I would never have guessed that Mumbai’s largest slum would be one of my favorite parts of India. Not only my favorite, but one of the calmest, safest, and most informational too.
In Mumbai we had the chance to tour the largest Indian slum, Dharavi. In fact, Dharavi is actually the largest slum in Asia, not by size, but rather by population. It is also one of the most productive and least crime ridden parts of all of India. We booked our tour with Reality Tours. They specialize in allowing travelers to see the real India. They hire local guides, give back almost all of the proceeds into development of the community, and delve into understanding the area and the culture. In short, we love them. We walked into Asia’s largest slum ignorant and emerged aglow with a new zeal for life and understanding.
We embarked for Mumbai uncertain of what we wanted to see, but we knew that we wanted to be changed by India. Arriving in Mumbai can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned of travelers. A slum was the last place we expected to find calm and solace.
One of the many things we really respected about the way Reality Tours operates is that they insist that you don’t film or take pictures. We were a little hesitant at first since that goes against everything we believe in. However we got on board with the idea after our guide explained that this was to keep the experience as natural as possible and to avoid intruding into peoples lives. All of the families and homes you visit along the way are from people who have volunteered to be a part of the tour.
Some interesting things we learned along the way:
A large portion (much larger than most people would ever expect) of goods in India are produced in the slum. People collect vegetable oil cans and other items from trash heaps and sell them in the slum. Large warehouses of workers then clean and re-shape the cans, paint buckets, and other items and sell them to companies to be used again. A can for vegetable oil can be recycled and reused up to seven times.
Plastic is another popular item to be recycled in the slum. Trash from all over Mumbai is gathered together and cleaned before it is separated into different colors. Afterwards it is shredded into tiny pellets with machines made from old engines. These colored pellets will be sold to cellphone companies across Asia to be melted down into cellphones and cellphone covers.
A large majority of employment in Mumbai comes from the slum. Recycling centers are a large portion of that. There are also hospitals, scooter and car dealerships, refineries, grocery stores, schools, colleges, and everything else you’d expect in a city. All of these services make it so that if you live in the slum you wouldn’t ever have to leave to find anything necessary to daily life. In fact, 40% of the Dharavi slum’s population is the Mumbai police force. Dharavi has a 0.01% recorded crime rate. That small percent is from corruption.
This particular slum is considered a 5 star slum. While the living conditions are cramped and the citizens share small communal toilets (there is about 1 communal toilet per 50,000 people) there are a great deal of advancements that make the Dharavi slum one of the better slums in the world. Two times a day there is running water. Most families use this time to fill large water jugs in their homes for use later in the day. There are also more schools per capita in the slum than most parts of Mumbai.
There are a few different tour packages to choose from. All of them take you through the daily life of the slum. The longer tour will also take you through the Dhobi Ghat (open-air laundry) and the red-light district. One of the most interesting parts for me was to see the separate parts of the slum. It is arranged into a winding labyrinth of Muslim and Hindu quarters. We actually arrived the day after a Muslim festival and there were thousands of goat hides piled in the streets. All of them being cleaned for use. (A huge amount of “designer” leather products are produced in the slum.)
If you’re looking for a way to see real India, and to have a trip that is as educational as it is inspirational, this is a great one. Tawny and I were really impressed by the responsibility and sustainability of the tours along with how rock solid the guides were. This was also a great chance to get out of the chaos of Mumbai. Ironic, I know.
If you’re looking for something to do in India, and especially in Mumbai, we’d give this tour our full endorsement. It’s one way to experience what daily life is like in an Indian slum.
*For courtesy reasons we did not take pictures while on the slum tour. All photos are courtesy of RealityTours