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Dharavi’s real slumdog story

It may be commonly referred to as Asia’s biggest slum, but “humbling” and “life-changing” are two phrases often heard, post a visit to Dharavi.

entertainment Updated: Jan 21, 2011 16:02 IST
Chris Way

What most of our guests comment, after having done a 2.5-hour walk through Dharavi, is the spirit of the people. Not the dirt, nor the open sewers, nor the cramped housing conditions, which are also there for all to see. The poor conditions increase their admiration at how people remain dignified and apparently happy. But the poverty itself is something that they don’t really mention.

They talk about the children who come up wanting to say hello and exchange pleasantries in their recently learnt English. Interaction is limited but it’s a refreshing change to the tourist areas like Colaba, where the English is more refined but the question asking for money is just around the corner.

In groups of six people, with no cameras allowed to protect the residents’ privacy, we go from Mahim on the Western Railway line station to the pottery area “Kumbharwada” near the central line. We go through the guts of the area, passing through a maze of narrow alleys and observing the commercial and residential areas. Many people are unaware that the industry in Dharavi, with approximately 10,000 small-scale businesses, has a turnover of USD 650 million per year. We see “13th Compound”, where reportedly 80 per cent of the city’s plastic gets recycled, and see a bakery, soap factory, garments factory, the pottery area and several small businesses.

People on the tour come from all over the world, especially from the US, UK, Germany, Holland and other European countries, Australia and New Zealand. They stay at the Salvation Army Guest House or the Taj Mahal Hotel. But why do they want to come and see Dharavi is a question that we are asked, and indeed many of the residents are also puzzled about the reasons behind their visit.

New must see

This is a new trend in. People want to get a better understanding of a culture that goes beyond learning about its history and visiting the “must see” monuments such as the Gateway of India or the Taj Mahal. Travel programmes and guide books confirm the desire of many people to want to “get under the skin” of the places that they visit — to be more like “travellers” than tourists.

Mumbai, like it or not, has reportedly more than half of its people staying in slums. So to understand the city, you arguably need to visit a place like Dharavi. Of course, there is a lot more to experience in the Maximum City, but life in Dharavi is very alien to what the majority of our guests are familiar with, and so it’s natural to want to understand it better. “Humbling” and “life-changing” are two phrases that we often hear from our guests having completed the tour. Dharavi sums up for me the best of Mumbai — hard work and sense of fun.

My Hindi is shamefully non-existent despite being here for about six years, so it’s difficult for me to pass judgment on exactly what the residents think about the tour. One of the goals of the tour is to break down the negative image of Dharavi. I am told that many of the residents like the fact that our guests are interested in their lives and are willing to interact with them. By all accounts, they have been supportive of what we are doing and this is helped by the fact that the money from the tours is used for the social projects run by our sister NGO Reality Gives, such as a kindergarten and community centre.

The writer is the founder of Reality Tours and Travel, and offers slum tourism as a sightseeing option.