Mumbai is one of the most intense cities on earth. Before I visited, on my India trip, I was nervous about the pollution, the crazy driving, and being overwhelmed by rampant poverty. Mumbai contains all of this, but is also an incredibly vital place. The most powerful experience I had in Mumbai was of visiting Dharavi, a slum of over one million people in the city’s centre, and the film site of Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
I joined a guide and five other travellers from Spain, England, the US, and India on a three-hour walking tour. Our guide, Sid, asked us not to take pictures, and to please not plug our noses or make faces, even if passing through unpleasant smells and sights. These walking tours are intended to paint a true picture of Dharavi — not a sensationalized version as depicted in “Slumdog” — and utmost sensitivity is expected.
“All the industries on the industrial side are toxic industries,” explained Sid. “Plastics recycling, aluminum recycling, paint can recycling — they create highly toxic fumes. I ask that you keep walking as we pass through the aluminum section. Please don’t stop, as the fumes are dangerous.” I felt slightly dizzy and hoped I wasn’t making a mistake. We passed shed after shed of small men and boys sorting plastics, women gathering paint cans, and aluminum recycling. The aluminum recycling shed was like a vision of hell: blackened faces, fires, ear-shattering noise, and heavy metallic air. “These aluminum recyclers work 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Sid says. “They earn about 100 rupees per day. At night, most of them just roll out a mat and sleep in the factory.”
From there, we passed through other lighter industries, such as Hindu shrine-making (made by Muslims), leather-making, breakfast cookie baking, and black soap making. Arriving at the Muslim residential section, Sid warned us with a smile, “The alleys we will pass through next are very zig-zag, and if you get lost it may take you three or four weeks to find your way out!”
Exiting this dark maze we came to a clearing — a garbage heap on which kids were playing cricket, and public toilets. Crossing over a wide sewage creek (I now understand why Sid asked us to please not plug our noses), we entered the main residential section, starting off with a bustling market area that felt just like an Indian city… a city within a city. On this side of Dharavi there are non-toxic industries, including women rolling out papadams onto wicker drying mounds, and Gujarati potters making water jugs — “very good for keeping water clean and cool,” explained Sid. We continued on to a Hindu neighbourhood that felt like being in a pleasant country village, with groups of women chatting and working in the dappled sunlight.
We wound up the tour near an acupuncture clinic, that proceeds from this walking tour has helped to fund, and is free of charge for Dharavi residents. There is also a community centre which offers classes in English, computer skills, dance, photography, and more.
My advice is to do this tour when you are well-rested, eat a solid meal beforehand, take lots of water, wear running shoes, and plug your ears if need be during parts of the industrial section. As uncomfortable as it was, I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. Our guide gave us the chance to witness many facets of Dharavi, and to appreciate the miracle of what these people accomplish.
Suggested Day Tour:
Mumbai Slum Tour
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