Dharavi in Mumbai - Asia's second largest slum is a world of its own!

Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai has often been called the largest slum of Asia, and at times even the largest slum in the whole world. However, Pakistan defeated us hands down a few years back and now Orangi Township in Karachi has the dubious distinctive of being the largest slum in Asia. The largest slum in the world, however, is located in Mexico city with four times more people than Dharavi. However, despite falling behind in size to it's competitors, Dharavi is still huge - it houses anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million people, and the area has slowly become the hub of numerous commercial activities.

dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
Dharavi co-exists with nearby high-rises, including the BKC complex

However, it's size and poverty aren't the reasons why Dharavi is such an interesting and important place in Mumbai. In fact of you were to remove Dharavi within a day from the city, most likely the city would collapse. We will come to that in a while though.

'Be the local tours'

Dharavi came into international limelight when Danny Boyle's 'Slumdog Millionaire'  won an Oscar award, though in the most negative possible light. The depiction of poverty was perhaps close to reality, but some of the other extremities like blinding of young children for begging, was perhaps out of sync with the present times.

This inspired a bunch of young guys from Dharavi itself, led by Fahim, to start something radical to change the perception of the slum in the world around. They started a walking tour through Dharavi for outsiders to showcase how the slum was much more than poverty and dirt. They called it Be the local Tours.

Here's a short video from Dharavi by Intel where these guys are featured.



It was with one of these young guys, Salman, that I took a walk in Dharavi to unlearn my own prejudices and explore its hidden facets. We met at an unusual location, Café Coffee Day opposite Mahim station, but within minutes we were looking deep into the lanes and by lanes of Dharavi.

How did Dharavi come into being?

The story of present day Dharavi is most certainly interesting, but so the story of how it came into existence. Back in the 19th century, this part of Mumbai (used to be known as Bombay then) was a large swamp and primarily inhabited by Koli fishermen who made a living from the waters. As the legend goes, the British built a dam on the Mithi river due to which there was no water to feed the swamp and it dried off. The fishermen moved onto greener (read watery) pastures near the sea and a community of potters moved in here. In fact they could be called the first settlers of the region. As Mumbai turned into a hub for textiles, thousands of men from north India moved in as well and the slum as we know it started to take shape.

1982 was a pivotal year in Mumbai when an year long strike called by Dutta Samant forced most Mills to close down and thousands of Mill workers to become unemployed. The impact of this strike can be felt even today in the city. An entire generation of children were forced to leave school and earn livelihood with the family. Many men in depression took up excessive drinking and it was left to the women and the children to keep the household going.

dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
These are some of the new tall buildings which have replaced the old slums
dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
An old man waits for his workers to get ready in the morning

Many of the mill workers lived in Dharavi and took up other professions to sustain a living. Over the years, the slum took an interesting form where the segregation of living and industrial areas was almost invisible, and in a way the slum became an integral component of the powerhouse of Mumbai. The migrant population over the years had brought in industries like tannery, embroidery, amongst others, and some took on new concepts like segregation and recycling of waste. Today Dharavi processes most of Mumbai's plastic waste, and supplies it back to the plastic manufacturers. Without the human machines in Dharavi working day and night for months without a break, Mumbai would turn into a city of plastic waste.

My walk inside Dharavi

Salman and I started the walk into Dharavi from the a simple looking housing society and quickly moved into industrial area no 13. Over the years many things have changed in the slums, particularly around developing industrial areas a little away from homes. We started with a plastic waste segregation shop, then moved on to another one where the plastic parts are broken down, wasted, dried and eventually made into pallets which are sold to make new plastic parts. The segregation was clearly not perfect, simply because they didn't have the tools to separate all plastic perfectly, but the system still works and there are hundreds of such units.


dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
Inside a waste segregation unit

dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
Starting the day with breakfast

dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
A young boy taking some time out to read

Next was a visit to a fabric dyeing center, but everyone had just gotten up after a long night and were still busy eating breakfast. I joined in for a few pictures and stories. Most were young men from Bihar looking for opportunities, some to work, while others were here to study. I was clearly not one of them, but it was easy to mix in. In fact it was after such a long time that someone told me that my Hindi was very good and that I couldn't be from Maharashtra.

It was actually the next phase of the walk which was most fascinating to me but unfortunately couldn't take any pictures there. We walked into the purely residential part of Dharavi and it was a new world altogether. I walked in the narrowest lanes ever where barely any sunlight came in, and people lived in extremely close proximity to each other. There was the morning bustle and I am sure the place would be even more alive later in the day.

