Overview of Dharavi Slum Tours
Voyeuristic poverty tourism? Gawking at the misery of the underprivileged? If this is your idea of a Dharavi slum tour, then you're severely mistaken. Tours of Dharavi in Mumbai, the largest slum in Asia, have grown in popularity in recent years -- but for a very good reason. These tours aim to dispel any notions that people may have of Dharavi being a place of misery, and are actually very inspiring. They show what people are capable of achieving despite adverse conditions. What's more, most of the tours are conducted by Dharavi residents themselves.
As Be the Local Tours and Travel state on their website:
"If visitors are expecting extreme poverty and despair based on movie depictions, they will be disappointed. In fact this tour actively breaks stereotypical depictions of slums."
Rather than poverty tourism, it's more accurate to think of Dharavi tours as community tourism.
Options for Dharavi Tours
Nowadays you'll find numerous tour companies in Mumbai that offer Dharavi slum tours. These ones are recommended:
- Reality Tours and Travel - Founded in 2005 to provide educational walking tours of Dharavi. 80% of the company's after tax profits go to its NGO, Reality Gives, which runs high-quality education programs in Dharavi for residents.
- Be The Local Tours and Travel - Started by Dharavi residents, this company works to support local students to study full time by training them and employing them as tour guides. This gives them income to fund their education and boosts their confidence by enabling them to meet people from all over the world.
- Mohammed's Dharavi Slum Tours - Mohammad Sadique, an enthusiastic and enterprising young Dharavi local, founded Inside Mumbai Tours after previously working in a call center and learning English. He has been able to fund his education with the money from his bespoke Dharavi tours, which are tailored to individual interests and personally led by him.
What the Dharavi Tours Offer
- Reality Tours and Travel - Two and a half hour Dharavi walking tours cover the recycling area, rooftop visit for a fantastic view, visit to a community center funded by the company's profits, papaddam making, and potters colony. Tours depart twice a day, at set times in the morning and afternoon, and cost 900 rupees per person. It's possible to have lunch in a Dharavi family home after the morning tour (cost 1,500 rupees per person including the tour). Tours can also be combined with sightseeing in Mumbai. More information.
- Be the Local Tours and Travel - One or two-hour walking tours of Dharavi encompass the industrial areas, residential areas, local schools, and pottery colony. Two daily departure times, in the morning and afternoon, are offered. It's possible to go on the short one hour tour any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. More information. Be the Local Tours and Travel have also added a foodie tour option in Dharavi, for those who would like to cook and eat a meal in a local home. The cost is 2,000 rupees per person.
- Mohammad's Dharavi Slum Tours - The most personal option, two and a half hour Dharavi walking tours explore back alleys and main thoroughfares of Dharavi to see small businesses, factories, and workshops. A stop at an atmospheric local cafe for a snack is included. Departure times are flexible and the cost is 600 rupees per person. Photography isn't permitted but Mohammad does run a special photography tour of Dharavi slum. It's also possible to have a meal with his family or even stay with them overnight for a really insightful experience. Contact Mohammad with your specific requirements and he will take care of all the arrangements. More information.
Whichever tour you choose to take, make sure you bring money for shopping! Textile fabrics, leather goods, and other items can all be purchased from small-scale Dharavi manufacturers at great prices.
A Look Inside Dharavi: My Experience
"Welcome to Dharavi!" a customer called out to us from the chai wala, as we exited the stairs at Mahim West railway station. I had just entered what is often labeled as Asia's largest slum. Yes, THAT slum, which rose to fame in the movie Slumdog Millionaire and angered many Indians for its portrayal of poverty. The movie has been referred to as an example of "poverty porn", one that encourages perverse western voyeurism and promotes slum tourism and volunteering.
And, there I was, about to embark on a two hour "slum tour" of Dharavi. But, if you think I was indulging in any kind of poverty voyeurism, think again.
"You live in Mumbai but have never been to Dharavi?", my guide, Salman, was shocked and not at all impressed when he found out. "I've never really had any reason to visit," I tried to defend myself. He was having none of it though. "It's important for everyone to come to Dharavi and see how it functions, see the industry going on here. This is not a place where poor people are depressed. Look around. Do you see any beggars?", he implored me.
Indeed, I could not. What I could see were laughing children running through the lanes and playing cricket, and people diligently working in all types of small-scale industries.
Dharavi's Astonishing Economy
To further dispel any notion of poverty stricken people miserable in squalor, Salman began quoting astonishing numbers to me. In Dharavi, there are a total of 4,902 production units bringing in an annual income of around $1 billion. They're divided into:
- 1039 textiles
- 932 potters
- 567 leather
- 498 embroidery
- 722 recycling
- 111 restaurants
- Thousands of boutiques.
"Dharavi has so many specialist industries because of the people moving here from different areas of India, and they bring their skills with them," Salman informed me.
It's worth nothing that, apparently, there is less than 10% unemployment in Dharavi.
Salman, whose name is actually Salman Khan (yes, the same as the Bollywood actor, who not surprisingly is very popular in Salman's household), is a proud Dharavi local. His grandparents migrated to Mumbai and he has lived in Dharavi all his life. Perhaps not what you'd expect, he confidently speaks flawless English and is studying Science at college. He's also employed as a Dharavi tour guide by Be The Local Tours and Travel.
