Mumbai – The People of Dharavi

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Mumbai – The people of Dharavi
When I read, that Mumbai was host to the second biggest slum in all of Asia, the third biggest slum in the world, with a million people crammed into less than a square mile and being one of the most diverse places this world has to offer, I really wanted to see it. I just wasn’t sure how to approach Dharavi.
How best to enter this massive slum and how would it spit me out in the end?

Eva was still back in Germany and in my head, I was convinced that if I get lost in this slum, well, that would suck. Most pictures I got back when I searched Dharavi on Google simply didn’t boost my confidence. Big area, dark and narrow alleyways between run down shacks, an overcrowded, unknown territory and no idea about the slum’s vibe.

But I also didn’t want to book a “Safe Slum Tour”. Being part of a pre-defined group of foreigners, walking along pre-defined routes, meeting pre-defined people and not being allowed to take any pictures, just wasn’t an option.
It would make me think I wasn’t really there.
Eventually, like in Dhobi Ghat, I have asked a trustworthy looking local who lives in the slum for a private tour in exchange for some rupees.

My worries all turned out to be pointless, as I found the kindest, most positive and happiest people in Dharavi, a place with a billion stories, making it for me the best place Mumbai has to offer.

Finding a guide was easier than I thought. Shortly after arriving in Dharavi a group of locals in their mid-twenties approached me, asking if I could take a picture of them with my camera and after some small talk I had my guide.

I spent 2 hours with him that day and 4 hours on my own afterwards and I came back the next day for another 6-hour visit.

What I learned was that Dharavi was first and foremost a place full of people, each with some information or story attached and with each story a clearer picture of what Dharavi was emerged.
Here are some of the characters I met and the things I learned from them about this place.

My Guide

Mumbai, Dharavi slum dweller, guide and 2 friends
My guide (in the NY shirt) looks a lot more trustworthy in real life. He also looks like the majority of people who live in Berlin.

My guide was born and bred in Dharavi and when I told him that neither he nor his friends looked like slum dwellers to me, they explained that a slum isn’t always like a slum as depicted on TV and that I would hardly find anyone in here searching any bin for food. Obviously nobody was rich and they have some real problems to fight, especially sanitary issues, but a substantial amount of people were “getting by” or “doing OK” economically.

Just like on the outside, there are people who are really poor and people who have a little more money. The family of my guide for example has a carpenter shop in the slum, he himself is studying something with management and they are doing OK in general. His family business is only one of countless businesses in the slum. Dharavi is famous for its informal economy, with numerous micro and household enterprises that employ many residents of the slum and Wiki says leather, textiles and pottery products are among the goods made inside. The total annual turnover has been estimated at over US$1 billion.”

I soon understood what my guide meant when he said a slum isn’t always like a slum as depicted on TV.
Dharavi looks desperate from the outside but is pretty clean and on occasion even beautiful when entered. The simple housing, mostly small single room blocks, are occupied by sometimes as many as 10 people, but generally kept clean and people are also trying to keep the space outside their front doors clean.
Their combined effort makes for relatively clean alleyways and on a bigger scale, it makes the slum a cleaner place.

The small buildings are often painted in different colours, which gives Dharavi a more vibrant and warm look and people in general are looking after themselves, especially women, with clean and colourful sarees and men often in proper shirts.
This slum’s description might also be true for some favelas in Brazil, but I somehow wasn’t expecting it to be the case in this country.
In many places in India, waste only knows one way:
The immediate ground, the moment the item becomes waste.
Considering this, the last thing you would expect to find in a overcrowded slum are clean alleyways.

Mumbai is a city where house rents are among the highest in the world. states that “The Dharavi slum provides a cheap and affordable option to those who move to Mumbai to earn their living. Here the home rents can be as low as 185-500 rupees ($3-8) per month.”

Mumbai, Dharavi Slum, A so called Villa inside the slum.
One of the rare so called “Villas” in Dharavi that my guide showed me. Not all people in the slum are equally poor.


2 women walk through tnarrow alleyways insidedharavi Slum in Mumbai wearing sarees
A good picture to show how narrow some of the alleyways are, but also how well people are looking after themselves in terms of cleanliness and looks.

