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Dharavi tour

Well, we finally got around to visiting one of the most infamous places in Mumbai: the slum called Dharavi. The shooting location for the early part of Slumdog Millionaire, Dharavi has been called the largest slum in Asia. The latest guesstimates are that over a million people live there, crowded into less than one square mile of land.

We went with a group called Reality Tours, and one of the rules that allows them to bring foreigners into the slums on a twice-daily basis is a “no camera” policy, so pictures from our particular tour don’t exist. There are, however, thousands of sites to get a glimpse of life in the slum – here’s a set on flickr.

Dharavi - CC licensed from http://www.flickr.com/photos/lecercle/3833278858/

A shot of Dharavi from Flickr

One of the first misconceptions was that “slum” is a derogatory term. When we hear that word, we think “Poor people living in terrible conditions.” Our guide explained that slum was actually a legal term that referred to an area where the government owns the land, but homeowners own the physical buildings situated on the land.

We followed the winding, narrow alleyways through residential shacks and industrial settings, watching the homegrown industries that bring in over $650 million to the area each year. The recycling process was shown to us in detail: people sorting through plastics that ‘ragpickers’ had brought from all over Mumbai, shredding them in homemade machines, washing and then drying the shredded pieces on rooftops, and finally melting them back into raw material ‘pellets’ for reuse – all pretty much done by hand. Susan commented on how she’d like her dad to be able to see the machines constructed to tear apart plastic, Alea noted how hot the workers were inside corrugated metal shacks, and Dave was astounded to see all this work going on with no shirts, shoes, gloves, helmets, or safety goggles (well not really surprised, but still amazed).

As we wandered through the area, we were constantly being smiled, waved, and spoken to by the young children of the slum. While this in and of itself is not really too unusual in India, it definitely is in Mumbai, and really should have been in an area that has an average of 2 tours per day coming through. To see the hope and happiness among what most of us would easily have termed squalor was amazing.

By the end of our walk, we had seen plastic recycling, block printing, leather being worked (from the skins of water buffaloes, goats, and sheep), hides salting in the sun, metal cans being washed in boiling water by hand, tortilla-like bread drying on open racks, and pottery works. It was an exhausting look through the very tip of the iceberg that is Dharavi -overwhelming yet uplifting at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing ‘noble’ about the conditions that the people there thrive in. But the very fact that they are able to do so certainly adds another facet of life in India to all that we’ve experienced here.

While we were not able to take pictures, there are certainly plenty of resources available to get a quick glimpse of life there. Check out Shadow City – A Look at Dharavi or simply take a look on Flickr. Alternatively, one of the teachers at our school is writing a book about Dharavi, and there is an excerpt from a chapter posted here.

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