Slum Tourism has many negative connotations. Those against it argue that it treats people like they are animals in a zoo, as wealthy people wander around their neighbourhood seeing how the impoverished live. For this reason, I had, until now, deliberately avoided going on a Slum Tour of Mumbai, but reluctantly I accepted an invitation to tour Dharavi recently.
The tour, conducted by Reality Tours, started at Mahim station, from where we walked to Dharavi. To reduce the impact on the people living in Dharavi, the entire tour was conducted on foot. Starting from the overpass where we could see over the breadth of the suburb, we set out through the streets, stopping to purchase water in a local shop before heading into the narrow alleyways.
Dharavi is one of the largest slums in the world, where a population of approximately 1 million people are crammed into a space approximately 1.75 square kilometres. Yes it is crowded, and many people are visibly poor, but our guide pointed out that they all have a roof over their head, and access to mobile phones and television. Dharavi is home to people who are poor but they are not destitute. “The real poor people can be seen sleeping on every street of Mumbai,” my guide advised. While to a higher level eye it may look dirty, after living in Mumbai for almost two years, Dharavi actually looked a lot cleaner than many other parts of the city I have seen.
While some don’t consider Dharavi to be a financial district, it is here that one of Mumbai’s most important commercial centres operates. Dharavi is responsible for recycling approximately 80% of the city’s rubbish, an industry worth approximately US $665 million. From the wealthiest homes in South Mumbai to those in the outer suburbs, it is inevitable that their trash will end up here at some point in time. In a city that creates over 7 tonnes of rubbish a day, without Dharavi, Mumbai may very well have been reclaimed by the sea by now, sinking under the weight of its own rubbish.
Walking around the streets of Mumbai in the early morning, it is common to see ‘rag pickers’ start their working day. They scour the roadside searching through the discarded waste of others to find items for recycling. Anything from paper, metal and plastic is collected and rewarded with Rs. 8 to 10 per kilogram.
Once in Dharavi, the materials are ready for processing, but there are no shiny crushing and sorting machines to be seen. Young men from North Indian states like Uttar Pradesh do the majority of the recycling and processing work. They work hard and send their earnings (approximately Rs. 150 to 200 per day) back home to support their families. To save money, many sleep in the factories, acting as pseudo security guards for the factory owners.
It is rough work; dealing with toxic substances such as paint and plastics, crushing, sifting and transforming raw waste into something that can be resold. It is estimated that some of the more toxic processes, such as paint stripping, can reduce a worker’s life expectancy by up to ten years.
Not all the work is entirely manual though; some entrepreneurs have created innovative machines to improve the recycling process. Plastic crushing machines turn discarded containers into plastic chips that can then be the given a new lease of life. These people who once picked through trash, are now successful businessmen. They have succeeded above adversity, and now are contributing even more to the city of Mumbai then they ever intended.
Words like environmental sustainability and recycling are bandied around the West regularly, with all sorts of programs introduced to help combat the significant environmental issues that are facing the world. These recycling programs have not had the same impact though. For example, in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 34% of the non-hazardous waste is recycled. But here in Mumbai, Dharavi has created an industry that provides income to many, and as a by-product has made a significant contribution towards the sustainability of the city.
It is almost impossible to imagine what Mumbai would be like without Dharavi. The level of disease, the number of landfills and the sheer waste that may exist is mind-boggling. While to many Dharavi may just be a slum where poorer people live, the reality is it is probably the biggest environmental business in India.
So for those who argue Slum Tourism is all about taking advantage of the poor and turning them into entertainment for the rich, I would say they are wrong. To me, taking a tour of Dharavi was an education in environmental sustainability and recycling, and issues such as occupational health and safety concern me more than the poverty here. If we are serious about saving our planet, no matter where we live, then perhaps we should spend more time learning about how recycling is done in the slums.