Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Monday March 12th – Dharavi Slum Tour

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Guest post by Randall:

After a leisurely breakfast I set off for my ‘Spirit of Dharavi’ tour, i.e. slum tourism. Photos are not allowed so I can only paint for you dear reader, a mental picture. Helen was originally going to come but I left her at the main station (commonly known as Victoria Terminus or VT) looking for train alternatives to our now defunct Kingfisher flights before she went to the tailor for some changes to yet more clothes, and went to my platform. From the boards I knew that the next train was not the one I needed but that the one after was a likely north-bound candidate. I therefore choose a space on the platform and settled down to wait. The platform filled and emptied as the first train arrived and departed and I took a call from Helen. I was thus distracted at the point when my train came in and it was only a vague feeling of being even more conspicuously taller than everybody than usual that prompted me to notice I was standing in a huge crowd of women. Unaccustomed as I am to being mobbed by women it dawned on me these frequent travellers were clued-in to where the women only carriage would stop and I was on a loser. Later the same day Helen told me that a man on her train had actually got on the women only carriage and had found it necessary to apologise profusely despite getting off again before departure, so I feel I had a lucky escape.

I arrived at Mahim station which used to be the end of the metropolitan line before the ‘new’ suburbs were built even further north. I met my old friend from Gib, Shikha, and the tour guide outside the station. The guide was a smart and enthusiastic university student who hailed from Dharavi and did this regularly as a holiday job. He provided the first 2 challenges to my preconceptions before we had set foot in the place. First, the schools in the slum educate 80% of the children to the level of basic numeracy and literacy (probably higher than the national average of 74%), and many children to the level where they could go to university. Second, he was one of very few who actually go on to university because most of those with higher qualifications see plenty of entrepreneurial opportunity staying in the slum. With these thoughts in mind we headed in by crossing the railway Bifrost.
Dharavi slum started in the 1840s and is therefore roughly as old as ‘modern’ Bombay. It usually has the title of being the biggest (most crowded) in all Asia but several other Mumbai slums are now snapping at it’s down-at-heels. The slum is bounded east and west by the 2 major railways into central Mumbai (Bombay). These give rise to the images you might have seen of people living crammed along the edges of the railway lines. The south is bounded by the edge of what had previously been the outermost suburb. The north is kept in check by police boundary which ensures a clear stretch of wooded land before the ‘new’ suburb boundary. The whole area is 0.67 square miles (1.7 km2) and home to 1 million people – it’s crowded.

As the tour progressed I asked lots of questions and Shikha had to asked the question again, in English, because the guide had difficulty understanding me. Out of these answers and the general tour info I gleaned that the early days of Dharavi had probably fitted my mental image of a slum; water from the same river that was used for sewerage, no electricity or power, huts made from tin sheets and rubbish, chaos and abject poverty, etc., etc. The slum we toured was still holding up the image in that it was crowded, dirty, smelly and chaotically busy but frankly these qualities generally describe the urban landscape in India outside the 5 star hotels and members only clubs.

Our tour covered the recycling industry area, the leather industry area, the textiles area, the ceramics area and one of the residential areas. Estimates vary but the yearly turnover of Dharavi industries is approximately $500 million (half a billion dollar! – where there’s muck there’s brass). It’s location in between 2 railways, near a port, 2 airports and (now) a major freeway helps enormously in it’s impressive annual turnover. I never did understand how the town planning was managed for this city-within-a-city but it seems cooperation and common sense had a lot to do with it. It is worth mentioning the river which still is polluted sludge-black and spontaneously bubbles methane and other noxious gases from the reacting chemical effluents – it’s name is Sweetwater.
All industry within Dharavi is based on a large workforce of very cheap labour. Plastics recycling had started with just collecting the rubbish from Bombay’s streets and sorting it into types. Developing this industry along the supply chain required machinery and machinery requires reliable, high power electricity. Where there is a will there’s a way and now that basic utilities are in place there are different workshops for: shredding the plastic, washing, drying and bagging the shreds, colouring and melting the plastic, then extruding it into long threads, cooling and chopping the threads into small ‘pellets’, and finally bagging and labeling the pellets ready for reuse. Huge shipments of recycled pellets go out from Dharavi to manufacturers all over the world every day.

Aluminum cans also are collected from the streets, washed and stripped of their plastic coating and shredded. The shreds are then smelted into ingots for shipment. Some ingots however are used in Dharavi in another workshop for pressing machine parts.

