The slum of a thousand smiles

They are probably the dirtiest streets and alleyways that I’ve ever walked along. Filthy water pours out of small factories, goats roam free and waste is piled high. I’m just a visitor, for some people the tumbling shacks, where large families sleep cramped in small rooms, this is their home. Others save money by sleeping on the floor of where they work. It can’t be healthy given the many toxic ‘recycling’ processes that take place in these parts. Many do indeed get ill.
But there is another side to this Mumbai shantytown called Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum. Children play cricket and other games with their friends in the streets. They smile and want to shake the hands of Western vistors, but no-one demands any small coins. Overall, everyone seems to be simply enjoying themselves. They are doing what people of their age do in other places around the world, they are just being kids. They lark about, like by putting a baseball cap on a goat, but without being threatening.
Dharavi, home to more than one million people living in over 550 acres, is a strange place. Over the years a city within a city has sprung up, with an array of small stalls, shops and cafes on private land. Barbers cut people’s hair at open air counters, Internet cafes have sprung up and there’s even a police station. There are schools, many run by NGOs, which pupils attend in pristine uniforms either every morning or evening. The streets are not mapped, yet the postman still has addresses and knows where to deliver the mail each day.
There maybe be 21st innovations like the Internet and you see slum dwellers with mobiles and Blackberries, but many of the cottage-based industries use very simple working processes. Recycling the likes of drinks cans and plastics employs many in single-room factories. They work laboriously in the dingy shacks to sort all of the different composites by hand. In the narrow alleyways the raw materials, like the plastics from computer monitors, sourced from the city and the world are piled high.
Health and safety inspectors from the West would have a heart attack visiting Dharavi. Nothing and no-where is risk assessed. Factory workers are exposed to the toxic fumes of plastics being melted down and have no protection from welding sparks as they produce the machines for crushing cans. Bakeries roll out bread on the dirty floors, women make poppodoms in dusty conditions in the open air. Electrical cables hang down in the alleyways leading to individual homes, they are barely wide enough for a person to pass and sharp stakes stick out.
With these conditions, it’s no wonder that diseases like Cholera, Malaria and Typhoid are rife. Living and working like this reminds me of accounts of the middle ages in Britain. Back then people became ill from having their homes so close to dirty industrial processes. Little seems to have changed. The waste products of small-scale tanneries, potteries and the the like that flow into the streets look absolutely filthy.
For the privilege of working in this stench, factory workers get about 120 Rupees (less than £2). Many come to Dharavi from small villages outside Mumbai and send money back to their families. So in the areas with the network of workshops, you see mainly men. As already mentioned, they often sleep on the factory floors so they maximise the amount they send back. This may be a slum, but with every inch of land taken those that have built up property over the years charge rents of around 1500 Rupees (just under £20) a month for a small house. A small amount by Western standards, but it represents a considerable amount of slum take home pay.
In total the 15,000 factories turn over an incredible £700 million a year. Through a series of middle men deals are cut with a number of well-known large international companies. It’s for this reason that business leaders have been interested in finding out more about the economic miracle that is Dharavi.
So what of the legality of the slum dwellers? On paper Dharavi is built on private land which was left vacant by speculators waiting for land prices to go up. In reality though the dwellers have rights. In 1995 the Indian Government made records of all those living in Mumbai in their slums and the properties they had erected. All those part of this census can’t be evicted without compensation from developers (but any homes built after 1995 can simply be pulled down and residents evicted without compensation).
For the slums built pre 1995, developers need 70% approval from dwellers before they can demolish their homes. If they do get the go-ahead, tower blocks are built for the displaced residents. Developers give several floors free to the evicted slum dwellers, but then profit by selling apartments on other floors on the open market. Bill Clinton and Prince Charles visited the opening of the first such tower block in Dharavi in 1997. Since then many more have sprung up.
But many living in the slums resist the offers of the developers. They say they don’t want to live in small flats, high up in the skies where there won’t be any provision for their workshops. Other slum dwellers have made considerable sums of money in business (there are rumoured to be millionaires in Dharavi), but like the close-knit community of the shantytown. You get many living in the slums but then traveling to the commercial districts for work each day. Slum dwellers may even be answering the phones in call centres for UK based companies.
As a visitor, I worried slightly about going into a slum, particularly from a security point of view. But I can say that walking around, it felt one of the safest places I’ve been to in India. You certainly don’t get the hawkers that congregate in the tourist areas and hassle you with every kind of crap souvenir that is possible. According to the statistics, crime is much lower in Dharavi than in other parts of Mumbai.
The question remains though, is it responsible tourism to visit somewhere like Dharavi? Aren’t visitors just invading residents’ privacy? These are questions that I thought long and hard about and did my research. I came across an organisation called Reality Tours and Travel. They give 80% of the profits of the visits to NGOs that operate in the slums. For example, on my trip we popped our heads in at a nursery that is completely funded by the organisation. Next year it will take over an ailing school. And Reality operates a strict ‘no photography policy’.
But it is important to do your research. Following the release of the hit film Slumdog Millionaire many tour companies have started slum tours, unfortunately the profits don’t always benefit the dwellers. Reality actually spent a month talking to people in the alleyways of Dharavi before it launched its tours four years ago. Ending my visit at a community centre, funded by Reality, I saw where slum dwellers can take free English classes, I think what the organisation does is every bit responsible.
As for Dharavi itself, I think the positive work ethic displayed in the factories offers a model for how India should develop. The wages are low, but the cost of living is also low. What Dharavi has, and what other areas of Mumbai don’t have, is community spirit. It would be suicidal for the slums to be totally destroyed and the residents moved to endless tower blocks. Just look at how crime levels in Britain shot up when such blocks were built after World War Two. Council estates became ‘no go areas’.
And for me, one of the most humbling things was seeing those living in the Muslim sector making Hindu shrines. Over the last few years people from the two religions have in fact grown closer together. Non-Muslims go to schools run by Muslim charities, for example. This harmony is a rare commodity in other parts of India and neighbouring Pakistan.
So Dharavi and other smaller slums across Asia should be allowed to evolve. Services need to be improved and workers need advice on better protection. But it would be absolutely criminal to totally destroy what has grown so naturally over the years. Let Dharavi be a blueprint for the rest of India.

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