Mumbai's sprawling Dharavi slums are a key manufacturing centre.

By Johanna Leggatt.

A tour of Mumbai’s Dharavi slums

Dharavi, Mumbai.
Dharavi, Mumbai.
Credit: M M / Flickr

On the day my friend and I take a tour of Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum, it is raining heavily, adding a dreary patina to the chaos and mess.

Mumbai is in the midst of a heavy monsoon and this year has been particularly wet, making the electrical wiring, which is now dangling low over puddles, even more of a safety hazard than usual.

I was initially hesitant to sign up for the visit – there is something ghoulish about paying to pick over the lives of the less fortunate – but choosing a local tour company that channels part of its profits back into Dharavi seems like a reasonable way to assuage wealthy Western tourist guilt.

We are split into two small groups and assigned a local guide – a young Mumbaikar named Dev, who works as a freelance web designer during the evening and conducts tours during the day.

Dev says he was dating a Muslim girl until recently but she broke it off because “Muslims here cannot marry a Hindi”.

“I am okay about it though because there are plenty of Hindi girls to choose from,” he says, grinning.

Dev estimates he gets about four hours’ sleep a night, but by Mumbai standards he is among the luckier ones because he has a reliable job and speaks good English.

He is intent on persuading us that Dharavi is far from the grim shantytown that most imagine an Indian slum to be.

“There was a local boy who didn’t speak any English and he came up to me and said he wanted to be like me, to learn English and be a guide,” Dev says, as he walks us down one of Dharavi’s crowded thoroughfares, greeting locals in Hindi.

“So we taught him English at one of our community centres and now he has gone on to work for a big call centre, where he earns 20,000 rupees [$420] a month.”

Dev leads us into the din of the commercial heartland of Dharavi: a haphazard maze of what appear to be crude micro-industries, though its 10,000 businesses reportedly turn over $US650 million a year.

Smoke is pouring out of a smelter where men melt down metals to be recycled and refashioned, and our group hangs back cautiously from its fumy confines. These men are some of the lowest-paid workers at Dharavi – they make as little as 100 rupees a day – and they sleep in the same small factories where they work. They don’t wear protective masks because “they find them too hot”, and their life expectancy, Dev adds, is about 60 years of age.

We pause out the front of another factory where old luggage is being recycled into new suitcases, and poke our heads into a bag factory that makes many of the leather bags sold at Mumbai markets.

“They can make a Gucci handbag, Prada – everything is available here,” Dev says.

The textile workers, recyclers, manufacturers and potters supply many of the goods bought across the city, and yet many middle-class Mumbaikars are probably unaware of where their goods are made. Photos are banned within Dharavi’s workplaces, partly because contracts would be threatened if people knew how much of what they consumed and bought was manufactured in the slum.

Towards the end of the tour we are taken to a small courtyard where a group of women are sitting in a circle making the pappadums that Mumbai hotels and restaurants serve their domestic and international customers.

 “I had a tourist who tried to sneak a picture of one of the women making the pappadums and she started yelling and we had to delete the picture,” Dev says.

“Dharavi is such a strong community and so many people rely on it.”

Our guide hails a local cab to the railway station – pushing the four of us in our group into the car before climbing on my lap to fit in – and the driver blasts Hindi pop from his sound system while racing through traffic.

We arrive at the station as Dev warns us that the trains do not stop for very long and we “should get in quickly”.

“I’ve got this,” I tell my friend, thinking of all the times I have squeezed myself into a packed Tube train in London to get to work on time. But when the train pulls up I realise how much I misjudged the scale of overcrowding.

Commuters are packed so tightly it seems there is no conceivable way of boarding without some form of assault.

“You’re going to have to push them,” Dev says matter-of-factly.

My friend and I shove our way on to the train by leaning indecorously into the tightly knitted group of people, and I await the abuse I would have received had I tried this at home. But no one complains; in fact, few seem to notice we are pushing them about like shopping trolleys to create a space.

The four of us squeeze on, but there is no room for our small-framed guide whose attempts at making a dent in the crowd have failed.

Dev isn’t concerned, however. He finds a tiny patch of real estate on the ledge of the train, grabs onto the central post and hangs outside, letting the wind whip him.

I feel a momentary surge of jealousy because he seems so free, and there is no uniformed person to stop him from making do. 

As the train speeds away, I ask, rather redundantly, whether what he is doing is considered dangerous, and make some panicked references to upcoming tunnels.

“Yes, but we are not allowed on the roof anymore,” he says. “Now it is much better than before – only 5500 people die each year from falling from the train.”

The train pulls into its next stop, which prompts a stampede for the door, as bodies are shoved out of the way and backpacks become detached from their owners.

One man grabs another, gathers his shirt in his fist and pushes him against the wall. Whether it is from commuter frustration or a decades-long grievance is hard to know.

We, the only apparent Western tourists in the carriage, are pushed and shoved, bobbing about the surging crowd like corks in water.

If I felt distant from the busy residents I observed in the Dharavi slum, I feel no such separateness on the packed train back to central Mumbai. The city’s old rail network is the great leveller of modern India.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "Industrious zone".

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Johanna Leggatt is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.

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