Travelling is a lot about meeting people. In Kuala Lumpur we met a couple on the way from India back to Australia. They spoke very highly about their slum tour in Mumbai: “It was enlightening.” Slum tour? Not really, we thought. Rich people hiring a guide to be shown poverty? On the other hand, the Aussie couple was very serious about it. So ES, who has in the past also worked with a development agency, searched the net. She came across Reality Tours, a company that promises to give 80 per cent of their profit to projects in the slum. Together with a friend from the dinner table, we booked two tours in Mumbai, one of them in the slum.
Slum? If you ask an average cruise passenger what he thinks a slum is, we bet you get more or less this answer: a place in town for very poor people that have no chance to live in a proper house. It’s dirty, dark and dangerous.
Our young guide “Champ” (like all Westerners we can’t pronounce his proper name) was brought up in Dharavi, the slum we were visiting. And he did his best to enlighten us.
Our first lesson was about facts and figures and definition. According to Champ, a slum is land owned by government with illegally built houses. Basically, the houses can be taken down any time. But if you have been living there already in 1996, you are a legal slum dweller. The authorities have to give you a place to live somewhere else, if they knock down your house. The new homes can still be in the slum, in one of the high or middle risers. Some guess work, dear reader: How many per cent of the 22 million people in Mumbai live in slums? You are most certainly wrong. It is 60 per cent. In Dharavi, the population is estimated to be one million on one and a half square kilometres. The density is enormous.
The second lesson was: no cameras in the slum. DHH sighed and accepted. It is of course the right thing to do. So, the pictures in this post are not ours. They were given to us by Reality Tours and Travel.
Our third lesson was about the businesses in Dharavi. We visited one of the biggest recycling operations in the country: plastic. All sorts of used plastic – from bottles to computer keyboards – from Mumbai and other Indian cities end up in Dharavi. We had to give way to a lot of men balancing huge sacks full of trash on their head. The plastic is sorted and crashed (in custom made metal crushers), washed, dried, cut in small pieces, sorted again, heated and turned into plastic spaghetti of several colours. The last operation is to cut the spaghetti in small pellets that are sold to several factories where the material is transformed into 1001 things, one of them being computer keyboards. We saw how old paint boxes are washed, brushed and repainted to go back to the paint factory. We saw piles of old cardboard. We could not really see the recycling of aluminium cans. Our guide asked us to not go too close because it would not be good for our health. There were a lot of men working in a dark room full of fumes.
A very traditional business is the pottery. The area is easy to find, just look out for wide spaces between the houses and the black walls. Pottery is more profitable than most other businesses, so the houses are bigger and better build. And of course there are bakeries, all sort of shops, from tiny kiosques to textile halls, food markets, doctors and pharmacies and many other services you expect to find in any neighbourhood.
Lesson 4 was about the residential areas. Families with businesses live and work in the same building. But most people go to work outside the slum. Women in colourful saris walk through the narrow openings between the houses to catch their bus downtown to work in a shop or a hair salon. Men in their best outfit rush to the office. Dharavi is a popular place to live because it is a prime location, very close to the centre. Even people that could afford a flat on the outskirts of town often prefer to stay here because of the location, although most living spaces are extremely small. Many families live on 2 square meters. At least, they all have clean water and electricity, provided by the city. And although in many places the sewage system lays open, we could not detect much bad smell. And when you get the chance to go on a roof you will see all the mobile phone antennas (4G) and the satellite dishes. Entertainment is a must in an Indian house. Not our judgement, but a quote from our guide.
Lesson 5 was about the tour concept. We got a very little glimpse on real life in Mumbai. We were not touring and looking at poverty. Nobody was staring at us, the kids looked and waved, there was no begging anywhere. We were not considered intruders, we came with somebody they know, with one of the men in the light blue shirt from Reality Tours and Travel. The company has it’s office in Dharavi. And they are giving back to the community in the shape of computer education for young adults, sport academies for girls (football) and boys (cricket) and many more projects managed by their NGO Reality Gives.
So, do we recommend a slum tour? Yes, if you can do it with a serious partner like Reality Tours and Travel that is engaged in the local community. Yes, if you feel like checking your own perception or prejudges about a slum.
P.S. “Slumdog Millionaire” has been filmed in Dharavi. According to our guide the inhabitants did, in general, not like the movie: “They think the film showed only the negative sides of their slum.” Films like many media have a tendency to show “reality” in “black and white”, while those that live there know a life with many grey shades.