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What comes to mind when you think of a Slum Tour?
Precariously walking along small lanes between people’s houses whilst they stare up at you and you feel awkward making eye contact back because you’re walking through their home, staring. The smell of sewage and urine. The fear of stepping in said sewage and urine if you misplace your foot but the awkwardness of trying not to care as these are people’s home and you’re a privileged white person walking through, staring.
This is what came to mind whenever I thought about a ‘Slum Tour’ in India. Despite having already done a very positive Slum Tour in Manila a few years ago.
I have been thinking about Slum Tours in India for quite some time because visiting India and doing a Slum Tour whilst there has been of interest to me for many years. Maybe it’s the books I’ve read which describe the slums very well- Shantaram & Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
However at the same time, as much as I wanted to do a Slum Tour, I had a feeling participating in Slum Tourism in India was the wrong thing to do, not ethical or responsible, and after all I didn’t want to go and stare at thousands of people’s poverty, feel helpless and then leave back to my privileged life.
But that all changed when I arrived in Mumbai and heard about the Mumbai Slum Tour to Dharavi Slum with Reality Tours which I then went on and it changed my outlook on Slums, or at least on Slum Tourism, and this is why:
There are more than 2000 slums in Mumbai and Dharavi Slum is the biggest slum in India (not just Mumbai, India!) with an estimated 1 Million people living there, and by ‘biggest’ it’s the biggest in terms of numbers, not by size. It’s also 178 years old, which is older than Canada as our guide Tavy pointed out.
Over half of the people who live in Mumbai live in Slums and there are a mixture of legal slums, which Dharavi is, and illegal slums.
Dharavi is different and unique to many other slums due to its productivity, you could say it’s a working slum, with a range of industries and companies producing, fixing, making, recycling and cooking products from inside the slum every day.
Because Dharavi is a legal slum it is recognised by the government, it receives water and electricity from the government. It has a school and a mixture of religions live there. It’s residents also do not have to fear about being told to get up and leave which is what happens in illegal slums. With that being said, it of course still has many of it’s own issues.
Should Tourists Visit Slum’s in India?
As I said at the start of this post, I had doubts about whether to visit a slum and participate in slum tourism. I wanted to but I didn’t know if it was right, and if there’s one thing we need to be conscious of these days with so much tourism is not doing something for the ‘gram, for the picture or for the story, just because we want to even when we know it’s bad, because it creates demand, it influences others and it may just be ‘one time’ to us, but everyone’s ‘one time’ creates a lot of one times.
With that being said I knew there must be a company that works alongside a slum in Mumbai that gives back and educates.
In my first few days in Mumbai I was told by a few Indian people who are from or live in Mumbai that I should go to the Dharavi Slums and was recommended Reality Tours as a Mumbai Slum Tour Company to go with.
As they had told me to go I figured it must be unique, the people around here must know what’s happening and after looking into Reality Tours who put 80% of their profit back into the slum, have a NGO called Reality Gives and consider Dharavi as Mumbai’s Heart, I knew going with them would be a good decision and I would be contributing to Slum Tourism in a positive, and not a negative way.
Due to this I’m glad I went on a slum tour in Mumbai and on this one. I really recommend a Dharavi Slum Tour with Reality Tours if you are visiting Mumbai.
As for any other slum tours in Mumbai, India or the rest of the world, be sure to research the company well, ideally get the opinion of locals, and only go if you are very sure they contribute in a positive way and it is well organised.
To SEE my thoughts on the Slum and see more of Mumbai, have a watch of this video:
Reality Tours Slum Tour to Dharavi Slum
I took part in the 2.5 hour slum tour that Reality Tours offer for 900Rs (just over £10.00) which I booked online 2 days in advance.
There’s the option to meet a guide at Churchgate train station which is the closest station to where I was staying in Colaba at Backpacker Panda Colaba Hostel (which I really recommend if you are looking for a Hostel in Mumbai by the way).
Tavy, one of the Reality Tour guides was waiting there for anyone who wanted to get the train, as it turns out it was just myself, he purchased the ticket for me and we went to meet the others at the train station closest to Dharavi Slum.
Reality Tours seem to have a lot of tour guides working for them and I really liked that our tour was only small, 4 people and 2 guides with Tavy being the main guide. This way when we were walking around we could stay out of people’s way and we didn’t draw as much attention to ourselves had there been 10 or so of us.
Tavy gave us some information as we entered the slum via the bridge that crosses the train tracks. This was our first and last time to take photos due to the no photo policy in the slum to respect the locals privacy and I’m really glad that photos are not allowed (the 2 photos below are the one’s I took and there are more photos of Dharavi Slums below which belong to Reality Tours and are provided via email after the tour).
Tavy explained the many jobs that happen in the Slum and our first stop and most of our stops on the tour was to see these.
