and enjoying our company. The residents of Dharavi know why we were there - they knew that we were interested in seeing the "real Dharavi" and not the media influenced view. So many great success stories come out of Dharavi and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to witness them first hand. I have a new goal in my life which is based on Dharavi. I hope that one day I can open up a jewelry gallery/craft center where residents from the town of all ages can gather and enjoy creating beautiful pieces of artwork. I would also like to look into using recycled materials that Dharavi produces and create a jewelry line with the help of these bright minds. My life would be fulfilled if I would share my love of jewelry making with those who would never have the opportunity to try something like it all the while making a profit to provide for their families in terms of not only necessities but also education.

Please visit Reality Tours Website to learn more about this wonderful cause and how you can donate towards empowering those of Dharavi.
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