Dharavi is called the hearth of Mumbai both because of its location and its shape. People started establishing in this area since 1840. Today the slum counts as many as 1 million people over an area equivalent to 55 football grounds, with a density of 570,000 people per square kilometer, more than 20 times Mumbai density – which is already one of the most crowded cities in the world.
After my positive experience with Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi at the beginning of my Asian tour four months and half ago, I decide to visit Dharavi despite my concerns deriving both from personal considerations – does this people feel like animals in a zoo with respect to foreigners walking around their streets? – and some general critics. The appointment is at 9.15am in front of the book stall Wheeler, in Churchgate station. The tour operator, called Reality Tours & Travel, was founded in 2005 by Chris Way and Krishna Pujari, and since August 2009 they started Reality Gives, an NGO financed entirely by revenues (80% of profits after tax) from Reality Tours.
Reality Gives actions
Reality Gives is actively involved in Dharavi through several programmes. The most important is the Youth Empowerment Programme (YEP): young people aged 16-24 are offered 3-and-half-month professional courses (morning or afternoon) in English, IT or soft skills for 500 Rs (about 8 Euro). The fee is given back to the student if he/she has a 90% attendance rate. Other initiatives includes for example English language support and a cricket academy (how could cricket miss?), plus connections programs (see last paragraph for a comprehensive list).
The main funding sources are the tour fees (550Rs for a short tour, 1200 Rs for a long one by car) plus donations by tourists and privates. I read in their newsletter that following the restrictions imposed by Indian regulations on foreign receipts for NGOs, they are building connections to other NGOs operating in Dharavi and which are able to accept donations. For example, since April 2012 Reality Gives is collaborating with Yuwa, an organisations which empowers girls through football.
Dharavi commercial area
Dharavi counts 10,000 small shops for a total productivity of US$ 665m per year. We start the tour observing the different phases of the plastic recycling process: plastic is collected and separated by colour, washed, dried, then it is given a uniform colour by means of chemical agents, reduced to sticks and finally packed, ready to be sold to big plastic companies. The all process uses machines built by slum people themselves – oh, apparently they don’t need highly specialised mechanical engineers to do the job.
Our western eyes e remark the bad working conditions. Our guide, Suraj, says us that they are actually provided with masks, gloves and whatever needed, but they prefer not to use them both because of the heat and as these stuffs reduce the productivity. Men working in the plastic industry earns 150-250 Rs per 8-10 working hours per day (3-5 Euro). Most of them are migrants from rural areas, where the daily salary is 90Rs (1.5 Euro) per day. Their families remain in the countryside as the living costs in the city are higher. Rent in the slum starts from a minimum of 2500 Rs per month up to 4-7000, plus 300-500Rs of electricity bill. As these workers can’t afford it, they use to live in the factory - a good deal for the factory owner as they become automatically security guards.
Dharavi residential area
After crossing a main road in the middle of the slum, we enter the residential area. 9% of the people lives in more than 20 square meter, 43% between 10 and 20, the rest in less than 10. The house consists of a common room for cooking and sleeping plus a corner for washing and bathing. 71% of people use public toilets provided by the government, 27% defecate in open spaces, while only 2% enjoy of a private relief space. Families are usually quite small, one or two children, which helps to contain the expansion of the slum. As The Economist likes to repeat, India is a quite successful story of fertility control obtained through awareness instead of cohertion (look for links economist/fertility).
Nowadays one third of Dharavi population is original from Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state, one third from Maharashtra, the central-western state whose capital is Mumbai, and the rest from all over India. The muslim and hindu communities used to live quite peacefully together until tensions in 1992 exploded in riots which killed 900 people and resulted in their separation into two different areas.
We first cross the muslim area, where the leather business – the second biggest in all India - is perfectly introduced by a strong smell of fresh animal skins, inside the stores and on the streets. A man transporting skins points us, laughing, a (still alive) goat. Before and after.
Moving towards the hindu area, where houses are bigger and streets definitely more spaced, we see a puff factory, then we visit Kumbharwada, the potters’ village, and we end seeing a store where recycled vegetal oil cans are stocked – ragpickers collect them from restaurants, hotels and homes all around the city, and after being washed they can be used again
The tour ends visiting Reality Gives school, while students are taking an English exam, and then their office in the slum, where we read about the several tours they offer while drinking a cold drink kindly offered to us six.
From slum to building complex?
The government proposed a plan to substitute the huts with proper buildings. According to the scheme, constructors would be given for free the quite valuable Dharavi land: the constructor builds the apartments and give them for free to the slum people, plus he builds as well buildings for profit. However, in order to be eligible for these free apartments, the person should prove that he lives in Mumbai since 1995, a not easy task . As the constructions can start only with 70% of approval from the slum population, and as this approval has not been obtained so far because of this clause, for the next future the slum will remain a complex of huts. Suraj tells us that maybe if we come back in 10-15 years we’ll see a completely different Dharavi.
