Dharavi

It is Thursday the twelfth of December 2019 and it’s my second last day of a two-week study tour of India. For me, the experience has been emotional whiplash. Over the past couple of weeks, I have witnessed the beauty of the Taj Mahal, only to discover its ugly history of exploiting tens of thousands of workers, over decades, to satisfy the ego of one man. I have eaten at a restaurant that is run by beautiful women who wear the scars of acid attacks to make them ugly, by weak men with petty agendas. I have been hosted by some of India’s greatest commercial success stories including Infosys, JCB and USHA – and we were guests of Google India on the day one of their favourite sons was made its chief executive. I have danced with the Krishnas as they fed the poor on an unimaginable scale, I have celebrated Havan with Hindus, my feet were kissed in a Sikh temple by a beggar. I have witnessed Muslims overcome with emotion as they pilgrimage to a mosque to see first hand a hair, a sandal and the footprint of their prophet Mohamad.

Today we are in Mumbai, described as the commercial epicentre of India and the home of Bollywood. It is a place where the rich and famous live in incredible luxury just a bus ride away from people surviving on virtually nothing. We are staying at the West End hotel, a classic art deco building that oozes British colonial taste and style.

At around 9 am we head out in an air-conditioned coach to Mumbai’s central business district. The streets are chaotic – cars, motorbikes and buses honk their way forward and pedestrians miraculously weave a path between them to cross the street. There are thousands of people walking around and manning stalls selling clothes, bags and just about everything imaginable.  

We arrive at a large modern building where boom gates open and allow us to drive through. Men in grey suits and colourful ties, and women in skirts, blazes and crisp white shirts greet us enthusiastically. They expedite us through a security system to a small area with automatic lifts and we take the elevator to one of the top floors.

We enter a modern open facility with panoramic views of the city. It has an outside balcony where we take in the best that the smog-ridden Mumbai landscape has to offer. One of my tour mates jokes that this must be the spot where the bankers come when the stock market crashes. We drink tea and coffee and eat cookies. It is a world I am used to. We are guests of Barclays, a multi-billion-dollar global financial institution, and over the next hour – smart, young Indian entrepreneurs present a range of high-tech solutions for solving imagined large-scale problems. We get back on the bus and are given three hundred rupees per person in an envelope to buy lunch in an ultramodern food court not far from where we were, and then head to our next stop.

We are on the road for about thirty minutes and the bustle of Mumbai is replaced by sparser and less developed surroundings. We are now on a busy highway – passing cows, people, and decaying buildings. Our bus pulls over suddenly and we pile off. We are each handed a water bottle as we step off and gather near what feels like the edge of a rubbish tip.

Several blue-uniformed men usher us off the main highway into a narrow street about six persons wide. The air is oppressive and smells slightly of rotten garbage. It wafts between bearable and disgusting. I put my hand in my pocket and feel the metal and fabric of my face mask between my fingers and thumb. There are tall, neat stacks of flattened cardboard on each side of us, creating a winding path that leads into the Dharavi slum.

The road is mostly sealed and flanked by garage-sized cement rooms with steel roller doors. More cardboard boxes are inside. Our guide is assembling everyone in a small clearing. The group is mostly made up of second-year undergraduate students from universities in Australia and New Zealand. They are young, healthy, and immaculately groomed in their designer Western and Indian fashion.

We are asked not to take pictures, so I am frantically taking notes as I try not to step on something dangerous or revolting. I’m feeling hot, overdressed, and agitated. I notice a few of the locals going about their day and I wonder what they think about a bunch of foreigners walking through their dismal existence.

There are goats, sheep and chickens just running around. I guess they belong to somebody, maybe the bloke in the doorway diagonally opposite us, shearing the wool from a struggling ram. He looks up and smiles, his foot, holds down the animal at its neck as he clips the wool from it. We move along.

Everywhere I look is junk. There are bikes and bike parts, different types of timber, many types of pipes – and all sorts of plastic. It reminds me of a salvage yard we used to sneak in and play in as kids, except this is people’s livelihood and everything here is precious to them. More people are going about their business. They are dressed in clothing that ranges from traditional Indian or Muslim garb to western-style jeans and tee-shirts. It feels surreal and hopeless.

We walk past several recycling factories spewing out black and grey smoke, some of the concrete boxes are now filled with dark-skinned men operating industrial-grade sewing machines. They squeeze dozens of workstations in a small space and nobody seems to notice us staring at this depressing scene.

My guide tells me that a factory is a place where people develop skills to generate an income. For a lot of people coming to Dharavi, it is a big step up from the village they just left. It is a chance to get on the ladder of aspiration. I feel somewhat ashamed at my own attitude.

Our guide signals for us to follow him into one of the doorways. The room is filled with several of my tour mates. We climb up a steel ladder coated in blue paint. It feels secure and leads to the roof, where we can get a better view of things.

From our vantage point, all I can see are the grey corrugated roofs of one and two-story buildings. Like the streets, the roofs have what looks like garbage spread out on top of it. In the distance, I can see the skyscrapers of Mumbai through the haze of grey, where billion-dollar deals are being negotiated while people here collect plastic bottles to make a few rupees. There are about twelve of us crammed in this small area. I am sure they picked this place for its least dangerous appeal. The view is saddening.

We slowly move from the commercial part of the slum to its residential area. The streets here are narrower. We turn down a side street, which is about one and a half persons wide. Water is trickling down the middle and it’s dark. There are electrical wires above our heads, arranged like badly organised Christmas lights. Our guide asks us to make sure we watch where we go. I am really uncomfortable now. Stepping over cracked concrete and stepping in all sorts of repulsive things. It is not my idea of a fun day out.

