One of the more notable and famous slums, Dharavi was brought to the worlds attention after being featured in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire – the fictional story of an 18-year-old from Dharavi Slum who is accused of cheating (and subsequently tortured by police) during his participation in the Indian Version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
We had read a lot about Dharavi Slum before visiting Mumbai, and notably, a lot of conversation online was around the ethics of visiting.
Is visiting Dharavi Slum ethical or not?
We can’t answer this question for you! Ethics is based on individual’s morale principles, so the question “Is visiting the Dharavi Slum ethical?” is a personal one.
Some may argue that slum tourism is not ethical because it exploits the poorer members of society, whilst others will argue that by going on a slum tour, more money is being brought to the area, which can be used to fund important projects (such as education and medical care)
Although we didn’t specially choose our tour provider (the tour was organised through our hostel – Backpacker Panda Colaba), we were happy enough with the service and found that the experience was an ethical one (in our opinion).
Around the world, the number of people living in slums is estimated (conservatively) at nearly 1 billion, with Dharavi being the third largest with around one million people inhabiting the area. The only slums with a higher population can be found in Karachi, Pakistan (nearly 2.5 million) and Neza in Mexico (approx. 1.2million people).
Founded in 1883, Dharavi grew as a result of factory closures in the surrounding areas and the removal of residents from the peninsular of the city by the British colonial government. The Dharavi area, in the 18th century, originally comprised mainly of swampland where the Koli Fishermen lived and worked. After the British arrived and dammed up the water source, the swamps dried out and the Koli moved to the coastal areas.
A melting pot of culture, religion and ethic groups, the first migrants were the Gujarati’s who started the now thriving pottery industry. They were soon joined by tanneries, clothing and other artisan industries as people were relocating to the bustling, highly populated city of Mumbai.
After India’s independence from the British, the slum continued to grow, and now fills a space of around 432 acres.
The government have from time to time released development plans, but experienced difficulty either politically or financially. In 2004, the redevelopment cost was stated to be around $2.3 billion dollars, with investment interest coming from foreign companies. A large population of Dharavi residents and business owners have rejected the plans for redevelopment due to the space restrictions expected and the fact that only those who settled in Dharavi before the year 2000 will be resettled in the new plans.
The Tour Provider
Our tour provider was Mumbai Dream Tours, who offer a variety of tours around Mumbai. The team is made up of people either from Dharavi or the surrounding areas, and this is certainly a highlight – Mumbai Dream Tours works to offer employment to locals whose experiences are lived, and don’t come from a guidebook.
Our guide, Rakesh, was born in Dharavi and his family work in the thriving pottery industry within the slum. His knowledge of each industry was impressive, and it was good to see that he knew and interacted with some of the people we met.
We were specifically told not to take any pictures unless told otherwise – this was reassuring as we didn’t want to impose on the residents and workers.
Times: 9am, 2pm or 5pm (Duration of 2-2.5 hours)
-The morning tour meets at Churchgate station and your guide will take you to Dharavi via the public rail system.
-The afternoon and evening tours meet at Café Coffee Day opposite Mahim west Railway Station (train rides are just 10 rupees – there are staff at the ticket machines who can help you if needed).
700 INR per person (max group size is 6)
4500 INR for a private tour of up to 6 people
Remember to dress “modestly” as there are a range of religions and cultures in Dharavi. Also remember to where sensible shoes (no flip flops) as you will be walking through some areas where work is being carried out. (Also, there is rubbish in a lot of the side streets)
This is just a brief summary of what we did (we didn’t want to include everything regarding this tour as the guides explain everything so much better!)-
Once we climbed the steps that lead over the railway line, we stopped for a brief introduction to Dharavi Slum.
From the main entrance, we walked along the bustling streets whilst the guide pointed out general things of interest. We made a stop at the Dharavi cinema (Yes, you read that right. Dharavi has its own cinema which comprises of a projector and a dirt floor for seating).
After this, we moved on into the “industrial area” where most of the one room factories and workshops are situated.
One by one, we were shown examples of the main industries running in the slum, from bakeries to recycling points and metal workers, Dharavi showed us nearly every industry required for a community to thrive.
We then proceeded to walk through the residential area, which proved to be somewhat claustrophobic and maze like – it left us wondering how so many people live in such a close environment. (We also wondered how new residents navigated the alleyways, especially after sunset!).
We made a stop in one of the up and coming brands (also named Dharavi) who’s leather products are being sold online and around the world.
Once we left the alleyways of houses and factories, we were shown some schools and hospitals (not things we expected to see here) and the market which was thriving with locals.
We finished with a bit of local history regarding fights between religious groups within Dharavi.