My guide told me that generations of people have lived here, people of all backgrounds and the slum contains schools, as well as multiple places of worship, covering all the major religions. According to him, all are living peacefully together and helping each other out and the crime rate is incredibly low. When I mentioned that I was a bit worried coming into the slum on my own as I didn’t know what to expect, he just laughed and shook his head.

The Electrician

An electrician is working Inside Dharavi Slum in Mumbai

Working in one of the narrow alleyways to fix a power outage was the constantly smiling Electrician. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English but my guide told me that while electricity is provided free of charge to the residents, the slum is prone to frequent power outages.
Electro-man and his colleagues would frequently be dispatched to fix it. Many of the slum’s residencies own television and even satelite dishes and most of the micro businesses are electricity hungry with all their sewing and grinding and cutting machines. People like the Electrician are critical for the business’s success but also to satisfy people’s need for watching live Cricket matches and soap operas.

But let’s just pause here for a minute, because something doesn’t seem quite right. We are talking about a slum and in the same breath televisions and satelite dishes, clean shacks and alleyways, low crime rates, Villas, people who are mostly clean and neatly dressed… What is actually the official definition of a Slum?

Merriam-Webster says:
Slum :  a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, dirty run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization

Mostly accurate, but there are exceptions in Dharavi and the longer I stayed, the more I questioned the picture I had in my head of what a slum was supposed to look like.

The Micro enterprises and its people

A man standing in front of a micro or household business inside the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.
For some reason, my guide was reluctant to show me the places where products are made, but there are so many, it was just a matter of time to find them on my own.

I don’t know what I had expected to see. Maybe horrible working conditions, 5-year olds on sewing machines, desperate, slave like, exhausted looking people working 18 hours a day under some sadistic gestapo guy.
I found none of this.
This doesn’t mean these places don’t exist, it just means I haven’t seen any.

Instead people smiled when I approached, the mood in the places I’ve seen was good, and most surprising maybe, people were eager to show off what they were working on and had no issues with me taking pictures.

Amongst smaller companies and shops, big brands are supposedly using the slum for cheap manufacturing for some of their products for both, domestic and international markets, according to my guide. I’ve maybe only seen 10 out of the estimated 15.000 businesses and of the big brands I’ve only seen the place where “Nivea Men” wash bags are produced.

A worker inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum showing of wash bags. Micro business, Household business
A worker showing off the wash bags they produce. Fake or not I couldn’t tell.


A Nivea Men wash bag inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum from one of the many micro businesses.
The quality seems great.

If you have one of these wash bags and find quality issues, maybe instead of being stuck in the Nivea Hotline, you could call the boys in the slum directly who are responsible for it. That would be these guys:

Young male workers inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum.
It is true that working conditions are terrible by any standard, but in my head, I had imagined them somewhat worse and people to be more desperate looking. The same was true for other workshops I’ve seen (see Gallery).

It is also true that some of the workers are young teenagers, but when I compare them to some of the kids roaming the streets of Delhi, Zombie like from sniffing glue, then I can’t help but think that the Nivea gang is better off overall.

The Fixer

A repair man inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum in front of a broken sewing machine.

Broken sewing machines from the hundreds and hundreds of businesses are collected on carts and usually end up with one of the Fixers and are then re-distributed. Even though there are dozens of repair shops in Dharavi, this fixer was busy when I came across his shop. The shop itself is an amalgamation of screws, nuts, bolts, random devices and broken sewing machines and behind his humble demeanour, there was an aura about him, suggesting there was nothing he couldn’t fix.

He as well was part of an ever widening business and slum economy that made services from outside the slum mostly redundant. Amongst all the friendly people I met in my time in the slum, he was one of the friendliest and I spent a good amount of time just watching him, doing his thing.

The Rats

A rat inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum.

Of course they are there and everything else you would expect to be in a slum is also there and lots of them. This is surely because of the nature of the slum itself, but also because the immediate surroundings of the slum is anything but PH neutral.
I found the rats in Dharavi particularly interesting for their behaviour. They would of course get out of the way when approached, but reluctantly and almost slow. They would at times keep a distance that made me think that if I suddenly made a big step forward, stretch my leg a little bit, I could just about reach this rat and kick it, just to speed it up a bit.
Their behaviour was crazy for me to see and could only mean 2 things:

1. They feel completely at home here in Dharavi and
2. They are used to being around people. In daytime.

Try and imagine them at night when they get really cocky.

