Dharavi slum, Mumbai

On our first day in Mumbai, we joined a small group of other people from the cruise on an organized excursion. The group was made up of staff from the ship and other travelers with open minds. This was no regular overpriced cruise ship excursion; one of the guest relations officers that we’d made friends with had organized a tour of the Dharavi slum through a Non-Government Organization (NGO) called Reality Tours, and she invited us to come along. Dharavi slum is supposed to be Asia’s biggest slum, but depending on who we asked we heard varying information on that. Our guide told us that over one million people live there, and someone else said fifty thousand. On first hearing about it, we were a little apprehensive that taking a “tour of the slums” was simply putting the lives of these poverty-stricken people on show for tourists. But we read a little more about the NGO, and learned that 80% of their profits from the tours went to funding a computer learning centre and a kindergarten in the slum community. We thought it would be an experience worth having, not for enjoyment’s sake, but for the sake of learning more about the lives of the people here. Five of us went in a car with a driver and an english-speaking guide, and after driving past some of the city’s major attractions, we parked at the edge of Dharavi and got out of the car.

What we saw over the course of the next few hours nearly defies description. Photos were not allowed on this part of the tour, which we agreed was respectful to the people living and working there. As we started to walk through the streets, which were all dirt, mud, garbage and stone, we let our eyes wander up to the structures of cinderblock and corrugated steel that lined both sides. We visited some of the small-scale industries first, where workers were recycling raw materials. Some were sorting and shredding plastic, some were melting and casting molten aluminum (in a confined space, with bare hands and sandals on their feet), some were cleaning old oil paint cans by burning off the old paint (also in a confined room). The working conditions were shocking. The levels of toxic fumes coming from some of the rooms was clearly shortening the lives of anyone working nearby. We learned from our guide that the people lucky enough to have regular work there were earning an average of 150 rupees per day, and we’re not talking 8 hour days with coffee breaks either. Our guide told us that rent for a very small apartment in the city can cost from 4000-6000 rupees a month, so it’s clear that it’s out of reach on such a small salary. Many of the workers and their families sleep in the same room that they work all day in. We carried on with our tour, both fascinated and sobered by what we were seeing.

Next we visited the residential part of the slum, which was located beside a canal drain with some very foul smelling black liquid running through it. The streets in the residential area were often too narrow to pass through without turning your shoulders sideways, and I had to duck most of the time to avoid freely hanging electric lines. The water supply to this area is activated for only three hours a day, and all of the families have to collect all of the water they need for the day in that time. The spaces were tiny, and stacked on each other in configurations that looked like they were ready to collapse at any time. We emerged from this into an open area where piles of garbage smoldered and burned — the community’s way of dealing with the accumulation of trash. We saw men making pots in open kilns and women making papadums by hand (they are paid 20 rupees per kilogram of papadums — if you’ve ever eaten a papadum, you’ll have some idea of how many hundreds it must take to make a kilogram).

The only thing that prevented us from leaving the slum in tears was the people. Many of the people that we met smiled and welcomed us, and the children were simply beaming. It creates a real conflict of emotion when you see a child living this way, yet smiling and chasing you through the streets. We came upon one group of kids playing cricket in an alleyway about 20 feet long and 2.5 feet wide. They insisted I have a turn at bat, which I happily did. I managed to do Canada proud, and connected solidly on my first ever cricket swing. The kids were thrilled, and so was I. It was a bright moment for us in that place.

This experience will stick with us forever. Being exposed to poverty on this scale is not fun, but without having seen it first hand, it’s hard to even grasp the reality of life there. In many ways it makes you appreciate how incredibly lucky we are. I know that sounds cliché, but in this case it’s absolutely appropriate, and absolutely true. Nothing emphasized that feeling more than returning to our private room on the cruise ship at the end of the tour, were hot showers and soft beds were waiting for us. It’s difficult to reconcile these extremes in my mind, and I’m still struggling with how I feel about it. I have moments of thankfulness, guilt, awe, sadness, and inspiration all jumbled together without sense. It will take more time and more thought to digest the things we’ve seen already, and this was all in only one day in India. I think we will have many more eye-opening experiences in the months to come.

Comments

  1. Dallas Husar

  2. It’s not clich√©, Mark; It’s so true. We are all very lucky. I was just sitting here adding up bills, budgeting, etc and feeling depressed. Thanks for reminding me just how blessed we are.

    What an incredible experience you both had in India. I’m sure there will be many other places you will visit that will break your hearts. Just don’t ever let your spirits be broken, and continue to enjoy your amazing adventure.

    Some day I will experience it. India is on my list for the next few years. I have a friend who is there for four weeks now.

    Mark, check your email. I sent a message about Christmas.

    Love to you both,

    Dad

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