We’ve done a few tours during our travels but I can’t think of a tour that made a deeper impact than the Dharavi tour we did earlier this week. Dharavi is the world’s third largest slum where more than 1 million people live and work in an area less than 1 sq. mile. For reference, that’s about the size of New York’s Central Park. I grew up less than 200 meters from Dharavi but never quite ventured to the other side of the tracks (literally). Surprisingly enough, most Bombayites haven’t visited Dharavi and seem to have very diverse opinions about the area and its residents.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I can assure you that watching the living and working conditions on TV or seeing pictures or even reading vivid details about it doesn’t even come close to actually experiencing the sights and smells while walking the same super-narrow alleys that the residents brave thru every single day of their lives. (There is a strict no photography policy on this tour so we took pics before and after but never during the tour. Some of the pics below are copyright free photos.)

Dharavi is unique in that it has a commercial section and a residential section. There are approximately 15000 to 20000 single room factories here generating over $650 million annually. Mindboggling right? People work 12 hours a day (at least) to earn $5 to $7 dollars. The popular industries are leather, food, plastics, recycling, clothes, engines, and pottery.  The owners are incentivized to keep the workers working so they continue to produce more widgets to add to their already massive fortunes.

As part of our 2.5 hour tour, we had the opportunity to see some of these workers in action. Most of them sleep where they work and are considered migrants (not included in official statistics). We had a hard time standing for more than a minute without covering our noses because of the sheer toxicity in these cramped quarters with no ventilation. Imagine dealing with plastic (collected by ragpickers all over the city) all day, washing, shredding, melting and finally repurposing it – all done by hand with no masks, gloves or any other protection. Same with dyeing fabrics or processing goat and buffalo hides to make leather jackets and bags all day.

The residential section is actually worse. If you happen to find yourself in this maze without a guide or a local, you will never ever get out. When I say super-narrow alleys, I mean that literally – only one person can walk in these dark alleys (no sunlight gets thru) and the walls are about 8 inches from you in either direction. Of course, you have to watch your head and feet at all times since there is open sewage at the bottom right alongside the pipes which carry water to the residents. Sometimes the water pipes burst in places and the sewage gets mixed in. Its absolutely gut wrenching to see that most of them will spend their entire life in this filth and squalor. 5% of the kids don’t live to see their 6th birthday. The dwellings have no front door (just a curtain) and are only about 80 sq. ft. where the entire family (typically 5 or more) cooks, cleans, and sleeps. There is a common toilet where you have to take your own bucket of water with you. There are about 700 bathrooms for 1 million people – that’s about 1500 people to 1 bathroom. Residents tend to favor the railway tracks as an alternative to relieve themselves.

Based on all this, I would’ve expected these people to be dark, gloomy and deeply unhappy. Amazingly enough, that’s not what I saw. I was absolutely blown away by their attitude, their fighting spirit, the bonds they share with each other and their deep sense of community. They have come to depend on each other since they have nobody else to rely on. The kids smile, laugh and play outside (next to dead rodents) with whatever they can find. Some of them even wanted to take a selfie with the white people on our tour. I didn’t sense any resentment or hostility towards us which we’ve seen in some other countries. Despite all the hardship, struggle and extreme poverty, they continue to be optimistic and hold hope for a better future. And for that, I salute them. On our walk back home, we couldn’t help but reflect on how fortunate we are and how trivial most of our first world problems are.