I spent six hours yesterday afternoon guided through Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. It has the largest population of any slum area in all of the East.
My AirBnB hosts had never been, so they joined me on the tour.
The Slum is located in the northernmost part of the city in government owned property that used to be swamp and marshland. Before Mumbai was colonized and developed by the british, it was a chain of seven islands. Land was reclaimed from the sea and low-lying swamps were filled in. Dharavi is engulfed in at least 1-3 feet of water during the rainy season, and is obviously threatened by the steady onslaught of sea level rise. When the water comes, so do diseases like Dengue Fever, Malaria, or water-borne illnesses. These the victims, those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Yesterday afternoon was an especially moving experience. In no way will I be able to paint an accurate picture of it. At no point did I ever feel unsafe or endangered in the city’s largest underworld. Dharavi is nicknamed a ‘5-star slum.’ It has been around since 1840 and as standards go, its residents live a decent quality of life. The place was teeming with shoe-less, smiling kids who were happy to smile and greet a strange white-man but also had stern hard workers, buckling down to do routine tasks among dismal conditions.
In 2005, the monsoons caused billions of dollars of damage and killed hundreds of people. This area was hit hardest.
For the newest migrants to Mumbai, rent is way too expensive in Dharavi. Rent is too much for many here.
The government wants to remove the houses and develop it into malls, larger apartments, and other property with more expensive leases in order to make more money. Obviously problematic.
Side note: Soraya, my host, told me about the fascinating system of bag lunches that exists here in Bombay. Many workers live so far away from the city center that they need to leave home at 4am to reach work by 10. The wives are not up and have not made lunch for them so a lunch delivery guy picks it up in the late morning. He takes the lunches to centralized distribution posts where they are then delivered. This is a tradition that has been going on for longer than anyone reading this has been alive.
It was a crazy world, a city within a city. It’s a strange feeling taking part in ‘poverty tourism.’ But at the same time, there was no other way to get down there and see the deepest, unreachable corners of the place.
I wasn’t allowed to take pictures (though I did sneak some in). All over there were beautiful spaces that were carved out by outset second floors, jutting I-beams, colored corrugated metal, brick, old wheels, wires, pipes everywhere. The place was a maze, from the tiny dark 5ft corridors of the muslim district that I had to crouch through to the zig-zagging factories where they recycled paint canisters to turn into metal sheets to build their homes.
The economy was so internal. In the industrial section, one area would produce plastic crushers that were used in the next building over, the plastic would be crushed then sorted next door, then melted over from that. In another part, men would weave shirts that were sold on the main market street on the slum.
In the leather district of Dharavi, fake designer handbags are made then sent out to be sold on the ‘Canal Streets’ of the world.
In the plastic recycling area, men, who collect plastic off the streets from all over the city of Mumbai come and sell bags. It is sorted by weight and color, then crushed into tiny pieces. The bits are washed, then left on the roof to dry. After, the pieces are melted down and made into wire pellets that are resold to manufacturers.
We were allowed up on somebody’s roof to get a view of the entire place. The sights was amazing. I saw temples, mosques, and two sky-scraping apartment buildings that stick up out of a sea of tin roofs.
The smells in the industrial area were toxic. I was shocked to hear that the men who work there, most the equipment to the side of the room and sleep exactly where they work. In the more residential areas, many leave the slums during the day to work. The place is located between rail lines, so there is a relatively direct commute.
Mumbai’s river cuts through Dharavi, bubbling and teeming with trash. It reeks of waste as it flows out to the Arabian Sea, untreated.
One of the most incredible parts of the whole area was one of the oldest villages where they spin clay pots. There were massive clay pits, smokey kilns, stacks and stacks of one man’s daily work. I watched a guy sit on the wheel, with a giant cylinder. He carve small balls of the top, work them into a dish, and place them, almost uniformly down on a tray. He was looking right back at me as he was doing it. It was mechanical and easy. He told me it takes him 10 seconds to make one. I think he was being modest.
Turning a corner, I found myself in the middle of a cricket game.
There were half terry terrydactyl, half chickens walking around in one area. I learned that they were raised to be fighters.
The residential areas are divided by religion and each part has an open area space piled high with trash. Families take impeccable care of their personal spaces, which were immaculately clean and tidy, but not of common spaces. The kids played everywhere and anywhere though. They had no problem using the trash mountain as a playground. There were open sewers–besides feces, which are contained in communal toilets–and the quality of the streets were in general quite awful.
There’s a chance I might be able to get back there to a rooftop to paint one afternoon. My guide told me to get back in touch with him. Also, they run sports programs and an art class so I want to look into opportunities to volunteer.
Yesterday morning, I walked through a congested flea market. The stalls sold old technology, car parts, speakers, clothes, old masks, almost anything you could imagine. I made it through the market and visited a museum that had old maps of the city and diagrams of how they developed it into the landscape you see today. If the original colonizers of Mumbai could only see the place now. They wouldn’t believe it. I want to go back to that museum to spend some more time there. I lunched at a seafood place and got hot-garlic squid. It was nice-hot not too spicy. I think they toned it down to be white-man friendly.
Last, but certainly not least, last week in London my WONDERFUL mother visited me and we had a BLAST! I will write about our time together soon so that she can be FEATURED! (Sorry, Mom!) I also met a professor at the University of Southampton, who specializes in the effects of sea level rise.