Understanding Dharavi

 A couple of weeks ago, finding monotony in the regular touristy to-dos in Mumbai, I searched for an off-beat, fun place to play tourist.  Voicing my adventurous spirit to one beautiful sari-clad receptionist, I was told to ride the electric train, a staple in a typical Mumbaite’s day.  I decidedly dismissed this idea, aware that this certainly could not top my adventure coming back from trekking in Nepal.  The first receptionist then called over her flawless similarly-dressed counterpart (I’ve come to realize if you’re a beautiful women in India, and you’re not in Bollywood or a brothel, you’re working in hospitality) and after discussing amongst themselves in Marathi and head bobbling, I was told in a hushed voice that there was one more thing they could recommend.

But it was only if I was very adventurous.  And that they didn’t recommend this to everyone.  To really make sure I was up for it.

Hearing my vocal excitement, they whispered their idea to me.

I could take a tour of one of the slums in Mumbai.  The slum in mind?  Dharavi.

Having read Shantaram and ventured though the streets of Lin Baba’s Mumbai in my dreams, I had been hoping for 1/100th of his experience in my trip.  This seemed like a good starting point for thrill, excitement, glory (the requisites for any worthwhile adventure).  I additionally had a profound curiosity about what these “slums” I had heard so much about were really like.

Now, reader, hopefully you understand where I was in my thinking when I began my tour of Dharavi.

Yes the streets were dirty but not unlike many other parts of Mumbai: many of them had tiled pavement.  Yes there were some mobile homes made of tarp and wood planks, but most people were housed in free standing, unmovable buildings that were made of cement/bricks/tin.  Yes most people didn’t have running water but that’s true of many parts of India and the greater Asia.

Everyone was busy doing something: no one was sitting idly or begging (party because there was no one to beg from).  Our guide (a 17 year old boy from the slum) spoke the best English out of anyone I had yet to meet in Mumbai, in terms of accent and grammar.

Those who were too poor to provide food and housing for their family had greater community to help them.  Life was stable, and everyone seemed to be happy.  When asked, kids will tell you they want to go to college or the merchant navy and possibly work for a while outside the slum, but most want to eventually come back and raise their family there in Dharavi.

Over 60% of the homes have wifi/broadband1.  Close to every person was fluent in English.  And it’s completely safe to walk around in Dharavi (though you might get a few questioningly looks).  Dharavi wasn’t too bad.

Many people don’t have refrigerators, but honestly no one really cared because they aren’t necessary when your grocery store is a couple feet from you, and you buy fresh veggies everyday.  Many of the items in our life that we consider essential are pointless to them.  I’m not saying their lives couldn’t be improved by better medicine, hospitals, schools etc.  But I believe all in all most are not just surviving, they are thriving.

I have family in a small town in India and coming to the slum, I couldn’t help comparing the two.  I found that two paralleled each other in their physical aesthetics and layout: lots of narrow streets with tightly packed shops.  Also, it seemed in both everyone knew everyone else: one big friendly community.

More than that, just like my family’s village, Dhavavi was self-sustaining.  Most people who live in the slum, work in the slum.  You can buy practically anything you want from inside the slum and additionally most the stuff used in the slum is produced in the slum (though of course much more stuff is made that’s exported).  For example, the entire textile industry was contained in the slum: the fabric manufacturers were next to pattern and print makers who were next to the dyers who were next to the tailors.

The slum really was just a small village that happened to be located in the middle of Mumbai.  I mean you could easily just pick it up and put it somewhere else, and not much would change or be affected.

After the tour, I researched the background on how slums like Dharavi came to be.  Slums mostly sprouted up after large populations got displaced (like fishermen by harbors and ports) or there was population overflow in cities (like Mumbai after Indians were encouraged to come by the British as artisans/traders)2.

Since the types of people that settled were relatively similar economically and socially, I thought today we would see a fairly equal society or a monarchy with everyone else about equal3.  What I instead found was a huge discrepancy between multiple different classes.  One man would work for daily wages in plastic sorting while another man would own the space and the plastic sorting business and yet another man would own the plastic industry including plastic sorting, melting, and coloring.  These occupational differences created huge gaps between the relative wealth of each class.  In retrospect this probably does makes sense since hierarchic communities seem to be what most societies become, but it wasn’t intuitive to me at the time.

In addition to researching the history of slums, I also wanted to figure out what Dharavi means4.  It doesn’t mean anything.  There is no formal definition of it in Marathi, Hindi, or English.  But, today, the over one million inhabitants (and counting) who have given it meaning.  It’s one of the largest slums in the world holding over 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories which include vast pottery, textiles, and leather industries5.   It’s one of the leading places processing recyclable waste from all of Mumbai6.  And probably most notably, it’s the setting in the blockbuster hit, Slumdog Millionaire.

Do you know what the word slum means? According to the oxymoronic American Oxford Dictionary, it means a “squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people.”  Merriam Webster along with any reputable dictionary gives the same definition.

Curious what a local resident of Dharavi would say about why it’s called a slum, I decided to ask. His response: a slum like Dharavi is an organized group of people who didn’t have a formal set of laws.

I believe that there is much improvement that can be made to Dharavi and that on average they’re poorer than the surrounding area.  I believe that formal Western understandings of what a slum is and is capable of has missed the mark.  I believe Dharavi doesn’t deserve pity.  I believe Dharavi demands your respect.

  1. I’m completely sure about this number though I know it’s over 50%.
  2. http://theory.tifr.res.in/bombay/history/slums.html
  3. Ibid
  4. It was the name of an island.
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharavi
  6. Ibid
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One thought on “Understanding Dharavi

  1. Nicely written blog Serena. My first impressions of the slums of Bombay in my younger years was through hearing and reading about them. But none had the impact that David Gregory’s description in hi book “Shantaram” had. He had a keen insight into the place, people and life and a deep admiration of the residents and their love and support for each other. You are write on when you say they are thriving. Of course the business aspect is not mentioned like the industries you have talked about. Slumdog was a visual treat and possibly slightly over dramatized with the kid falling in the disgusting human feces. Keep up the good work!

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