Cardboard boxes are recycled by removing the stickers, scrubbing off the writing and trimming the edges. The box nets are shipped out to manufacturers who can recoat and print on the cardboard ready for reassembly and reuse. This approach saves on cost and energy over recycling via the pulp stage.

Used wire is collected and the plastic coating stripped from the copper by hand. Both are then recycled and shipped out.

What really struck me was how did they get these huge machines positioned into ramshackle building in the middle of this crowded and tortuously alley-riddled maze? Our guide was uncharacteristically uninformed about this because, apparently, it all happened before he was born. This lead to 2 revelations: 1) that there are very few records of anything in Dharavi (it’s not classed as a slum for nothing), and 2) the maintenance of all machinery is done in-house. Not only maintenance it turns out but there are now workshops that produce Dharavi-ready industrial machinery – suitable sized components for transporting, no fussy safety features to override, and built-to-last motors and blades etc. No built-in obsolescence here!
Machines built in Dharavi are used extensively in the leather industry which is so famous that the leather goods made outside but from Dharavi leather are bought back in again to be sold to tourists in small shops around the leather workshop area. The actual ‘tanning’ cannot be done in Dharavi by order of the government because it is so polluting and very, very smelly, so the hides are send out to the tannery. The guide seemed to feel this was a harsh constraint on free enterprise. The hides are then brought back for further working (I never knew there were so many process steps in making leather). I had to ask in case you were wondering – the sacred cow of India is never used so the leather is either goat, sheep, or buffalo.
Just around the corner from this we passed the extensive bakery area which bakes and packs baked goods for several supermarkets. We had free samples which would have been easier to eat had the guide had one too. Turns out they are delicious.

The textile industry is fabulously varied. In different workshops we saw sequin encrusted diaphanous shawls being labour-intensively crafted (including by children) and computer-controlled banks of machines doing embroidery (I kid you not) on denim wear. We also experienced the wax printing workshop at lunchtime and were photographed as celebrities. I fear that when they show their photos to their friends they will be mightily disappointed.

The ceramics area was an oasis of calm in comparison. Large brick kilns in regular rows with small workshops set along both sides. The whole area structured to support the supply chain from raw clay to finished product and packaging for shipment. There is much cooperation and collaboration and according to our guide, little friction. Shikha has become something of an expert on pottery since we were in Gibraltar so I was treated to a in-depth treatise on the complex artisanship of pot making from the two of them – genuinely fascinating.
Much of the industry is based on migrant expertise and is therefore divided regionally. The close collaboration of industries, however means that regional (and religious) tolerance and indeed harmony are a commercial necessity. People work together and live together. The industrial areas are as arranged around wide boulevards compared to the residential areas. I was grateful we didn’t dally as the alleys were busy but so narrow I couldn’t get my shoulders through. They followed the lines of the, thankfully covered, sewers as no building over the sewers is allowed (or indeed possible). Electric cables hang low from every support and offer garroting and electrocution as a two-for-one.

There are no toilet facilities inside the houses but public washroom dotted all-too-rarely about the residential area. I asked about why no facilities inside houses and the top answer was no room – people live typically in family units of 6-8 people and a typical house is 10-15 square metres; basically one room. It is beyond me that so many people stay and indeed raise another generation there even when they could afford to go elsewhere.

In general the buildings in Dharavi are unique with a flavour of assault-course obstacle about them. They are mostly made from recycled bits (what else?) and just barely good enough to house the relevant occupant. The tour has definite Indiana Jones feel as you traverse treacherous terrain and outsmart lurking bear-traps in order to uncover unlikely chambers of ingenious industry. The whole place is a riot of sensory input and the tour took us onto the roof of one particularly tall workshop (I trod very gingerly with my great weight) to take in the view from above.
We finished with a walk through the market where our guide pointed-out the mobile stalls blocking the roads that were occasionally cleared in a police raid if somebody had failed to pay the relevant bribes. It is an impressive place and countered my casual preconceived notions of a slum but I still found myself recounting my happy tales to Helen (after we’d met her from the station) whilst eating lunch in a suburban restaurant.

Ed note: more information and photos can be found here:


Written by helenbcn

March 12, 2012 at 8:36 pm

One Response

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  1. Loved your descriptions, makes it easy for me to visualise ( vicarious experience again )

    Ann Lewis

    March 19, 2012 at 10:50 pm

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