Slum City

by tkos on November 17, 2012

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Living in a slum. There is just no way that you can say the word ‘slum’ in a sentence and envision anything positive. It redefines the poverty line and gives new depth to the gutter. It is a place where only the most destitute and desperate of humans are forced to live equally amongst fellow rats, cockroaches and disease. It is open sewage and starving children. It is bleak, dark, rancid, contaminated and hopeless. It is the governments’ dirty shame. Or is it?

Kimmi and I strolled triumphantly passed Mahim station in Mumbai on our way to visit Dharavi Slum, the largest slum in Asia. Home to one million people in under 1.75 sq km of rusty tin, Dharavi is 20 times more populated than the most populated city on earth, Mumbai. We wondered how an atrocity like this could ever come about. What sort of government could let this happen to its own citizens? How could so many NGO’s, both local and international, have so little impact on such an obvious and urgent issue?

Parading poverty for profit produces an ethical and moral dilemma. Is it right to pay a tour guide money to be walked through peoples homes and businesses? Is it worse to just wander through alone and have a ‘sticky beak’ yourself? Kimmi and I begrudging resign ourselves to the fact that tourism is probably one of many businesses in Dharavi and cling to the faith that the money spent will somehow find its way into the ‘local’ Dharavi community. Nevertheless, we find ourselves meeting our guide armed with a camera, cap, bottle of chilled mineral water and sunscreen, awaiting the perils of misery that lay before us.

“You can’t take photos inside the slum” our tour guide, Deepak, says to me as we meet for the first time. “We must respect people’s privacy”. Moral conscience eased a notch and replaced with guilt of bringing the camera in the first place. Deepak explains he will supply ‘positive’ photos should we want them.

The first steps off the bridge and into Dharavi slum are met with a huge and boisterous ‘HELLO! WOULD YOU LIKE SOME CHICKEN?!!’ from a vendor working in a small street stall. Raw chicken fillets sit in the morning sun, layered with buzzing flies. The tree trunk cum chopping board infused with the chickens from years before sits proudly out front ready for the next ‘filleting’. Kimmi and I anxiously look away and pretend not to hear as the vendor omits a raucous belly laugh, amusing himself and his friend by our obvious discomfort. I catch his eye as he gives me a little wink. He has made that joke before. Funny bastard.

We venture further into the maze that is Dharavi. Deepak takes us to the industrial centre, where we carefully tread down the narrow alleys, stepping over and between machinery and parts, making use of every available space. Craning our necks through the doorways for a glimpse into dark and putrid rooms, filled with gases, smoke and burning plastics, we offer a gentle, yet pitiful smile to the workers, only to be returned by an energetic and lively wave accompanied by an ear to ear grin.

“Why don’t they have protective clothing and masks? The conditions are horrible and obviously dangerous.” I ask Deepak, thinking ahead for a potential TKOS project.

“Many NGO’s have come and tried, buying and dispensing all the correct equipment. The workers wear it for a day then throw it out because they find it uncomfortable.” Deepak explains.

The workers make Rs 150-200 per day (AU$3-4). Twice what they would make in a rural village. They start work when they wake and finish when they sleep, usually in an area within the ‘factory’. Once a year, they go home for a month long vacation to their families.

“Most of the recycling in Mumbai is done in Dharavi. The industrial side is worth US$650M per year, and that is just what is reported in the tax declarations to the IRS. The owners of these businesses don’t live here though and the profits don’t come back to Dharavi. It is just real estate for the owners and jobs for the people.” Deepak explains.

We continue through the recycling, pottery and bakery industries to the residential area. If I wasn’t told, I would have thought it the same. Until I looked a little closer.

“What are the government doing about this place?” I ask the question on everybody’s  mind.

“In the past, the government have constructed a high rise to place residents in. They are given a two or three bedroom apartment for free and it is on the same space of Dharavi. Eventually, all the residents that were placed their ended up coming back to the slum to live, while they rented out their new apartments. They missed the community.”

What captivated me was two things. Firstly, everybody was busy. Everybody was working. Whether it be in retail, as a vendor, selling something or whether it be in some type of domestic duties, washing, laundry, cooking. Many people were making breads for local restaurants. The other thing was the amount of attention we received. If it wasn’t a friendly hello or genuine smile, then it was nothing. Some children would run over to us occasionally and practice some English, even holding my hand as we would step over some obstacles on the path, but never did one child or adult ask me for any money. And not once did I see a beggar in the street. Everybody was just too busy. They had jobs to do and lives to live. And they did it with a smile.

The sights, sounds and smells were genuinely an accepted way of life for the 1M Dharavi residents. It is where they lived, worked, played, laughed and loved. It is their home and they are proud of it, regardless of what anyone in the world thinks of it. It is a community that works together.

We finished the tour in the Reality Tour Office in Dharavi to learn that they are a registered NGO. We looked over the community centre project and the say no to plastic bags campaign.

Dharavi is India in a nutshell. It is complex with so many layers. It is happy, hard working people. It is colour. It is unhygienic tasty street food. It is big business. It is simple lives. It is in your face poverty. It is culturally rich.

It is what it is and it will take a lot more than government, developers, well intentioned charities and desire to change it. If people are living in Dharavi, it means they have a home, a neighbour and a community that looks out for each other, unlike the many thousands of homeless in Mumbai that don’t.

On the way out, I caught the eye of an elderly woman selling some street food from a cart.

And it was delicious!

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