Taking part in a so-called ‘slum tour’ is not the kind of tourist activity you simply stumble into, or at least it shouldn’t be. To get to the point of handing over money, you are forced to reckon with a pretty simple question, but one that can bring huge moral confliction.
We ummed and ahhed for ages over this decision, both times we’ve been in this captivating city. The first time, our sheer exhaustion and the monsoonal weather made the decision for us: it’s a no for you. This time, with nary a drop of rain on the horizon, and no exhaustion or Delhi belly apparent, we had to finally confront the question: to tour or not to tour.
The ‘slum’ is called Dharavi, a city-within-a-city of around a million residents living within less than a square mile. It’s the third largest ‘slum’ in the world, after having been ‘downgraded’ because the government’s attempts to build apartment blocks for its residents is starting to gain some real momentum.
Dharavi was made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which in turn created the demand for people wanting to visit in the first place. It has been both a blessing and a curse: a curse because it popularised the image of Dharavi as a ‘slum’ to a global audience (and let’s be honest, wanting to visit can certainly be considered a kind of ‘poverty porn’); but a blessing because, funneled correctly, the money paid for tours can be used to benefit its community members.
(BTW: I’ve put quotation marks around the word slum because, as we would come to learn, locals view Dharavi as simply another suburb, in a city where an estimated 60% of residents live in similar communities. For locals, the word slum conjures up images of suburbs controlled by violence, crime and Mafia-like gangs, which Dharavi is not.)
The emotive tooing and frooing of trying to make a decision strikes right at the heart of one of tourism’s most fundamental ethical quandaries: are these sorts of activities a legitimate experience, or simply the exploitation of people powerless and without voice in the process of commercialising their apparent poverty?
In the end, after a lot of reading, we decided to do a tour.
We decided to not because we felt like it would provide a kind of life-altering experience; that we would come away with some kind of profound and uplifting revelation about life and existence.
I don’t think I’m being too arrogant when I say that I think we were already pretty realistic about life in Dharavi; that, although obviously challenging, it is also a functioning community, where families are made, live, laugh and find joy. We’re not the type to fetishise other people’s realities. They are what they are, and for all the ways that societies differ, there are also universal human similarities. We weren’t trying to purchase any kind of smug moral satisfaction, either for us or on behalf of the residents of Dharavi.
We decided to do the tour primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the company, Mystical Mumbai, is a something of a social enterprise, putting money back into the community via education projects and hiring local college students as guides (they do all sorts of tours), allowing them to invest in their own futures. In addition, the company was started by two brothers, determined to support their family after their father had to have a bypass in his mid-40s, and they didn’t want him to return to work; a worthy cause within itself.
The clincher, however, was actually quite simple: no cameras are allowed, which means no photos, which means no Instagram selfie hunters. The company is happy to send you some photos afterwards, but this means, in turn, that they are able to exercise a degree of control over the imagery of Dharavi put into the public sphere. To me, this is a great mark of respect for the dignity of residents as well, so we were in…
I’m really glad we did it.
Certainly, as you stand on the train overpass about to enter, Dharavi is quite an imposing sight. You can’t not notice its scale, obvious density and informality. As expected, however, Dharavi is like the city that surrounds it: a bustling centre of industry supported by all the goods and services that cater to and add to this. Truth be told, in our sometimes random ambling about India, we’ve wandered into and through plenty of suburbs and lanes that didn’t feel a whole lot less informal than Dharavi.
Our guide, Nick, a ship navigator when not in town and helping out his brother with the business, was really very knowledgeable, as you would expect of a third generation resident (another myth dispelled: residents are not trying to ‘get out’; why would they want to leave their communities?). He was neither trying to present an overly rosy picture to overcompensate, nor trying to rouse first-world pity; it was quite matter of fact.
And the fact of the matter is that, inside Dharavi, quite astonishing things are happening.
We learnt about how plastics are brought in for recycling, cleaned and graded, transformed into raw materials (in Dharavi designed and made machines), and then turned into products like string and rope, and used in the construction of a range of luggage products, for example. Elsewhere, discarded cardboard boxes are imported from overseas, re-covered again and again for reuse, until they are thick enough to be covered in tarpaulin and used in housing construction. In a similar sense, large paint cans can be cleaned, stripped and reused nine times before being cut, flattened, and used to make wall panelling.
We saw many examples of human ingenuity. If necessity is the mother of all invention, then Dharavi has a thing or two it could teach people of the world about both!
Aside from re- and up-cycling initiatives, Dharavi is also famous for its pottery and leather work. The pottery is pretty straight forward – three grades of clay are imported, moulded into a range of products, fired and sent to market – while the leathering process more complex and the results unquestionably more stunning. The gorgeous range of bags, satchels, jackets, belts, shoes and so on are made in both Dharavi’s own brand as well as sold to other companies to be rebranded.
The result of all this industry is that Dharavi’s economic activity is worth an estimated 650 million-1 billion US dollars annually, a lucrative source of income and jobs and taxable activity.
Therefore, as Nick explained, far from the idea of a ‘slum’ lacking basic facilities, it is actually in the government’s interest to ensure Dharavi has regular and secure utilities. Power is consistent, as industry runs 24 hours a day, and while water is available for a few hours per day, residents know the time period they have to shower, wash and fill storage to last them. ‘If you don’t have something whenever you want it, you learn not to take it for granted,’ Nick said matter of factly.
Aside from all this industry, we wandered through its streets and markets, and were just in time to see school finish for the day, the streets becoming a rush of manic youthful energy accompanied by harried parents; as it is the world over.
Finally, Nick also showed us the ongoing government regeneration project that is slowly providing residents with a more secure form of property. It was started in the early 2000s and sees new apartment blocks built, which residents own outright and which provides them with significantly more space and obvious improvements especially in sanitation matters.
The hindrance has been that every single property owner must agree to be rehoused before the land can be cleared and building begins (and these are property owners, with ownership rights over their lands). It’s fair to say that it’s taken time to build up the trust required; that residents can trust that they are not going to be evicted and left stranded (residents are housed in quality temporary apartment blocks, close by, while construction takes place).
With more and more new blocks being completed now, and improvements to residents’ quality of life so clearly visible, the barriers are slowly coming down and construction ramping up. Nick and his whanau (family) are hopeful that, soon enough, their time will come.
Let’s hope so.
(endnote: it should be pointed out that the rehousing policy, and the degree to which the future of Dharavi’s residents are being centred in the process, as opposed to other actors, i.e. private developers eyeing up a hugely lucrative block of Mumbai’s scarce land supply, is most definitely up for debate.)
(with obvious thanks to Mystical Mumbai for the pictures that accompany this post)