Dharavi: the slum that makes capitalism possible

can recycling dharavi
Can recycling in Dharavi. Photo by Reality Tours and Travel.

A fire blazes inside a one-room shed made of wood and corrugated metal. Outside, the day is at its hottest with an unforgiving Indian sun shining down on the narrow maze of streets. Inside the shed, a few men supervise the furnace, where nine paint drums are stacked and glowing in the white-hot fire. The workers are melting off excess paint for recycling; after their work is done, the drums will be repaired and reused. The smoke coming from the shed is acrid and the men sweat profusely.

This is Dharavi, better known as Asia’s largest slum and made famous as the setting for many of the scenes in Slumdog Millionaire. Somewhere between half a million and a million people live on about two square kilometers of land on the central north part of Mumbai’s peninsula, making Dharavi one of the most densely-populated areas on earth.

Fed up with the image of slums as places of despair and suffering, some locals started offering tours to Dharavi to complicate the Hollywood version of the neighborhood. The first thing they tell you: Dharavi is home to thousands of one-room factories and businesses, generating an annual economic output of close to a billion dollars. Even that description doesn’t do the area justice, and by the end of our two hours there, I felt like I’d been given a look under the hood of the machine we call global capitalism.

Slum tourism is controversial, to put it mildly, and I still have mixed feelings about the tour we took. Our trip was run by Reality Tours and Travel, a Mumbai-based group founded by an American do-gooder and now run by an Indian staff. The tour itself was incredibly well-done: informative and well-paced with professional guides.

Photos were strictly prohibited (instead, Reality shares a dozen high-quality photos they’ve taken with you after your tour) and tour guides are Mumbai locals, at least some of whom have ties to Dharavi. Our guide, Jitu, used to work in a factory in Dharavi and gradually learned English through Hollywood movies, eventually learning enough to qualify him to be a tour guide. Eighty percent of tour proceeds support a partner NGO, Reality Gives, which runs educational programs for Dharavi kids. Their stated goal for the tours is to change the pervasive idea that slums are places of nothing but poverty and hopelessness, and by that measure, the tour is certainly doing its job.

On the tour, guides walk you through the slum and explain different local businesses, but you don’t interact with residents or hear them talk about their own lives, which felt odd to me. On the one hand, most of them are busy working and probably don’t want to take time to speak with foreigners about things that I’d imagine seem mundane to them. But I also tend to think asking a community what they need or giving cash to people who can use it in exchange for a service (letting us learn about their lives) is a better (and fairer) way to help them than having a Westerner set up a program to help slum kids, however well-run and well-intentioned it might be.

It’s possible I’m wrong in some tangible, evidence-based way and it’s also possible Dharavi residents feel differently or just don’t care much about the visitors one way or another. At the very least, that means what I write here comes from what I saw while walking around Dharavi and what Jitu told us during the tour, rather than from any people who currently live or work there. So with that long disclaimer, here’s what I learned.

Our first stop was a one-room aluminium recycling factory, where shards of aluminum are melted down into large bricks which are then sold. Because it was Sunday, the furnace wasn’t working, but the setup was similar – a single room shack with a corrugated metal roof. Jitu told us workers don’t wear protective equipment because it’s hot enough in there without extra clothing. Dharavi’s businesses are almost uniformly black market – unregistered, not paying taxes and bribing police when they come to inspect things – so even where labor laws exist, they’re not enforced here.

Many Dharavi businesses handle recyclables, facilitated by the work of trash collectors, who sift through Mumbai’s waste looking for anything that might have value. Plastics are ground down to small pieces, color-sorted, washed and then shredded to make filling for pillow cases and stuffed animals. From a rooftop, you can see colorful cobalt piles that look like pottery dyes or gemstones. One place we walked by had massive bags full of clear plastic cups – waste from McDonalds, no doubt arriving via some maze of subcontractors.