The Diva

An elderly women inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum

The Diva was shouting at me when I took above picture and she went on pretending to slap me multiple times on my forehead. I thought I was finally running out of luck with people and pictures but that was not the Diva’s problem. She simply wasn’t ready to have her picture taken until her clothes were properly in place, her head partially covered and she had time to pose.

An elderly women inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum with her head partially covered.
That’s better, mate.

I bet she had a life full of stories to tell, but the language barrier made it impossible to communicate. She is mentioned in this blog because I fell in love with her when she kissed my forehead multiple times when I left.

The Doctor

A doctor giving a child an injection inside Mumbai's Dharavi slum.

Just like any other place, Dharavi gets more and more detailed the longer you stay and in Dharavi, you walk around a corner that looks like any other corner and you walk into this:
Out in the open, a doctor and his assistant sat on two small plastic chairs made for kids and a short queue of people was waiting for their turn to be seen. The doctor told me that he was one of several doctors from nearby hospitals that are sent here on some days every week. Each doctor is dispatched to be at certain entry point locations of the slum to see patients.
It’s a good measure as not only does it help people, but it works also well on a preventive level. Dharavi has some history when it comes to diseases and these measures might stop, avoid or slow down whatever next comes out of this place.
Mahim Creek for example is a local river that, according to Wiki, is widely used by local residents for urination and defecation, causing the spread of contagious diseases. Lavatories within the slum are in a horrible state given that one toilet receives the output of “over 15,000 people everyday” []. So the river serves as an alternative. In addition, due to the air pollutants, diseases such as lung cancer, tuberculosis, and asthma are common among residents.

Insanely Happy Children

Three happy, laughing children with a cricket bat and ball inside Mumbai's Dharavi Slum.
Children in Dharavi are everywhere and roaming around the slum freely

Maybe the biggest surprise in Dharavi was the sights and sounds of truly happy, fully energised children, living life to the fullest and their laughter hits you from all directions. It’s another thing I didn’t expect to find in a slum and another thing where Dharavi made me question my own preconceptions.

But Dharavi is in fact one big playground, with its huge labyrinth of narrow corridors, its billions of nooks and crannies and the small rooftops are in such close proximity, that chasing each other up there is easy, adding another layer to an already big playground.

The few open spaces within Dharavi, but also immediately outside the slum, are used for Cricket of course and I have seen lively arguments over Cricket in this slum.
It’s funny that in a place where rules don’t seem to exist, the rules of Cricket are vigorously enforced.

Teenagers playing Cricket just outside Mumbai's Dharavi Slum.
Kids playing Cricket just outside the slum.

Cricket is even played in entrance ways to apartment blocks. Unthinkable in Germany. Within seconds you would have neighbours shouting the shit out of these kids. In Dharavi, no one cared.

In comparison to those active Kids, who live in a slum and amongst rats, who call little more their own then a Cricket bat and ball, our kids seem somehow numb. Totally numb.

Apart from missing pocket-tech, one reason could be the thing I haven’t seen in Dharavi. This word:


It’s the Germans’ favourite word amongst all words. The mother of all words.
Depending on context it translates into “forbidden” or “prohibited”, as in “It is prohibited to play your stupid ball games here.”

A young boy is playing Cricket inside a apartment block entrance in Mumbai's Dharavi slum.

There are no signs anywhere in the slum shouting at people what they can’t do like “Don’t play cricket after 5pm” or similar. And while I don’t read Hindi, I know this because there are no signs anywhere in Dharavi in the first place.

So maybe the seemingly total freedom and endless possibilities in this place makes their energy levels and overall happiness live longer, I don’t know. It was just a very impressive and unexpected thing to see in a slum.

So many things are happening in Dharavi while you just stand there or walk around with clumsy baby steps through unfamiliar terrain and all is somewhat surprising and feels real.
It feels real because all seems so very basic, so early days, like the whole Doctor thing:
Half improvised, half organised, half established and therefore now part of a routine.
And because all is so basic, it is free of any bullshit. What you see is life like it is and as it happens and I think it is because of this that Dharavi feels so real.

Apart from Wiki, additional info has been used from and

OK, show me other locations in India