We started at the plastic recycling area. There was masses of plastic everywhere and all over the floor but mostly in neat piles and a lot had already been grouped together, there was plastic from the back of TV remotes, toys, and from so many more things. We were told that the plastic sorters get paid between 300-350Rs a day (£3.00-£3.50). The plastic is then melted, these people get paid a little more, and then turned into plastic pellets which are sold by the kilo.
We then continued to see the tin recycling workshops where tins of old paint get burned to remove the outer signage, cleaned inside and then refilled and resold. They can be recycled like this only 4 times because they become too thin but after those 3-4 times they are opened out and used as tin tiles on the sides of houses.
I quickly realised everything had a use in the Slum.
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We saw many women working between the men although there are more men than women. In Dharavi Slum women get paid the exact same as men per day although they are allowed to work less hours, this again was really positive and a unique factor to Dharavi.
There are more men as many people who live in Dharavi Slum are from villages around Mumbai and India, it’s hard for whole families to move into the slum, there is not much room and it’s actually quite costly for a despot and rent on a room which I believe comes down to the fact that Dharavi Slum is a legal and safe slum rather than an illegal one with no certainty.
Whereas men come and look for work. Employers have houses where the men can live (usually above where they work) and that way than men do not need to get extra accommodation, just the job. They tend to come here for 6 months in the Winter when the jobs to do with agriculture in their Village lessen and they’ll leave when the Monsoon season starts.
This of course sounds like a hard life and I’ll fully admit that seeing the men work in such hot, small and hard conditions is hard, but it’s better than feeling sorry for them because they have nothing. They are earning money, they have money to send home and they have a purpose.
Tavy also explained that people who are illiterate have jobs making things, they have other skills even though they can’t read or write and these jobs are available to them in Dharavi, which again was really positive to see and hear.
To me, Dharavi Slum felt more like a village, it’s not all small, dark lanes. It has a main road running through it, it has wider roads with taxis and motorbikes going along it, there is a market, a school, a playground, and a river (although the river is filthy and this goes straight into the ocean as there is no filter and this is why the people in Mumbai have been advised by the government not to go in the Ocean).
We saw goats, dogs, cats, chickens and one baby rat!
Dharavi Slum is located between 2 major railways and a river so it cannot expand in width, if it expands it needs to expand up. Because of its prime location it’s also very sought after by property guru’s. Some of the people of Dharavi have been provided with flats which surround the slum in order to home more people however people do not want to live in them which is something I had heard before.
Firstly once you are in a flat, you cannot make more space, whereas if you have a house in the slum you may have the possibility to add a story on if you child gets married etc, secondly the flats have been badly made with cheap materials, we saw some that looked filthy from the outside and very old but Tavy told us they were only 14 years old. People do not want to live in them and I can understand why, although privacy is lacking in the slum lanes I can imagine the sense of community is high and suddenly decreases if you were to move into a flat.
Although we mainly saw the working side of Dharavi Slum as we wound through the lanes, we did have the chance to walk through one really small lane which was a residential area. Dharavi Slum is also famous because it’s where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed, a film which locals do not like. The first scene has the boys running through a small alleyway and this is where we walked down.
It’s small enough for only one person to walk down and you do have to be careful where you step but not because of faeces as I had imagined but because of the possible lose slab. This lane was hot, cramped and pretty claustrophobic but it was clean, there were no bad smells and the doorways to the concrete houses were covered well so people did have some privacy.
Overall I felt very uplifted by seeing Dharavi Slum and learning about it, I know that’s easily said by a White, British person who went to see it and the left, but the tours are not designed to make you feel sorry for the people who live there and they wouldn’t want that either.
No one was begging and everyone seemed happy to see us. We were stared at occasionally (but this is India where staring is normal) but a little smile back made them smile back, especially the women and children.
People were well dressed and as I had read in the books I have read about Slums in India, despite the small size of their houses and not the most ideal conditions, people are proud and this showed.
Tavy seemed well-known and respected by the slum locals and we finished the tour by seeing the school and the classroom that Reality Tours rents for its own NGO Reality Gives which gives lessons including computer classes to the locals, and then we went into the Reality Tours office on the edge of the Slum which fully showed how much of a place they have here.
Side note, if you do the tour, the office has really nice bags, t-shirts, and photos for sale so bring some extra money if you think you may want to purchase something and Reality Tours offer other tours around Mumbai and in Delhi. Make sure you wear covered shoes, cover your legs to your knees at least and your shoulders.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know that not all of the slums in Mumbai and in India are like this and what we saw, despite being positive, was very one-sided but Dharavi Slum is unique and that’s why tourists are given the chance to see it.
I’m sure life is much harder for people in other slums, and it is still hard for these people but I’m glad I was able to get an insight into this side of Mumbai and see with my own eyes that Slum Tourism can be positive and our privileged money can go to good use.
I hope this has given you a good insight into a Slum in India and convinces you to go on a tour with Reality Tours or has changed your opinion on Slum Tourism.
For more posts on Mumbai and India see: