“Slum tourism is a polarizing subject,” concludes the Lonely Planet* sidebar on Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai (and, reportedly, Asia). And this is true: I met many travelers who rattle off Dharavi as just another bullet point on their Mumbai itinerary, while I met others who, on hearing the name, frowned and said, “I don’t like slum tourism.”
I do understand the squeamishness. “Slum tourism” conjures up the image of a busload of fat white tourists trundling through Third World shantytowns, cameras poised, ready to capture a sighting of the rare and elusive Impoverished Child trundling through the gutter in rags. Cringe.
On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Should rich people then avoid seeing where poor people live — avert their eyes and stay away? No, I don’t really believe in that. Besides, would I feel weird if a limo pulled up to my old house in the not-so-shiny neighborhood of Petworth and a few well-dressed people started taking pictures? Not really. I’d just be curious what the story was.
Besides, my bottom line is that I like to explore and see new things. I wanted to see Dharavi, so I went there. I didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about the moral implications of going to say hello to Mumbaikers who live in a slum.
Dharavi is not like any other slum I’ve seen before. It’s much cleaner and more organized, with central roads, food shops, and fruit stalls just like most other Indian towns. It’s more like a city within a city, a cluster of ramshackle buildings on unplanned streets that are nonetheless not significantly dirtier than your average street in, say, Old Delhi. The word “slum” conjures up images of raw sewage plopping into rivers, and we did indeed see that on our way into Dharavi.
But “slum” rarely invokes the image of factories, industry, and massive economic output. That, however, is what we saw much more of in Dharavi.
It turns out Dharavi is packed with mini-factories working on a huge range of industries: recycling old candy wrappers, stitching jean pockets, and baking pastries. Economic activity in Dharavi is estimated to turn around as much as $650 million a year.
And how did Dharavians themselves feel about us? Well, they were definitely curious about us — lots of staring as we walked by. But again, not more staring than you’d experience in Old Delhi (or New Delhi, or Agra, or Kolkata, or virtually anywhere in north India). Faces sometimes broke into smiles when I greeted them with “Namaste”; the smiles turned into laughs of surprise if I went further with, “Aap log kaise hain?” (“How are all of you doing?”) If no one was exactly rolling out the welcome mat — because they were too busy working — no one was giving us the stink eye and telling us to get lost.
The strangest thing we saw in Dharavi, actually, was on Blue Dog Street. This name is not a euphemism. There are two dogs who live on this street who have been at the wrong end of a dye plant somewhere in Dharavi.
I only saw a tiny corner of Dharavi — over 1 million people live there — so I can’t say what life is like for everyone who lives there. The people I saw, however, mostly seemed to be your average lower-middle class Indians: hard-working, busy at their jobs, enjoy tea breaks and paan (chewing tobacco), etc.
On the other hand. I don’t want to glorify or romanticize poverty. Everyone lives and works in very tiny spaces and the hygiene — hundreds of people reportedly sometimes share a single toilet — is appalling. I started reading a book written by some rich Indians called Poor Little Rich Slum that I had to put down because it was just endless pablum about how wonderful and hard-working people in Dharavi are, and how their lack of material possessions didn’t prevent them from being rich in spirit, blah blah blah. I notice the authors didn’t rush to quit their lucrative office jobs to move to a Dharavi shanty. I’ve met a lot of poor people in India, and while it’s true that a person really doesn’t need about half of what your average American owns, most poor people live about one illness or natural disaster away from total bankruptcy. I haven’t met anyone yet who enjoys that feeling.
* Fellow backpackers: I am sorry to report that the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide to India, which is so popular that travelers of all nationalities jokingly refer to it as “the Bible,” has let me down on multiple occasions. For example, it cheerfully directed me to a hotel in Kolkata that was so infested with bedbugs that after leaving, I spent an hour picking them out of my luggage. Shudder. Use Trip Advisor.