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Dharavi: Life in the Slums

I met my Dharavi tour guide, Felix, on my second night in Mumbai.

It was after dinner, and I was lost trying to find the way back to my hotel.

As a white, redheaded, young female walking alone at night in India, I obviously attracted the attention of most passersby, and Felix was no exception.He told me that he was a tour guide and, after leading me back successfully to my budget hotel, we arranged a tour of Dharavi for the following day.

Dharavi is located in the heart of Mumbai and boasts roughly one-million residents.

Only three-square kilometers in size, Dharavi has about eighteen thousand people per acre of land.

The land was originally a mangrove swamp. In the late nineteenth-century, Koli fishermen made up the majority of its residents. The swamp eventually filled in, and a huge wave of immigration swept through the area.

Migrants from all over India travelled to Mumbai and settled in Dharavi. Those from the western state of Gujarat set up a pottery colony, clothing embroiders came from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and leather tanners travelled up from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Dharavi is sometimes called “mini India” as it has nearly one-hundred smaller neighborhoods filled with people of diverse religious and regional backgrounds. Essentially, it is a religious and cultural “melting pot.”

Felix and I met up the next day and began our six-hour tour of Dharavi. I had been in India for over a week already, and was just beginning to adjust to Mumbia’s sensory overload. However, nothing I had experienced before was quite like Dharavi.

We walked across a very questionable looking bridge and I saw a multi-colored welcome sign hanging askew on the front of a shanty building. It was ironic, seeing as though everything else I would witness in the slums was completely devoid of color.

For the next six hours, we walked through the labyrinth that is Dharavi. The maze of informally constructed housing seemed to go on forever. The tiny houses were built one upon the other, piled dubiously high with a foundation of nothing more than rubble and garbage. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Every second step, I inhaled a different combination of the most vile, putrid odors. This is probably due to the fact that there are not enough toilets. Tuberculosis (TB), malaria, and diarrhea are endemic, and it costs three rupees to use the communal toilets. Luckily, I had gone to the bathroom before we started the tour.

We began in the “business” district of Dharavi. Nothing is considered garbage in the slums.Men and women work from eight in the morning to eleven at night in the blistering heat, sorting bits of plastic to be cut into smaller pieces and eventually melted down.

In addition to recycling, clothing manufacturing is also firmly established, along with other industries.

Dharavi is the hub of the informal economy; most residents have a job within the slum.

As we continued the tour, Felix explained the various development attempts since 1985. The economy in Mumbai is soaring, and Dharavi happens to be located in an area of prime real estate. The land is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He pointed out some decrepit buildings and told me how the World Bank had given the government a loan to replace informal housing with proper structures. While some development was made, the loan has since run out.

In 2004, Mukesh Mehta attempted to reinvigorate development plans with the Dharavi Redevelopment Project: an American partnership worth three billion dollars between the government and private developers. It promised to provide Dharavi residents with apartments free of charge, while developers could make a profit on whatever land was left over. In 2009, the government postponed calls for bids.

For me, a spoiled Westerner who researches the status of slum development projects on my MacBook Pro, Dharavi is absolutely miserable.

The heat, the smells, the horrid living conditions are all incredibly appalling. However, it was hard not to notice that despite the misery, there was also life. Adults had jobs, and children went to school and played cricket amongst the garbage and goats. Whenever I would take a photo of a group of children, they would erupt in screams of joy and laughter. In my extremely sheltered view of the world, I see these conditions as repulsive. But for the people of Dharavi, this is life.

This is their home, where they grew up, and will live for the rest of their lives.

Photo essay & text: Joey Shea

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  1. Excellent article. That’s my unbiased opinion.

  2. like the calm tone/perspective

  3. emotional ,excellent article

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