By Anesa Kratovac:
A few days ago, I got the opportunity to visit the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, and although I was reluctant about the whole idea of foreign spectators gaining access to a closed community and behaving like they are in some natural museum; upon learning that the proceeds of the tour are invested in education of the community’s youth, I came to think that the ends did justify the means. Dharavi is one of the biggest slums in Asia and one of the most densely populated slums in the world, with over 1 million people living in an area of a square mile. It is also located in prime real estate location in one of the most expensive real estate cities in the world. These facts defy any preconceived notions that are based on assumptions that slums are poverty-stricken, crime-ridden areas without sanitation and a populace that lacks education and a desire for a better life. But, after my own experience and after getting to know others’ experiences, the slum reality could not be further from those generalizations.
For one, Dharavi is a place of thriving industry and enterprise. Who would have known? Around eighty percent of Mumbai’s garbage is recycled at the Dharavi recycling industry. Indeed, images of unsanitary and unsafe conditions are representative of that reality, but most employees who work at these industries are migrant workers from rural areas who come to Dharavi to make money and return back home in some years to help their families. To them, worker rights or safety issues are only secondary to the ability to be able to support their families. These workers usually sleep at the company shacks and act as security guards during off-hours. In terms of its enterprise industry, Dharavi surprisingly utilizes its resources and space sustainably and profitably, earning on average 1 billion US dollars per year in profits. Upon a short stroll down damp and narrow corridors, it is easy to perceive that Dharavi is truly a city within a city, where approximately eighty five percent of the population are locally employed. There are a variety of neighbourhoods within Dharavi, and for me, the pottery-making community stood out the most, including one hard-working potter who has been making pots in the community for over fifty years. Further from the industry and located in the centre of the living quarters, there is a vibrant market where people are able to purchase any necessities they want, which is a further indication of Dharavi’s self-sustainability.
Of course, let’s be honest- slum life is no picnic. Dharavi lacks sanitation infrastructure, creating a reality where more than 500 people use one communal toilet per day, while others resort to other more desperate means. Further, overcrowded shacks constituting 10ft square room homes, house families of five or more; sporadic water service is only available three hours per day; trash is scattered all over the ground unaccounted for and ignored. There are many downsides to the slum life, and health issues are the worst of them. But despite lacking many of the simple luxuries that we take for granted, people genuinely do seem happy and content. So that got me thinking: what can we learn from Dharavi? Are there lessons that Dharavi can teach us about simplicity of life and the nature of happiness? Simply put- absolutely.
The major aspect that stood out for me about life in Dharavi is that people have created a very organized way of living and are proud of their communities. They work hard and dress impeccably. They are happy living in crowded communal spaces, because they desire to have a sense of community, help each other and participate in each others’ lives- something that is currently missing in many “developed” countries. Every facet of life is a community affair; multi-generational homes ensure that all generations interact with one another and are a part of communal life. Dharavi mimics how we all used to live not so long ago, and reaffirms that despite the lack of the material and the comforts of privacy, happiness derives from a sense of community where we can feel accepted, cared for and loved. This is exactly the basis for the fact that there is virtually no crime in Dharavi.
Although I wasn’t able to take pictures on my tour- for a good reason- the vivid images of Dharavi are still with me. Thankfully, the people of Dharavi were used to seeing tourists and did not mind being observed. They understand and appreciated that the tourism enterprise was benefiting their community. Likewise, they also get to experience examining the tourists as much as tourists examine their communities. I believe that this exposure of a “foreign” element on both sides is a learning tool for both parties and is an important step to take for the re-examination of life beyond our own realities. Interestingly, some of my own experiences in Dharavi resonate with Kevin McCloud’s in his documentary, ‘Slumming It’, which was recommended to me by my tour guide (and which I recommend as well).
My last thoughts converge around the idea that we truly don’t know anything unless we experience it ourselves. This realization can motivate us to question, explore and create our own ideas around issues that we have heard about through second-hand knowledge. Biases are like hypotheses- they have to be proven right or wrong through exploration. So, explore we must! As Max Ernst once said, “Before he goes into the water, a diver cannot know what he will bring back.”
Here is more information on some of the biggest slums in the world