Dharavi, Mumbai – ‘Asia’s Biggest Slum’

One must always make an attempt to explore the ways in which other people live and in doing so hold a reflective mindset; surely that is a pathway to mental growth. Dharavi is the biggest slum in Asia and one of the largest in the world.  Located in Mumbai it is home to over one million people.  I spent an afternoon there and was shown around by members of a non- governmental organisation.  This is a positive and inspirational story.

India can be a hard place to travel at times, the reality of poverty is evident.  When I was in Hampi I was walking along the narrow street of guesthouses and gazing into the rice paddy fields, immersed in the beautiful landscape.  As I came to the end of the street and probably a kilometre away from the centre of the village, there was a rubbish tip and probing amongst the rubbish were two small children of maybe three or four years of age.  But that’s existence here, there is widespread poverty and when you travel in this country for a long period, you can truly see what such poverty looks like.  It’s saddening and can make you feel helpless.  You start to question why we have created the world in this way, why the inequality gap continues to increase worldwide and you feel totally grateful for all that you have.

Arriving in Mumbai, one of the things that I wanted to do was to visit a slum.  I’d seen them on the television, in books, in the media and through their British film representation in the famous ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, but that’s never enough.  Like everything in the world, they are all second hand accounts, if you honestly want to gain an authentic opinion or understanding, then you have to experience it for yourself.  Most of the problems in our world are rooted in the way people’s opinions are controlled by their engagement with second hand information.

Coralie and I talked about the slums with the receptionist at our hostel and she explained that she had previously worked for a non- governmental organisation called SHED (Society for Human and Environmental Development) that deal with social issues in Dharavi.  She arranged for us to meet with Mariam Rashid, the deputy CEO of SHED in their offices at the slum.

Mariam Rashid, Deputy CEO SHED

Mariam was an inspirational woman who had grown up in the slum and had worked on issues related to human and environmental development for over twenty five years.  As we sat in her office, she gave us a clear introduction about the slum and problems they face as an organisation.  But what struck me the most, was not her explaining of the problems but rather her confidence in their approach to providing solutions.

Many negative stereotypes are created regarding life in the slums and this distorts the truth.  She explained that the hit film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ received unpopular reviews from those living in the slum as they felt it depicted a totally negative image.

Dharavi slum is located in the heart of India’s financial capital, Mumbai and is home to a massive garment and manufacturing industry.  The slum has many factories and outlets supplying manufacturing goods throughout India and the world.  Later in the day, we were shown sections of industry, such as where leather garments were made and where clothes were manufactured.  The slum plays a pivotal role in supplying goods.  For this reason, masses of workers from other states in India migrate to the slums for work.  The migrant workers are mainly males and gain employment working in the manufacturing trade.  I found this fact very interesting and when we were shown around, it was clear to see that the slum was not just a region where people lived; it was a fully functional part of the economy.

Migrant workers in the Garment industry

Leather industry

However, Mariappan, a Social Science Counsellor who took us around the slum explained that many of the migrant male workers used the female sex workers (bar girls) and this created health problems relating to STI’s and HIV.  The organisation had a project that addressed such issues and we met the people working on it.

Another project focused on raising awareness and providing contraception to female workers within the sex trade.  Mariam made it clear to us that many of the projects within SHED were focused on empowering women, by providing vocational training, child care facilities and encouraging them to earn an honest living with Gandhian values.

HIV project workers

Outside Mariam’s office there was a large painting of Gandi, his ideology and leadership is still of major significance here, he is the inspiration behind the charity.  There was also a quote written on the chalk board that stated ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all’.  I recognised it as the Greek philosopher Aristotle and thought about how such a quote is relevant in the world that we are living in today.  One would have to admit, with the rising of extreme right wing politics; perhaps the hearts of some in society have become a little empty.

Walking around the school section of the slum, the kids are excited to see us and practice their English.  It’s a happy environment, they play cricket and are full of smiles, enthusiastically asking for us to take pictures.  Although the buildings are derelict, worn and grey in colour, the laughter and spirit of the youngsters uplifts the area.  It’s alive! There’s a lesson there for us adults.

Physically in appearance the slum does represent poverty.  Pipes and drains are visible, leaking and there is a distinct dirty smell of sewerage.  Some of the pathways are very narrow and suffocating and the manufacturing factories are humid, with some workers sitting on the floor.  But at no point did I ever feel unsafe.  If anything there seems to be a community spirit amongst the people who live there.  A butcher joked with me about a skinned animal he had hanging in the street (I still have no idea what it was!) and others gave a welcoming ‘hello’.  However, I’m aware that conditions and safety were different to this about thirty years ago; perhaps the improvements are testimony to the work of organisations such as SHED.

Purchasing a leather belt from the leather workers in the slum.

SHED has sixty two workers but their strength and degree of influence comes from the fact that they train ambassadors within the community.  The approach used is grass-root and for that reason they are able to identify and provide solutions to problems through a hierarchy of communication routes.

Over the afternoon, what became noticeably clear was that people such as Marian, Mariappan and other workers that we met had an intensely strong purpose in life.  They were fully committed to SHED, its objectives and improving life in the slums.  They were honest humanitarians and in being in their company I started to reflect on myself, and what ways I could improve as a human being.  In all poor countries that I’ve visited there is a repetitive trend; where government intervention is minimal (which is in most poor countries) the community spirit and strength is immense.  However, in more affluent countries, where government intervention is strong and influential, then the community bond is weakened.  There are different religions and castes living within Dharavi but their unity, fortitude and humour is motivating.

We finished our afternoon by having a Masala Dosa and Chai with Mariappan and two other volunteers in a cafe in Dharavi.  I came away with a completely different understanding of what a slum is and what life there entails and I was also inspired by SHED’s story and by the people who I had met from their organisation.

Coralie and I with Mariappan and two other volunteers from SHED.

It feels appropriate to finish on a Gandhi quote, ‘you must be the change you wish to see in the world’.  The people who I had the privilege of meeting during my afternoon at Dharavi were certainly fulfilling this.

For further information on SHED click here.

Pictures copyright www.coralie-photo.com