We pass under what looks like bunting, it’s connected to balconies above our heads. It has Islamic symbols on it, and I am told that there are many Muslims living alongside mostly Hindus here – everyone is poor. Every so often, we pass open doorways and get a glimpse of normal life in a Dharavi slum. Mothers organise children in their dank dwellings, mostly built out of concrete. Their homes look mostly clean. Young curious faces peering through doorways and windows, wide-eyed and surely wondering what this strange group of people trudging through their neighbourhood are doing.

Most of the housing here is two, three, or four stories high – with steel ladders and balconies. A ginger cat happily makes its way through the maze of metal and concrete obstacles. I see a little girl in a pink dress, she is young, maybe four, she is barefoot and playing on the industrial looking stairs. She is talking to someone, maybe her brother, and playing a game as kids do. A woman in a full burka strolls past, followed by a guy in a tank top and jeans talking on his cell phone. I notice a couple of young men, one with his arm around the other, perhaps gay. I can’t imagine there is too much room for bigotry when nobody really has anything. We move out of this area and back into a more open space.

Our guide gathers us around a small shop selling baked goods. I look at him closely for the first time. He is shorter than me, maybe five foot seven and thickset. He is wearing a clean blue shirt and a darker shade of blue pants and brown leather sandals. He speaks softly and talks with a sense of pride. His hair is jet black and it shines. He explains that approximately forty-five tonnes of food is produced and consumed from the slums each day, but nobody knows it’s made here, or they wouldn’t buy it. He explains that people here are lucky to get water for about two hours per day and considering there is one toilet per five hundred people, I have to wonder how anything works at all.

We walk past a school, which looks like an abandoned block of land. It’s fenced off, with one or two aging playthings. It is overlooked by small rooms where kids go to learn. Our guide tells us that the Indian government mandates that all children will get state-funded education until the age of fourteen. I can’t help thinking this is a million miles away from the plush offices of Barclays, where we were guests earlier that day.

We gather again near a pottery place, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of pots in various stages of production. It’s all basic, big kilns and simple designs. It is here where our guide tells us a little about his life. He grew up in this slum, he knew nothing of life outside it. After completing his state-supplied education and working as a labourer wherever he could, he explains that one day he saw a man in a blue uniform leading a bunch of white people past his workplace and wondered what was going on. His curiosity led him to discover that a company had been set up to run tours and raise money to fund a small facility that taught English to kids fifteen and older who wanted to learn. He explains that he took that education, which led him to get his current job. I am fascinated by his story.

Shortly after, we are outside of a brightly painted two-story building. There are vertical steel stairs leading to a balcony. A part of me is tired and thinking whether I really want to climb up. I know I will and I do. At the top of the stairs is a small area with shelves with shoes in it. I am greeted at the door by a tall, friendly woman with a British accent. I ask her if I should take off my shoes and she replies, ‘if you wouldn’t mind.’

To my relief, inside the room the aircon is blazing. It is some sort of a reception area. There are a few desks with computers and a couple of seats. Behind this area is the sound of people being taught English. We are welcomed in by another woman, who introduces herself as Letizia De Martino – executive director of Realitygives.org. She is modestly dressed in a blue shirt and pants and has kind eyes. It is the same organisation that taught our guide to speak English. Her Italian accent is charming, and I can’t help thinking that this person could easily be working anywhere in the world. After she introduces the company and the rest of the staff, I asked Letizia what brought her to Dharavi originally. She explains that she lived a privileged life growing up, and after graduating from university and a few years in the workforce wanted to do something more meaningful. She had been doing this job for a couple of years.

By now I am relaxing a little and feeling somewhat inspired. I get this – this is my space – entrepreneurs solving social problems. We spend about twenty minutes or so talking and taking some group photos. Letizia offers me her business card, which I take a photo of. She makes me promise I will write to her; I promise her I will.

I put on my shoes and climb back down the steps, gripping its solid steel handrail and thinking deeply about what I have just experienced. The rest of my group are waiting at the bottom of the stairs. The air feels cooler, and somehow everything seems a little more civilized. The streets are getting increasingly busier and we head to our next stop.

Our group makes its way onto the main street that has hundreds of people walking on it in both directions. The road is modern and there are several bikes and cars slowly moving through the throng of activity. Small shops are selling fruit and vegetables and other household goods and essentials. The thoroughfare is starting to fill with kids in different coloured uniforms, skipping and laughing as they make their way somewhere. Sometimes a little girl or boy shouts out hello, and is overjoyed when we all say hello back, some of them hang around for high fives. Their optimism is contagious.

Our final stop is a leather shop, the last thing I need is something made of leather, but they have big seats and my knees could do with a rest. The shop is well arranged and there are leather jackets, bags and cases all around. For mostly cultural reasons, much of the leather comes from goats and is manipulated to look like other skins. Dharavi is famous for its leather industry and I can see why. I spot a green wallet with gold stitching and brass zip. I open it and it really is perfect. Seven hundred rupees, about fifteen Australian dollars, according to my credit card receipt. I reckon the bank probably makes most of that, but everyone appears happy. Our afternoon in Dharavi is almost done. The street is teeming with activity now. More and more children guided by mostly young adults are streaming past. The air seems to be clearing with the breeze and the smells of fresh produce and cooked food mainly fills the air. I can’t stop thinking about Letizia and the difference she is making in a place where making a difference seems impossible. We turn a corner and are greeted by our tour bus. I jump on and read through my notes and decide that this is the story I want to tell.

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