Our last day in Mumbai, Vanessa and I went on a NGO-run tour of the largest slum in Mumbai. In our group were an Indian-American woman, two ladies from Australia, a guy from Seattle, and Vanessa & I. Photography was stricktly forbidden to preserve the people’s privacy, but a camera couldn’t have captured the experience anyway. The sights and the smells and the sounds and the air and interacting with the friendly residents… it all served to make a really unique and unforgettable 2 hour tour.
Built between the two main train tracks in Mumbai, it houses ~800,000 people in .67 square miles (? I forget exactly the area). The slum is largely self sustaining, with many many tiny private corporations providing jobs and industry for the inhabitants, and is recognized and aided by the government (they supply water and some infrastructure and some policing support). However, the place is communally organized and has no overseeing leader or representative (well, since the gang lords were largely disposed of in the ’90s). Soon, however, the government and private contractors will begin demolishing the cities slums, providing housing for those who’ve lived in Mumbai before 2000 with new apartment flats and outsourced jobs. The measure is contovercial for many reason, mainly because it will leave countless men and families homeless and without convienient jobs. Most of the workers in Dharavi are migrants come from villages all over the country to work as potters or recyclers or leather tanners or any of the other jobs in the slum.
One of the main industries in Dhavari is recycling, they recycle most of the cities garbage… These facilities we saw first. Every step of the process of any type of recycling (plastics, cardboard, tin, cans, etc) is broken down and performed by seperate private little companies. Take for example, the plastic recycling: plastics are sort out from the trash by one group of people in one area, then brought to another building where they are ground through a machine into little shreds (the shredding machine, by the way, is built by some other company, also in Dharavi (and it’s built strictly from diagrams, most of the workers are illiterate)). The shredded plastic is then taken to another place where it is washed and laid out on the roofs to dry. After the plastic shreds are dry, they are brought to another building where they are poured into a machine, melted, and cut into tiny pellets which are sold to manufacturers. The division of labor is amazing. Probably it is not the most efficient way to recycle, and there are just as many men milling around not doing much as far as I could tell (but there are SO many people in India it’s hard to expect productive jobs for them all), but the remarkable part is that Dharavi created the system themselves and it works..
As great as the recycling effort is, aspects of the process are still very wastful and harmful ecologically. We passed one plant that recycled paint cans— stripped the cans of all previous labels, pounded them back into shape with a hammer, and washed them. However to clean the cans they Burt the paint off, which released a nasty smoke and stench and polluted the smoggy air. Operations such as the paint can recycling are illegal but happen all over the slums..
The safety of the workers is also jepordized, there is no regulation or unions or safty precautions at all (to be fair, all over India protections are much more lacks than in the states; see the photo if the trains below for one example). We passed by young men working on welding metal with no gloves or goggles or any other sort of protection at all. The rooms in which the machinery runs are poorly ventilated and lit. However, the community is quick to take action and we wre assured that when accidents happen the whole slum helps get the wounded to one of the nearby hospitals (also, routine government health care is free for them).
Besides the recycling and machinery builders, people sew, cook, prepare and tan leather, make pottery, and a perform a host of other tiny buisness opperations.
Many of the men are single, often living in the space where they work, but there is a huge labrynth of tiny roomed apartments where families live. It’s not just men who work, women sew and cook in seperate mini factories as well as keep the house. And not everyone who lives in the slums work in the slums, many of Mumbais taxi drivers reside there, as well as the city’s domestic servants..
The children are required to attend schools (also located in the slum) from age ~4 through age 14. There are private schools run by the various religions (Hindus, Muslims, everyone lifestyle in their own neighborhood within the slum). The NGO giving our tour, Reality Tours and Travel, earlier this year opened a nursry school of their own, based on more progressive/laid-back & western teaching styles. They also run a community centre that provides classes for adults in among ither things English and computer skills (when we went in they were teaching a class on how to use Excel, humourous for Ryan, the guy from Seattle, cause he works for Microsoft). The schools are aparently taught in English and the kids showed off their knowledge of the language whenever they saw us, shouting “HI HI hello what is your name what country how are you goodbye.”.
Everyone in the slum was so friendly. The younger they were, the broader their grin. It was sad in a way to see the children playing creatively with the stick or primative kite they had, and with such purpose and spunk, and realizing that the longer they lived in the slums the harder they’d become. The teenaged boys (working) still smiled and gave head wobbles, but their elders worked solomnly beside them with not much emotion on their worn faces. I later theoroized to Bhisham that hopefully this generation, with compulsory schooling & English and greater global envolment might hopefully have a better chance at improving their stationthen their parents had; Bhisham contradicted me, maybe he was right but maybe also he was just being typical Bhisham..
After the slum tour, we went back to Colaba with Ryan from Seattle. We had a huge delicious lunch at Cafe Leopold (a popular tourist destination aparently also target on 28/11). Vanessa and I were very tired and we headed back to the apartment. Bhisham took vanpan to his doctor’s and I went to sleep. The next morning we packed, said goodbye, and took a taxi to the train station.t.
The station, in Northern Mumbai, was the only place we encountered the begging and poverty we’d been warned about. Before we even got out of the cab we were surrounded by dirty, thin women with children and babies holding out empty metal bowls and tiredly bringing their hand to their mouths to pantomime eating…. Food, rupees, please my baby just needs milk. It was heartbreaking but also annoying, especially when some girl stole Vanessa’s Gatorade (which took a while to find in a store but she needed because of he sickness) right from her backpack pocket. I felt bad being angry at them (undoubtably they valued the Gatorade more than we did) but still, ultimately they stole it and were putting on a pathetic show, preying on our sympathies and wallets only cause we were tourists.t.
The train left 20 minutes late, at noon. The ride was uneventful. Vanessa sort of slept, I didn’t. We talked to the couple sitting across from us, they were from the central state MP travelling to Goa on buisness. We ate the meals provided. We drank many coffees and teas from the Chai/Coffee wallahs. I was unimpressed by the scenery, supposedly the most beautiful in the country, but maybe it was just dark by the time we got to the pretty parts.t.
Our CS host in Goa, Peter, had arrainged for a cab to pick us up from the station and drive us to his house in Calangute. Our train was 45 minutes late, we got to peter’s house sometime before midnight.