Redevelopment of Dharavi
As we walked, Salman continued to explain the importance of Dharavi in the context of Mumbai. "Now, everyone is taking an interest in Dharavi's infrastructure and facilities. It's well connected by both Mahim West railway station and the Eastern Express Highway. The government wants to redevelop the area and build high-rise apartments, and they'll move the residents into these apartments."
Without understanding Dharavi, you could easily mistake this for a good thing. After all, residents will be getting free apartments as part of the deal. However, as Salman revealed to me, the truth is much more complicated. "The residents have emotional attachment to their chawls. Plus, the government is going to give everyone 225-275 square foot apartments, regardless of how much space they already have. Also, only people who have been living in Dharavi from before the year 2000 are eligible to get an apartment."
Then, there is the troublesome issue of what will happen to the small-scale industries, which will have to be moved out of the area. "It will be difficult for residents to have to travel to far-off, relocated work places," Salman lamented.
Dharavi's Incredible Recycling Industry
The first part of the Dharavi tour took us through some of the small-scale industry workshops. It was fascinating to see how they operated. Salman explained the process of plastic recycling, as we watched the work going on.
"First, the plastics for recycling are grouped together according to color and quality. Next, they're crushed and made into small pieces. Then, they're washed and dried on the roof tops. After that, they're taken and rolled into pallets, and sent to the plastic manufacturers. 60,000 recycled products are made from them."
All kinds of plastic items, from chai cups to pieces of old telephones, were being sorted through and processed by Dharavi residents.
Other Small-Scale Industries in Dharavi
My friend and I got really excited once we reached the block-printing workshop. They were making export quality fabrics -- and due to overwhelming demand, it was possible to buy them!
Salman called the "boss man" over. "He doesn't look like the boss but he is," he referred to the informally dressed topless man, who commenced laying out a range of beautiful fabrics before us. Unlike many Indian shopkeepers, he knew not to pull out too many pieces, which would overwhelm and confuse us. He also left us alone to decide what we wanted.
The tour progressed through other small-scale industries. Used tin drums were being renewed and repainted, leather was being processed, vessels were being spun on pottery wheels, small clay diyas were being shaped, and pappads were being rolled out (next time you dine at a restaurant in Mumbai, it's likely that the pappad you eat would've been made in Dharavi).
While photography isn't allowed on the Dharavi tour, occasionally Salman gave us the opportunity to take pictures. "The artists do appreciate the acknowledgement of their work. It makes them proud that foreigners come and take an interest in what they do, and even buy what they make."
Education in Dharavi
As I was looking at the diyas, a giggling group of small girls came over to say hello and talk to us. "I want to explore the world with you," one declared. She must've only been aged around six or seven, but already she was dreaming big. And, talking fluently in English.
I asked Salman about education in Dharavi. "Around 80% of children are going to school now. Parents are recognizing the importance of education and learning English." Then he reeled off more numbers to me. "There are 60 municipality schools, four secondary schools, and 13 private schools in Dharavi."
There's also great unity in the slum. "28 temples, 11 mosques, six churches, and 24 Islamic education centers", Salman informed me. "Most industries are self sufficient, but they also support each other. For example, the potters use scraps of cloth from the textile industries as fuel for their kilns."
Dharavi's Remarkable Community Spirit
No doubt, it's the distinctive sense of community that helps make Dharavi a cheerful place. Salman took us through the narrow lanes of one residential part of the slum -- lanes so narrow that I struggled to walk properly and had to crouch down to avoid hitting my head. There were exposed wires everywhere. But, it was clean, and huge drums of fresh drinking water stood at the entrance to people's homes. Groups of housewives sat around chatting to each other, while their children played. "The slum even has 24 hour power," Salman said. "The government has been looking after it."
But what about the infamous slum Mafia? Salam laughed. "It doesn't really exist anymore. They've become politicians so what they do is legal now."
Conclusion and Lessons Learned
Too soon, the two hours of the tour were up. "I hope it's changed your thoughts about Dharavi?" Salman asked.
Without a doubt, it was an amazing, eye-opening, and POSITIVE experience. Everyone should go on a Dharavi tour and experience it for themselves. In my view, anyone who is reluctant to do so because they're worried about "poverty tourism" needs to examine their egos and false sense of superiority. The people in Dharavi are not ashamed of how they live, nor are they miserable. They are friendly, welcoming, and dignified.
Think of it this way. Most of us don't have the riches to afford a private jet and we often travel on public transport. Are we sad because we can't afford a private jet? No. Sad because we don't have a chauffeur driven limousine? Sad because we don't live in a 12 bedroom mansion? No. It's simply not part of our existence, our standard of living. In fact, we don't even know what we're missing. Likewise, the residents of Dharavi are not feeling depressed because they don't have the same standard of living as us. They're far too busy making the most of what they have, not dwelling on what they don't have. And, if you put aside notions of money and material wealth, they're actually richer than what we are because there's so much love and support among their community, they need never feel isolated, sad or lonely. To be totally honest, I envied them for this.
Salman chatted to us some more before departing. "My dream is to own an Audi but I know not to rely on that to make me happy. My boss, the tour company owner, told me that I'll only want something else after a while."
Ain't that the truth! There are indeed important life lessons to be learned from visiting Dharavi.