During a visit to Mumbai last year, I embarked on a tour of ‘Asia’s biggest slum’, the slum that hit the screens in the blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire and shocked the world – Dharavi. This infamous settlement is home to over a million people who live, work and play in a square mile of land, and juxtaposes the rich and the poor of India to a startling extent.
I have never witnessed anything more thought-provoking than the binary oppositions within this slum. One moment you’ll smell freshly made naan bread and the next you will literally be gagging on the stench of the open sewers. A child will then run past in rags, barefoot, and next a woman dressed in jewellery and a brightly coloured sari will glide past like an Indian Princess. It is for this reason that I left the slum tour utterly baffled. What kind of place was this?
The sights seen in the film Slumdog Millionaire are true to the reality. The dark, narrow passages wind around, maze-like; the cramped housing with corrugated tin roofs are too small for the large families and the indescribable stench from the limited toilets would make any slum tour unforgettable.
However, Westerners imagine that this slum is miserable and sickening and of course, to us, it is. We cannot imagine ourselves living somewhere like Dharavi. However, the people living here count themselves as the lucky ones. While walking around Mumbai, it is easy to see how 50% of it’s 12 million-strong population are classed as living in ‘informal settlements’. Families set up camp on the edge of roads covered only by a sheet of tarpaulin and do not have access to the water, toilets and electricity that the homes in Dharavi do.
The slum is a massive business hub. Young men stitching sequins to dresses, or sweating over hot machinery while women sit creating hundreds of pots out of red clay, can be seen to all that pass through. The business can be surprisingly ‘green’ too – one warehouse I visited was for recycling. The economic statistics for Dharavi are amazing: it has an annual turnover of US$665 million and is the second largest exporter of leather in the whole of India. Dharavi is a booming city within a city.
The most important thing to remember about Dharavi is that it is a home to these people. To them it is not just a dirty, smelly slum but also a place where their families have lived, often for several generations. There they have brought up their children, earned money and made a home for themselves. This therefore, raises the question: should foreigners be allowed to walk around ogling at these people’s homes and livelihoods? Perhaps not. But many tourists, including myself, fall into this trap. Some companies play on tourists’ fascination with the slums as a way to simply rake in the cash. They turn slums like Dharavi into a form of ‘poverty porn’ – they can exploit the people in order to make money. How would you feel if tourists came walking around your home, your street, your workplace, taking photos and pointing?
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a right way to take part in a slum tour whether it is in India’s slums, or South Africa’s shantytowns. Pick a slum tour agency that is respectful of the people who live there, which often are recommended by guides such as the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide. Credible organisations like this allow tourists to see the slum sights as well as help the community.
Despite the controversies, I would recommend a tour of Dharavi for anyone visiting Mumbai. Standing on a warehouse rooftop overlooking the entire slum, in the pouring monsoon rain, gives you a profound insight into a crucial part of India.