Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia. It is 2sq kilometres and home to 1 million people. Yes you heard me, ONE million people. Not a one of them wearing converse, leggings and a dress from Gap. So my attempt to blend in is not working. People are staring at us like we’re another life form come to probe their planet.
We are on a walking tour of Dharavi. I have issues. Not least with the walking part. But mainly my issues are with the part where we pay money to go stare at poor people. It feels like an update on the Victorian practice of going to stare at the crazy people locked up in the Bedlam all in the name of entertainment. But I am doing it anyway because there’s no Curzon in Mumbai and I was bored. Just kidding. I am here because the money from the tours goes straight back into the local community via a community centre and a kindergarten. And because John said I had to.
The guide zig zags us through alleys so narrow only the faeces can run through it freely. The rubbish dump burns day and night. A toxic plastic smoke sears our lungs. Children use the place as their playground.
Yet for all its dirt and crammedness (it’s the most densely populated place on earth), Dharavi is a hive of activity and micro-industry and that’s what the tour is at pains to point out. This is not a slum as we would imagine one to be. Dharavi has an economy of around $800 million a year. Though the workers in the sweatshops earn about £1.20 for a twelve hour day. And these are literally sweat shops. Now I get why they’re called that. We stopped in a workshop where men were feeding ground up aluminium cans into hot lava, producing at the end of it all ingots of aluminium which get sold back to the canning factories so our coca cola can be reborn.
Over 250,000 Dharavi inhabitants are employed on recycling initiatives – from coke cans to paint tins and cooking oil vats.
We wandered through the Gujarati part of town. The part that looks like the garden section at homebase for all the thousands of flower pots. The guide asked if we had any questions. Yeah, I wanted to ask, is it hot enough?
We finished up with a visit to the community centre. There were lots of Dharavi inhabitants there learning English. We handed over our rupee notes. The equivalent of four days work to one of the people of Dharavi, then we took a taxi back to our fan cooled, maid-serviced, security-guarded, fully utilitied up flat and ate the lunch the cook had prepared and showered in clean water and lay down on freshly laundered sheets for a nap.
India makes me feel a lot of things – hot, tired, elated, frustrated, delighted, angry, stressed and relaxed. But mostly it makes me feel enormously lucky. And in equal measure…guilty.