Dharavi - the fashion brand

Dharavi has been processing leather for a long time and the informal economy of making simple leather products has also been around for a while. However, recently an enterprising group of leather product manufacturers started making these products under a unique brand name, appropriately called 'Dharavi'. There is also an air conditioned retail store and you can buy products using your credit card too. I looked at the jackets and the owner told me that he can get one stitched for me in about four hours.

'How much for one custom made jacket?',  I asked.

'Rs 4200', he calmly replied.

These jackets easily retail upwards of Rs 6500 online. I had just purchased mine, but was still tempted to buy another one right there.

Draravi - the commercial hub

I mentioned in the beginning that Dharavi is essential to Mumbai as Mumbai is to Dharawi, and this is where economics come into play.

The organisation of Dharavi is geared towards streamlined business opportunities. The residential and industrial areas are separate and clearly demarcated. The industrial areas are marked at the entrance and are divided based on the industries that operate there, though this may not always be rigidly implemented.

dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
This is where the first level of waste is divided - nothing is wasted, everything has some value
dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
Inside a leather processing unit

There are numerous manufacturing units, and activities from machining to sewing are all done here. There are about 7000 industries, and 15,000 single room factories.  However, one of the biggest industry is waste processing, and this makes Dharavi an integral part of Mumbai. Without the segregation and processing of waste in Dharavi, Mumbai could itself become a large dumping ground.

The annual turnover from all industries here is about 1 billion USD, making it one of the most productive slums in the world. However, this doesn't reflect in the wages and the wage averages between Rs. 100-150/ day.

Dharavi - looking ahead

Dharavi is located in perhaps one of the most coveted real estate zone in the world, and there have been numerous efforts to replace the slums with modern multi-storey buildings. The 2004 Dharavi Redevelopment Plan intends to do just that, but things have moved only slowly. This is compounded by the fact that many residents do not want to move into flats and give up their current way of life.

dharavi walk slum mumbai streets
Some, like my guide Salman, have adopted modern technology

However, if the plans are implemented, Dharavi will change, and so will Mumbai.

Comments

  1. People are great. I am saluting them.

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  2. What an experience it must have been to be here. It's good see people are improving with time .

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  3. I admire their spirit. Amazing how folks in all types of conditions keep on, and then, do even more, living their lives no matter how they appear to be living. Good for them.

    Ryan

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  4. What a fascinating insight. I’ve also learnt about the lives of people living in Mumbai’s slums through TV documentaries and books and think it would be interesting to visit as I enjoy exploring all aspects of culture. However a big part of me feels that it would be very voyeuristic and I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel. Would I just be looked on as the wealthy white woman how has come to see how the other half live?

    I suppose the fact that you weren’t able to take photographs suggests it is a sensitive issue, so to what extent do the local community support so-called slum tourism?
    I’m also interested to know if the company operating the tours gives back to the community in any way?

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    1. That's an excellent point Kristy and one I was worried about too when I visited the place. I didn't want to come across as the 'other' as well, though I feel that at some level it's impossible to be not the 'other'.

      I did the tour with a group of guys who belong to the same slum so walking was much easier as everyone around knew them. I kept the camera inside my bag most of the time and took permission every time I took a picture.

      There are other groups also who do this, but they are still outsiders coming in with tourists. My experience with this group was actually great :)

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  5. An interesting tour. Do the people living here have clean water and sanitation? I think if you are doing a tour with a group of people that live in the slum it shows entrepreneurship on their half.

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  6. Wow. I love off the beaten track places where tourists wouldn't dare go and loved reading this post and seeing the photos to get a good insight of local life. Very interesting read.

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  7. Really interesting, thankyou for this insight into life in Dharavi. It's sad that this is one of the most productive slums in the world in terms of the industries, however it's not reflected in the workers wages. Also interesting that those who live here aren't into the idea of moving into flats and preserving their way of life. I love that locals are offering tours through their homesteads now to offer a more realistic perception of life in the slum than we take from popular culture. Thankyou for sharing your experience with us too.

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  8. Definetly ,it changed my view for Dharavi apart from the one that I carried through these years. It is developing as a civilization in its own, where growth is not measured through money but with innovation and preserving ancient methodologies till date.

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  9. I've seen the movie but this tour looks really eye-opening since you understand what really happens and how people survive and work in the slums. Dharavi should definitely be a must visit for travelers to Mumbai.

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  10. I live in a city with a population of around 1 million - Dharavi has roughly the same population, although I'm sure it is within a much smaller area. I can't imagine what life would be like in a slum that size, although it was a surprise to read about the level of industry. Like some of the previous commenters, I wonder whether the locals would resent having people like me treating their lives like a tourist attraction. But on the other hand, running the tours is another great example of enterprise!

