April 1, 2014 at 19:54

We had a day of sightseeing around the city the other day. More specifically, sightseeing in Dharavi. We don’t have any pictures, as picture taking is not allowed in there, of respect to the people who live there.

Dharavi is a slum lodged north from the intersection of, and in between the western and central railroads in Mumbai, west of Bandra and Mahim. Sporting an impressive million people over two square kilometers, it is arguably the biggest slum in all of India.

We had a tour with Be The Local. It is a fantastic little company based in the center of the city-within-the-city. The founder is a student at a Mumbai-based college who was finding himself rather tired of trying to find a part-time job to pay his dues through college. A Dharavi local himself, he got a brilliant idea: Arranging tourist trips into the slum areas! Your first thought may be that going on such a tour is making commerce on frolicking through other people’s misfortune. But that is where you would be dead wrong. The tour is all about showing what Dharavi is truly about, an area with huge industries, people working, children playing, schools, doctors, shops, restaurants – you name it.

I admit that in the beginning I thought the tour would be a sort of “sunshine-trip” through the good parts of the slum. I was wrong. The slum itself is a good place, and I’m thinking that from now, I won’t even call it a slum.

We started our tour at the ticket office of the nearby Mahim station, where our guide Ahad picked us up. We walked on, crossing the overpass into this fascinating area. The first part we saw was the recycling plants. People working on sorting, crushing and working plastic waste into small pellets that can be reused. They also recycle aluminum through a rigorous process, creating large bars that are sold off for profit. Both materials are either gathered around Mumbai, or bought from people who gather it. They say 40 % of all recycling in Mumbai is done in Dharavi.

Further inside, we got to take a look at the biggest industries in the area, pottery, textile and leather. It was really amazing to see that the prejudiced ideas of a slum with the apathetic faces of the poor and sick was replaced with the reality of smiling and skilled craftsmen and -women creating high quality goods to be sold to an international market. 80 % of all leather made in India is from Dharavi, and it is the chief export in their – yes, you will not believe this – 1 billion dollar economy.

We walked through the housing quarters as well. That was amazing almost to the emotional. We crouched through narrow corridors between the houses just wide enough to fit a person, and not quite high enough to keep the power cables and steel bars a safe clearing from the top of our heads. It was dark and warm, but on both sides we passed apartments where people were sleeping, eating and just plain living. The most peculiar thing was that in the midst of these dark and clammy alleys, were very high quality and clean, though small, apartments. They are actually available for rent from as low as four dollars a month.

We went on through the area, and there was one thing that we all agreed upon. Never anywhere before have we seen children so happy. It was amazing to see how the children blissfully roamed the streets laughing and playing cricket or tag.

We also visited the main office of Be the Local and got to meet the guys behind the concept. The company aims at giving part-time jobs to Dharavi locals who are studying at the universities, by having them guide tourists through different tours of Dharavi, or Mumbai in general. It’s strictly a for-profit business with the fortunate side effect of giving back to the society. Our guide Ahad was a third year student at Mumbai University, on his way to a bachelor in accounting and finance.

We finished the tour shortly after, an amazing experience richer, and with a good deal of presumptions hacked away. I for one, knowing that most of the people of Dharavi are not rich, will never ever address them as poor either.

Thank you, Dharavi, for giving us a day so full of good experiences. We are definitely never going to forget the vibrant life that you hold!

Best regards, Marius