Dharavi – the largest slum in Mumbai


The foot bridge to Dharavi 


Inequality is increasingly becoming a global issue, but it is more apparent in rich cities like Mumbai – the world’s 12th richest city. According to the statistics from 2016, about 55% of the city’s population lives in slums, or areas of extreme poverty that lack the basics such as clean water and electricity. Mumbai is home of the richest in India, yet it also has largest slum population in the world. ( N.B. The world’s most expensive private residential home is the 27-storey Antilia located in Mumbai’s Cumballa Hill, and it belongs to Mukesh Ambani, costing of between $1-2 billion.)

Dharavi is not only the largest slum in Mumbai, it is also one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with over one million people living in an area of just over 2.1 square kilometres/ 557 acres. It became famous after it was featured in Danny Boyle‘s Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.


mumbai train   mumbai train

mumbai train

Took the commuter train to Dharavi with our guide from Reality Tours


I understand that a lot of people feel discomfort with the idea of visiting slums, and they consider it as poverty voyeurism. However, I believe that it is important to understand why these slums exist and how they function. Actually the Dharavi slum is a microcosm with its small business economy estimated to be worth US$ 665 million a year, so I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to the inhabitants and their contribution to Mumbai’s economy.

There are several companies that run the Dharavi slum tour; I chose the popular Reality Tours which states that 80% of its profits would go back to the community through its NGO, Reality Gives. Started in 2005, Reality Tours began with an idea of conducting educational walking tours of Dharavi, and over time, it expanded its operations to other Indian cities. Most of the Dharavi tour guides grew up in the slum, so they know the maze-like narrow alleys like the back of their hands. Photography is forbidden inside the slum, but participants can download photos from their website after the tour.




Craftsmen working outside of the train station


The 2.5-hour tour turned out to be eye-opening and educational. We visited a soap factory, a plastic recycling factory, watched a potter making pottery, and a community centre that was funded by its NGO, Reality Gives. We saw young children playing happily in their neighbourhoods, and we walked through bustling streets filled with street vendors and shoppers. I didn’t see any beggars; most people here seem to be fairly busy getting on with their daily lives. From the surface, the streets of the slum don’t actually look that different from the ‘outside world’. However, there are still underlying issues like rubbish disposal and sanitation that are yet to be resolved. Not only there are limited toilet and water facilities in the slum area, some of the public amenities are also crumbling, so a visit to the public toilets can turn out to be perilous.

Meanwhile, toxic air is another big threat to its reidents. Not only the slum is surrounded by waste and petroleum plants, we also walked past a narrow back alley where a guy was burning some unpleasant ‘stuff’ with plumes of black smoke rising up in the air. And when I put on my disposible face mask (an essential item when you are traveling around India), others in my group were rather envious of me.





Dharavi is now being redeveloped, and the Dubai-based Seclink Technology Corporation (STC) has been commissioned to oversee this project. The aim is for everyone living in the slum to have a house with 350 square-foot of carpet area, along with additional compensation within a decade. In the past, redevelopment projects have failed because of resistance from the local residents, so it is hard to predict if this one will succeed or not.


slum mumbai

Asalpha Slum’s colourful makeover – A non-profit group Chal Rang De (Let’s Go Paint) organised by Dedeepya Reddy has transformed more than 12,000 homes across four different areas in the city into vibrant villages


After the tour, I spoke to a few people from my group and they all thought that it was an interesting and educational tour. I didn’t feel that the people who went on the tour were voyeuristic, in fact, I felt the opposite. I felt that they genuinely wanted to learn and understand more about the inhabitants, their homes and businesses in Dharavi. I sincerely hope that these tours are making people aware of the positive aspects of the slums, as well as the infrastructure issues that they face. Without understanding, it is hard for constructive changes to take place, and in order for a society to function well, we need more open dialogues and discussions between people from different classes, religions and skin colours. Voyeuristic or not? Maybe you can go on a tour and decide it for yourself.



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