The slums of Mumbai

In Mumbai I meet Deepa Krishnan, owner of tour operator Mumbai Magic, whom I have befriended over email before my arrival. Deepa introduced me to Akanksha, which she donates approximately one-third of her business profits to. Deepa is taking me to see a slum called Dharavi, built on filled-in swamp land. Although exact population figures are difficult, Deepa estimates that close to a million people live in Dharavi.

It is not a slum in the way I had imagined – not a ghetto. It looks and feels much more like a village one would find anywhere else, and not right in the middle of the huge, sprawling city of Mumbai. Industry and entrepreneurship abound. Very few people are idle. Entire cottage industries thrive here: weaving, food, clothing manufacturing, pottery. Small business owners work hard at production, and all around me is the buzz of things happening.

The children of Dharavi follow us, posing for photos or running shyly away. I see uniformed schoolchildren everywhere, and Deepa assures me that most every child here attends school. This makes me think of Akanksha and what Tina said about the government schools, which is the only option available to the children of Dharavi. None of the children speak much English, even the older ones. They smile at the cameras and tail us like sleuths, giggling, as we take our leave.

The streets are very narrow lanes and often as we drive through them we are confronted by trucks or oxen-pulled carts, at which time the driver has to reverse all the way back out to let them pass. After a while we get out of the car and walk through the lanes, instantly attracting attention. We watch women making pappadam, a thin crispy bread with bits of pepper in it. They roll the meal out on little stone tablets on the ground and then place the tortilla-like rounds on cone shaped wicker baskets to dry.

Down another lane, Deepa leads the way up a steep ladder with a rope handle hanging down from the ceiling rafters, to watch men working at sewing machines, making shirts in assembly-line fashion. One does the cutting, another sews the sleeves, another the collar, and on down the line to the finished product. The man in charge shows us a beautiful completed shirt, which he says will sell wholesale to a retail store buyer for 15 rupees, about 35 cents.

In another section of the neighborhood, clay pots are being made, a woman mixing the clay for her husband as he sits at the potter’s wheel, skillfully and intently forming the perfect urn. Kilns line the middle of the alley, their smoke permeating the air and creating a stifling heat in the already 95-degree day.

To me, this place dispels the myth that poverty is due to laziness, that the poor somehow deserve their lot in life because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise lacking in some important character trait that the successful possess. Dharavi is a resounding rebuttal to that belief. I have rarely seen people work so hard in all my life, up to 18 hours or more each day, much more so than many middle-class earning hundreds or thousands times more. Born into the right mix of circumstances – as the vast majority of “self-made” successes are – the industry-makers here would no doubt be thriving business people with comfortable bank accounts. Instead they drew the short stick in the purely dumb luck lottery of birth, born into a different world with far less access to education and far fewer opportunities to climb onto the next rung of economic prosperity, no matter how smart or hard-working they are.

I look around and find myself musing about leisure time, recreation, entertainment. Most of the residents here walk, sometimes quite far, for their families’ daily water and food supply, a process that can take hours. Between their cottage industries and taking care of a home and children, I’m certain that most residents of Dharavi work from far before dawn until night. Leisure time is a luxury, the province of the well-to-do, and just one more indicator of the abyss of difference between the haves and the have-nots of this world. To have leisure time, to be able to enjoy entertainment, is a luxury for the wealthy – as is space. My friend Dita once observed that wealth requires space, and nowhere is this more apparent than a place like Dharavi. The residents here seem to have no privacy, no moments of solitude or sanctuary. Poverty eliminates both space and leisure time, two elements that seem necessary to most of us and which we often take for granted.


Deepa (on right) showing
a woman her photo.

Read an excellent article about Dharavi in The Guardian.

In commemoration of the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I would like to end this post with the following quote by Dr. King from a 1967 address:

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

About Shelley Seale

I'm Shelley, a journeyer and learner of the world, freelance journalist and author, yoga chick and dog lover. I pound the keyboard from home barefoot every day, and while my boss is demanding she also occasionally lets me have the early afternoon cocktail. I think not going into an office or collecting corporate paychecks are very good ideas, though not always profitable. I have written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, Texas Monthly and CNN, among others. Neither the New York Times nor Johnny Depp have answered my letters yet. I love yoga, indie movies, wine, and books, though not necessarily in that order. I believe in karma. Mean people suck. If I could have any dream job I would like to be a superhero. I have performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano and was once robbed by a monkey in Nepal. But, I don't know how to whistle. My mantra is "travel with a purpose."

Posted on March 15, 2007, in asia, India, poverty, shelley seale, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Swapan Mukherjee

    It was indeed a ‘goose pimple raiser’ of your writing about Dharavi. Many have written about Dharavi but yours is the first I have read which looks at the community in an admiring and positive way.

    Dharavi isn’t a typical slum but a way of life. Powers that be usually turn a blind eye to the conditions of the area, except when elections loom large.

    A doctor neighbour, where I live, runs a busy clinic in Dharavi, which I often pass by enroute to south Mumbai. His impressions of the place and its people, and your writng prompts me to visit the place and meet some of these extremely enterprsing people. May be, I could learn a thing or two from them.

    Thank you for the wonderful article.

    Best wishes and warm regards from sunny Mumbai

    Swapan Mukherjee

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