The Slum Behind “Slumdog Millionaire”

Cardboard Recycling in Dharavi

Our first day in Mumbai provided a rather profound immersion into life in India for people at or near at the “bottom of the pyramid.”  My classmates and I spent the afternoon taking a tour of Dharavi Slum, one of the largest slums in the world and, as we discovered, a center of not only housing for Indians from all over the country but also of significant informal sector activity.  (To note: none of us took photos out of respect for the slum dwellers, but I was able to get high-resolution images from Reality Gives which led our group through the slum.  They did a great job leading the tours and I’m grateful for the images, as I truly believe a picture speaks a thousand words.)

We began the tour in a more industrial section, where we witnessed workers participating in a wide variety of entrepreneurial endeavors.  Recycling was a major activity: oil cans, paint, soap, aluminum, plastic, bags…you name it, it is probably getting recycled somewhere within Dharavi.  We also witnessed workers creating buttery confections, tanning and curing leather to make handbags, and more.  Many people were hard at work, and cars and trucks regularly made their way through the narrow passageways, piled high with materials.

Embroidery factory

Paint recycling factory

Oil can recycling in Dharavi

Mumbai has very bad pollution to begin with, but these work activities result in a particularly severe assault on the senses.  In some cases protection is available to the workers, but the temperature in Mumbai is sweltering most of the time and it is very uncomfortable to wear any more layers or masks.  Visiting Dharavi for just four hours wasn’t without consequences; my throat was feeling the aftereffects of breathing the polluted air even the morning after.  As uncomfortable as it was to witness and experience, though, I can’t really blame the workers given the environmental factors.  While my throat will recover, the vast majority of people in the slum won’t be able to escape this kind of existence, however, and life expectancies in this community are about 50-60 years.

Plastic recycling factory - crashing the plastic into little pieces

We then braved the traffic to cross the main road – a rather risky endeavor that I’ll talk more about in my next blog! – and visit a residential section.  The pathways were narrow and one-room homes were basically stacked on top of each other.  We saw sets of shoes at the entrances, laundry out to dry, and images representing each family’s religion – here in this community, Muslims and Hindus coexisted peacefully, from what I could tell.  The homes were small but it appeared that the residents worked to make them as clean and cozy as possible with curtains and flowers.  There were noticeably more women here engaged in pottery production and taking care of children (to note: the Hindu women work outside of the home, while the Muslim women do not).  There are some schools run by organizations such as the one that led our tour, so this is promising, although literacy rates are still low in India.

Boy in a narrow street in Dharavi

I asked our tour guide about the celebrated film “Slumdog Millionaire,” part of which was indeed filmed in Dharavi, and whether or not it portrayed anything close to reality.  What I could discern of the tour guide’s answer was that the movie portrayed an outdated and somewhat glamorized view of the slums, but was partially accurate at least in its portrayal of Dharavi in the 90’s.  In any event, this was my first time visiting a slum, and Dharavi provided numerous surprises.  For instance, not everyone living in the slums is poor.  There are some wealthy business owners who live or at least spend their days there for convenience sake.  In some cases, migrant workers basically live at their “office,” rolling out mats to sleep at night – this is a win-win as they have a place to stay and the owners have free security.  Secondly, homes in the slum are not as cheap as I would have expected; a one-bedroom place ran for the equivalent of about 60 USD per month.

Ultimately, I am glad to have had the opportunity to experience a small fraction of what the Dharavi slum has to offer.  It isn’t easy to witness poverty, particularly on this massive a scale, and feel almost powerless to do something.  I know that a lot of us are reflecting on this experience over the course of our week together.  There seemed to be a real sense of resilience in Dharavi, however, and many residents smiled or said hello to our group, with a desire to connect that seemed genuine.

Dharavi Kids' smiles

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14