CHRIS ALLEN: Mumbai Journal — Asia’s Largest Slum

A staggering 55 percent of Mumbai’s population (12.4 million people in 2011) lives in its dozens of slums, nearly 7 million people. The largest of these is Dharavi. More than a million people live in an area half the size of New York’s Central Park, about 0.8 square miles. Let that sink in for a moment. A million people, less than a square mile.

The slums of Mumbai — the second most populous metropolitan area in India — are desperately poor, but they are not a place of hopelessness. In fact there are thriving industries within Dharavi and an informal economy estimated to be worth about a billion dollars.

Dharavi slum seen from the rooftop.
Dharavi slum seen from the rooftop.

It’s hard to find the right voice to write about slums. A group of us in Mumbai for an education seminar took a tour of the Dharavi slum, which of course sounds voyeuristic. Reality Tours has been conducting tours of Dharivi for about 11 years now, giving 80 percent of its profits after taxes back to the densely packed slum in the form of education programs and job training for school-age kids up to adults. The photos you see here were taken by Reality — we were asked not to take any photos out of respect for the people who live there.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Dharavi is the industry. People work in this slum. It shatters the image most of us have about slums — that people are lazy, uncaring drug addicts who cannot help themselves. In fact, there’s a chance the your computer’s plastic housing came from there. There’s business in this slum.

The slum is divided by a busy four-lane street. On one side are the “toxic” industries. Most of these involve recycling. Dozens — maybe hundreds — of business run out of shacks ranging in size from cargo container to boxcar. Plastic of all sorts are brought in massive Tata refuse-hauling trucks. Types of plastic include bags, which have recently been banned in India, toys, bottles and casings for all sorts of equipment. Workers then carry the plastic in huge bags that are toted on the backs of workers through narrow, one-person wide passages to deep within the slum.

Dharivi thrives on recycling — plastic, cans of all sorts and sizes, wood and cloth.
Dharivi thrives on recycling — plastic, cans of all sorts and sizes, wood and cloth.

The plastic is sorted by color, shredded, washed, dried, melted, extruded into long, thin wires and chopped into pellets. These pellets themselves are bagged, carried out of the slum and sold to companies to become, again, housing for your electronics. OSHA does not exist.

The workers are inT-shirts, shorts, bare feet and flip-flops. There is no head covering, no eye protection. They may earn two or three rupees a day — 3 or 4 cents (yes, cents) depending on the job or how dangerous it is. Some of the shops are two-story. Steep metal ladders are the only way up or down, sometimes with 100-pound bails on one’s back.

Aluminum cans are melted in white hot kilns that burn charcoal and magnesium to achieve the high temperature needed to melt the scrap. The aluminum is poured into molds to form ingots about a foot long and 4 inches wide. The only way to get the ingots to the buyers is by carrying them out through the labyrinth of passageways. The men tending the open kilns and pouring the molten aluminum wear absolutely no protective clothing. There are no fans, no air conditioning, no windows. In the feels-like temperature of 101 degrees, it’s unbearable.

Large 10-gallon industrial paint cans cause special concerns. The paint first has to be heated and burned out before the cans can be crushed and processed somewhat like aluminum. Not so much as a cloth mask was visible among the workers, who breath the toxic fumes for hours each day.

One of our guides told us most people in the toxic side of the slum don’t work past their mid-40s, and are frequently too ill to work past 50.

A lot of the workers here come from outside the slum, and outside of Mumbai. They are themselves from desperately poor families in rural India. They come to work for nine or 10 months at a stretch, earning money to take back home. The owners of these micro-factories may let the workers live in a corner of the tiny building rent-free. Some of the owners themselves live in the slum, but some have managed to afford housing outside and leave the day-to-day operation to their workers.

A heart-stopping dash across the busy road leads to the “clean” industries and the more residential part of the slum, although “residential” makes it sound bucolic. It’s not. The clean industries include textile work, leather fabrication and pottery.

There used to be tanneries in Dhavari many years ago, but it was outlawed because it’s so toxic. Skins are still collected and stored in a particularly smelly quarter of the slum and shipped south to Chennai. The leather is then shipped back to Dhavari for finishing into coats, briefcases, purses, wallets and bags. It’s here many of the knock-off Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, shipped all over the world and sold on the streets of just about every major city on Earth, are made. But a few years ago, slum resident Wahaj Khan opened a shop (the only air conditioned spot in the slum) and began selling those goods with the Dharavi brand on them.

The slum is dense, and on hot, humid Mumbai monsoon days, nearly airless. We walked along passages only a few inches wider than our shoulders. Electric wires scalloped above our heads but often dipped low enough to have to duck. We had to watch that while also paying attention to our footsteps — holes in the walkway were common. People coming the other way had to step into doorways to pass — there wasn’t enough room for two people on the walkway. In other places, the walkways opened up onto a courtyard-like enclosure of two-story hovels, and even a rough, dusty lot with kids playing the national game of India, cricket, using a plastic bat and balls.

The electricity is expensive, and not every home has it. Water is available three hours a day at leaky faucets sprinkled through the slum. A handful of toilets is scattered around Dharavi. Most people use these. Kids use the great outdoors, usually down by the river in more wooded areas. Virtually no one has a bathroom in his or her residence.

But here’s the thing: It is not shameful to live in the slums. People are not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves — the men work. The culture allows Buddhist and Christian women to work, often in hot, cramped bakeries, earning 1 rupee (about a penny and a half) a day. Muslim women are confined to the home by their religious culture. Children are allowed to work starting at age 14, but many start sooner. And the kids go to school. In early afternoon, the passageways were speckled with boys in their gold-brown uniform shirts and ties coming home from their studies.

Many who live in the slum work outside, in government and industry. They live in the slum because they just don’t make enough to afford housing in this densely populated city on the Indian Ocean. There is no embarrassment — nearly 7 million of their fellow residents do, too.

We stopped for lunch at the house of a woman who does this for the tour company. The “living room” of the place was bare except for, of all things, a refrigerator, quite rare a in Dharavi. The lunch of chapati bread, sprouts, curry chickpeas, rice and dal (lentils) was simple and spectacular. And we learned that she has been to the United States, to visit a daughter in Phoenix. Both of our guides were born and raised in the slums and still live there, but the brother of one is earning his Ph.D. in sleep study and is studying the Cayman Islands. Growing up in the slum is not a life sentence, but escape is neither guaranteed nor easy.

I’m sure there are drugs and alcohol. I didn’t see it. I honestly wonder if there is much theft. There is more a feeling of community, if one can get a sense of that spending less than three hours there. But listening to the guides, one gets the feeling that people watch out for each other, their property and their kids.

If it sounds like the Dharavi slum is a complex web of contradictions, I’ve conveyed the experience accurately. It is a slum. Mumbai would like to clean it up along with all the others. But a million people live and work there. It’s their way of life, and for some it has been for a generation or more. It’ll take more than a bulldozer and a concrete high rise to deal with the problem — the issue.

I’m glad I took the tour. I was happy to leave. I have a lot to sort out. A lot to think about.

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