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  11. Fabulous photos that shows you the real Mumbai. I've been to Dharavi and was fascinated to be an observer of daily life. It's a wonder how many people life there and it makes me feel thankful for what I have.

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  12. Truly Amazing. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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  13. This is the second post I have read about Dharavi slums. It reminded me of a book I recently read, which described the way this mini-city functions. It mentioned that safety levels are very high in these slums, specially for women. Fascinating!

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  14. 500 to 1million people living on slum. That's shocking. I never expect it to be that big. The life here iso hard. I visited the same here in Manila, though its not as big as this. Poverty is also extreme here in our city.

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  15. That was fascinating thank you. Next time we're there I'll be looking for these guys.

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  16. I didn't about these things about Dharavi, except being sad when the movie had released as I had felt things were project in exaggerated proportions. I felt happy reading these positive things about people's lives here. But I have one concern though. I just hope the slum tourism doesn't affect their communities by turning them into some form of exhibits like it has unfortunately happened in many parts of the world! A great read.

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  17. Thanks for sharing such an interesting background on Dharavi. It is so sad to read that a trade union leader, someone who should have had the welfare of the the workers and people at heart led the stike that caused so much poverty and hardship not just at that time but for generations to come.

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  18. Love learning about new places. This is my first time hearing about Dharavi and it sounds facilitating.

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  19. This is the most interesting article I've read all day. I've never seen such a thorough history and recap of how a slum came to be, and it's so important to know. I had no idea that it started with fishermen, then was impacted by the year long strike called by Dutta Samant, and so on. Thank you for researching and writing this!

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  20. This is a fascinating read, and I'm sure it was a fascinating tour. I sometimes have issues with travelers using the local poor or indigenous as 'entertainment', but if done right it can be educational and helpful. It looks like your tour was one of these kinds.

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  21. I would definitely take a local tour in Dharavi as it sounds more educational and insightful and just entertainment like Leah said above. Your photos are great but overwhelming at the same time. It'a hard to imagine living in a place like this. I think this is why it's so important to travel. Thanks for sharing :)

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  22. INDIA HAVE LOT OF TALENT BUT WE STILL WAITING FOR SYSTEM TO ENCOURAGE N IT.

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  23. A walking tour of a slum, now that's a first. Good on the guy to make a business out of living there. But I'd be challenged to go on this tour, for many reasons, chiefly because I'd probably feel uneasy about sightseeing other people's poverty. I'll think about this.

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  24. A fascinating, look thanks.

    Some people aren't fond of tours into poorer areas, but they are eye-opening and can show larger truths, about how dynamic these areas can be. I visited Kawangware in Nairobi, one of the largest slums in Africa, and witnessed many stories, many stark, but many also hopeful and inspiring.

    I'm curious to see how the development plan evolves. Forced removal is ugly, and can be frightening and brutal.

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  25. I haven't yet been to India so this was fascinating to read. I've always been uneasy about slum tours but maybe with the right approach they can be educational and create a positive effect. Thanks for sharing about your tour experience.

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  26. There is much to be learned from this tour & from this writer. These people seem to have something very special. A drive, the ability to create & innovate. There are many Developed Countries, large & medium sized cities, with slum areas; they create nothing for themselves or
    society. They contribute mostly gang activity, drugs & criminal activity. They only reproduce themselves, in the form of more babies & children ,who will live in poverty. These societies subsidize the poor & homeless, perhaps that is the mistake.
    I could not endorse, the act of allowing, people & children starving without shelter.
    Was it a Matter of Survial??? Could it have been the driving force that pushed, the People of Dharavi into such motivation, creativity & innovation??
    Sincerely, I ask this question?? This could be a World Wide Question.??

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  27. Awesome article! According to statistics 60% of Mumbai’s segregated waste comes to Dharavi for processing; indicating the vital role of waste recycling and processing units of Dharavi in maintaining and managing Mumbai’s solid waste management landscape. They are not only managing the waste, but they are making big money out of it and generating employment as well. Dharavi is home to some 30,000 rag pickers – scavengers who find and sort recyclable scraps from the city’s garbage dumps.
    https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/10/a-visit-to-dharavi-its-not-a-slum-its-a-slum-with-the-immense-opportunities-lie-within/

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  28. Good, to recycle of wastes it is very essential for Mumbai and also very interesting place to visit the slum Dharavi.

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  29. I loved your commentary and pictures. I would love to visit Dharavi some day, and will attempt to include it in my next trip to India.

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  30. Thanks for Sharing inside the life of slum.........Really this is Amazing Tour next time definitely I will visit this place............

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  31. mumbai has downgraded and then doing upgrade now.

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