Lanes and streets are small and many are passable only on foot, though the larger ones have enough room for motorcycles and hand-pulled carts. Amidst this chaos, there are pet goats munching on greens hanging from an awning, boys cheering over a makeshift game of cricket in the middle of the street, people buying vegetables in preparation for breaking their Ramadan fast – in short, people doing normal human things squished into the most crowded, dense human settlement I can possibly imagine.

One residential street we walked down was so narrow the buildings above it almost entirely obscured the sun. The footpath was actually just a sewer covered by scattered boards, and we had to duck to avoid the maze of wires over our heads. But even on this street, the homes we passed, mostly one room concrete structures, had numbers painted on the doorway in white. Postal addresses exist, even in the densest part of the slum.

In the middle of all this, there’s a glass door leading to an immaculate air-conditioned room with white tile floors and shelves filled with leather handbags. It’s the headquarters of a leather factory that works chiefly with sheep and goat skins, since the state of Maharashtra, where a Hindu nationalist party won the last election, has recently outlawed the sale of leather and beef. The bags on display are fakes destined for the domestic market, sporting Gucci and Louis Vuitton labels.

Sometimes, these guys make the real things too, Jitu told us. Gucci might visit an Indian contractor who has all the latest machines and a nice-looking factory (plus a legal, registered company). Suitably impressed, they contract with him to make bags, except he doesn’t want to spend the money actually doing the work. So he pockets his share and subcontracts out to the Dharavi folks, with Gucci none the wiser. And this is how things are made the world over.

I’ve always had a vague notion that shadow markets like Dharavi exist, but seeing the machinery of it all left me speechless. The work done in these tiny, illegal factories is absolutely essential to the functioning of the entire global economy. They process electronic waste and recycle Coke bottles and handle contracts for huge multinational corporations who will never know a Dharavi factory was involved at all.

I saw purple water running from a factory into the sewer and men standing in acrid chemical smoke to make this machine function and couldn’t help but wonder how many Superfund sites you’d find in Dharavi’s walls if someone took the time to measure contamination. It’s incredible how many transactions, companies, interests and profits have some connection to one of these one-room factories in some obscure corner of an Indian slum.

With so many people living in such little space, sanitation remains a huge issue in Dharavi. Houses don’t have toilets, and public toilets are woefully inadequate, with about one for every 1,500 people. India as a whole struggles massively with sanitation, with about 600 million people defecating in the open according to the latest report on the Millennium Development Goals.

In Dharavi, open air sewers run through town and are a mix of human waste, cow dung, bath water and runoff from factories. Children ran around freely, in some cases falling in the concrete trenches. Our guide was fond of saying that there are more phones than toilet seats in Dharavi, and he was right – we saw at least a dozen young people, smartphones in hand, watching videos or listening to music as we walked around.

Residents of Dharavi are technically living there illegally, at least in many cases, but most pay rent (often under $10 a month) and the government has no immediate plans to evict them. The current slum “improvement” scheme is a government program run entirely through private enterprises. Real estate companies can raze a neighborhood in the slum with the approval of 70 percent of the residents. They’re required to build a bare bones concrete skyscraper on half that land to house the people they’ve displaced and provide that housing free of charge.

In exchange, the companies get the rest of the land to develop into a more lucrative luxury building to sell at market prices. Many slum residents opt not to relocate – some prefer their current homes for the sense of community they provide, others are concerned that a new development would leave no space for the businesses that are so vital to Dharavi’s economy. With the minimal information we got, I have no idea how routinely that program is used, how democratic the voting process is or what happens to the businesses that are left behind in the process.

That plan has been criticized as a government bid to make Mumbai a world-class city by hiding its poor away, prioritizing the needs of real estate moguls who want to take advantage of skyrocketing rents. I can’t say whether apartments are a good solution for Dharavi’s residents, though it seems to me that putting in more toilets should be a priority. But I have a hard time imagining what might replace these factories that handle so much of the world’s goods at the beginning or end of their lives. I can’t help but think that if you stopped them from working, the entire economy might grind to a halt.