Considerations at the end of the day
At the end of the 2-hour tour, I came up with some considerations, some of them maybe obvious. I would really like to hear your opinion, if any, about these points.
First, poverty is not directly related with having or not a job. Workers at the plastic factory have a quite stable job, and they can count on a daily revenue. And poverty is not linked neither to lack of initiative. The transmission of poverty from father to son is a direct consequence of the impossibility to go out of the circle and progress, the lack of perspectives. People are given enough to survive, not to live.
Secondly, renting a house in a slum in not an option for the poorest of the poor, at least not in Dharavi (probably other slums are cheaper). The same happens, for example, also at Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro famous favela, which I visited in December 2010 while doing a research on microcredit in Rio urban area. When the slum is too expensive, the options are either to live in the working place , or finding a free space somewhere around the city, along the railways or on the walk side. I want to remember the contrast between the Taj Majal, Tata’s super-luxury hotel in Colaba, and just 20 metres away the women and children sleeping on the walk side at night, and begging during the day. On the other hand, mostly in the richer hindu community, I think – but this idea is not sustained by any figure – that there are people living in Dharavi despite they could afford a place outside the slum, and this is so because the slum besides of lodging offers health and education facilities as well as strong community links that I will further discuss in my fourth point.
Third, Dharavi confirmed a general impression I have already had when visiting North India in April, that (poor) Indians are really clean in what concerns their private space, and mostly their body. On the other hand, they usually adopt a really disrespectful behaviour towards public spaces – and still, Dharavi streets are much cleaner than some areas in Delhi or touristic cities in Rajasthan. In the trains there are not dustbins – at least not in sleeper class, where I use to travel. Either you bring a plastic bag to put your waste in, risking a cockroach attack during the night, or you follow the custom of throwing everything away from the window.
Last but not least, I am not sure that substituting the huts with huge buildings would have an overall positive impact. I visited Mumbai mostly inspired by “Shantaram”, a must-to-read for backpackers in India, and as Lin, the writer and main protagonist of this autobiography, often remarks, the slum is an incredible example of solidarity and door-to-door relationships. My concern is that huge building could destroy the community links by isolating people in their own space. If it’s true that in poor countries privacy is a measure of wealth, it’s also true that the slums are quite efficient exactly because everybody knows, and then feels involved and somehow part of, his neighbor’s life. What would be for sure positive would be instead assuring that everybody has access to a clean toilette, that the government cleans regularly open spaces where trash accumulates – it is already supposed to do it, but it’s clearly not the case so that from time to time people burn the trash, that huts are equipped to face monsoons without major damages, and so on and so forth. Will be someone interested in investing in infrastructure works while preserving the community links?
How we can do the difference
Reality Tours & Travels proposes many ways to collaborate, either with donations or your time. It doesn’t matter how much one person does, as far as one does at least something . Once again, I believe in people’s power to change someone else’s life when given the right motivation, and I believe in people potential in changing their own life once given the opportunity to do it.
Here a list of what we can do for Reality Gives and for other organisations and initiatives in Dharavi with which Reality is collaborating.
- if you take part to their tours or visit them, write a blog post about your Mumbai experience (here I go!)
- become a Reality Ambassador in your country by running fundraising events or on-line fundraising for Reality causes (if interested, e-mail Reality Fundraising Director, Adina: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- work as illustrator/publisher for a children’s book made by their Kindergarten teacher
- help to design “Made in Dharavi” products based on local materials
- coordinate musical and theatre projects with their community centre
- starts your own project with Reality support. Let them know your idea!
RUR, an organisation dedicated to greening the earth, shows students how to deal with garbage and responsible waste practices (because just throwing trash on the ground is not really a good practice!)
- help RUR design their waste management project inDharavi.
- Fund a student for one month for RP 770 or about 10 GBP
- Fund a year kit for beginners for RP 1550 or about 20 GBP
Foundation for Mother and Children Health (FMCH) Nutrition Program offers since July 2012 nutritional counseling to parents at the Reality Gives Ashayen Community centre as well as height and weight assessments for children, cooking classes twice a month and typhoid and de-worming camps.
- Fund a beneficiary for a year for RP 1500 or about 20 GBP
Under the Mango Tree Bee Initiative
aims to spread awareness about urban ecology, create possible sources of livelihood for poor people and increase pollination of urban gardens and urban flora
- Donate RP 5000 or about 65 GBP for a hive to expand their urban beekeeping program
- Donate a videocamera to create a vocational video for children and farmers
Bombay Underground Art Project has been helping Reality Gives students since November 2011 to explore their world through creativity, first by drawing and since February by photography
- gift a camera to an art student
- make a website for Bombay Underground
- buy one of the photographs
To donate: check Reality Gives website
To volunteer: e-mail Reality (email@example.com) with the project you are interested in, your CV and availability
Reality only accepts donations in-kind in India. No shipping!
Here high resolution photos from the tour published by Reality Tours & Travel.