I have always had this image in my mind of what I thought the slums of Mumbai looked like, but I quickly learned that I was wrong. I guess it’s all the movies that I have watched over the years. My perception was that everybody living there must be miserable, it’s also dirty, and probably smells very bad. I couldn’t have been more wrong…
I really wanted to do a slum tour and luckily I met an American girl in my hostel in Jaipur who recommended the Reality Tour group. I liked this particular company because 80% of profits go into providing free schooling for children.
We started in the commercial part of Dharavi where there are thousands of small scale businesses happening, mostly illegal in terms of the government rules. The first business was genius, a small movie theatre which was just a tiny room with a small screen that plays movies from 5-10 years ago. Obviously, most people can’t afford to go the movies so they come here for a small fee of 10 or 20 rupees. The ingenuity is fantastic.
As we headed further and further into the slums we got to know that Dharavi is where most of India’s recycling happens. This is where plastic and aluminium is melted down and formed back into pellets or bricks that are then sold to the big companies that make all the plastic items. It was great to see so much recycling going on for a country, which I thought, didn’t really care too much about it. But, near the end of the tour we got to see the river where all of the leftover liquid from these recycling factories, is thrown into. I have never seen a river more polluted, it was like a thick black goo heading straight into the Arabian Sea. Not one living animal would be able to survive in these waters, and to top it off every second, litres of this stuff gets poured into our oceans.
As I thought about it more it made me so angry. We, as human beings, are buying this plastic crap everyday so we are contributing to this problem. Not only does it affect our environment, but the health of these workers, who usually work 7 days a week, live in the factory and get to go home every 8-10months to see their family. They usually cannot afford to rent a house in the slums so they live in the factory instead. This is excellent for the owners because they have someone guarding their business all night, and it also means they can work longer because they live and breathe there. The average life expectancy of a worker in these factories is around 40-50 years old. I’m still upset as to how hard these men’s lives are. I was in some of these shops for around 30 seconds and could already feel my lungs getting heavy and skin starting to irritate.
This man spends his day using a hammer to get all of the dents out of paint cans which are then painted again and used up to three more times. After that, they get turned into something useful like a roof for a slum house. I couldn’t help thinking about these amazing and hard working people who dedicate their lives to working and earning money for their family, but then later die of cancer because of the work they have to do for so many years.
We got to see the Indian sweatshops too. The men ran out with a couple of dresses they had made for that day, very similar to what most Westerners would buy. These people get paid by how many pieces of clothing they make which might be 5 or 6 a day, and are paid around 250rupees for each one (£2.50).
It was very interesting and saddening to see the commercial side and to see items that I wear and use every day without thinking of the blood, sweat and tears that goes into making them.
We then headed to the residential part of the slums where the Muslims and Hindus live in separate areas. The alleyways were so tiny and dark, you not only had to watch out where you were walking but also trying not to bang your head on live power lines above you. The most amazing part though was to peek inside the houses, which were impeccably clean. This is not how I imagined it at all. We ended up in what looked like a rubbish dump but in fact was a playground for the children. The smiles on their faces made my day and have been stamped into my heart to remember forever. They were so happy and carefree which is an amazing outlook on life considering the circumstances. These people weren’t starving to death or begging, all they wanted to do was say hello and wave and smile, it was beautiful.
Most of the houses do not have toilets so public toilets are a must, but for over 1 million (and that’s registered) people living in the slums there’s only 700 toilet blocks available. This is a breeding ground for life-threatening diseases. There are vaccination clinics but most people can’t afford the fees that come along with it.
The most amazing thing that I learned from this was how much community spirit there was present. This tour opened my eyes and made me think deeper about the issues that India faces every day. Maybe I will start to think twice before buying products that are contributing to these problems. It has certainly opened up my eyes to another world so I really recommend doing this tour if you’re in Mumbai. The cost was 850 Rupees, but the cost of meeting some of these residents and experiencing how they live was priceless.