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A Look Inside Dharavi – The Biggest Slum in the World (Mumbai)

by Drew on April 12, 2015 55 comments

Out the 21 million people that live in Mumbai, a whopping 62% (or ~13 million people) live in the various slums around the city.

Most of these slum dwellers survive on less than $1USD per day and spend their entire days working long hours in the blistering sun, using rivers as toilets, sleeping on sidewalks and scraping to find shelter under bridges.

This is the real Mumbai.

When I was in Bombay, I took a 3 hour guided walking tour of the biggest slum in Asia and one of the largest in the world.  It’s called Dharavi.  You may already be familiar with it from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, because this was the exact slum that Jamal (the main character) lived in and much of the movie was shot here.

Seeing live unfold inside of Dharavi was the most eye-opening and real experience that I’ve had throughout all of my travels. It’s so densely populated that it felt like being a city within a city, filled with narrow dirty alleys, open sewers and more trash than you can possibly imagine.

The walking tour, put on by Reality Tours, was very well organized. Our group consisted of 6 people along with 2 educated guides who took us through many parts of the slum, and provided us with detailed explanations of what we were seeing.

Before I explain to you what was going through my head when I was inside Dharavi, I will first give you some facts about the slum that will put things into perspective.

– About 1 million people live within 1 square mile, making it the most densely populated area on planet earth
– The average wage is between $1-2USD per day
– Dharavi is the most productive slum in the world. It’s over a billion dollar industry
– There is an average of 1 toilet per 1,450 people
– 60% of the families have lived in Dharavi for 60+ years
– The average life span is under 60 years old, due to disease and health concerns
– The slum is divided into communities by religion, with 60% Hindu, 33% Muslim and 6% Christian and 1% other
– Many businesses generate million dollar incomes (USD)
– Only men are allowed to work in the factories

What surprised me the most about Dharavi was how incredibly organized the slum was.

Dharavi is by FAR the most productive slum in the world, with the annual turnover of business valued at $1billlion USD per year.  The slum produces goods that are exported all around India and the world.

When I finally looked beyond the stereotype of it being the “largest slum,” I began to realize a successful settlement with a vibrant community and economy. The people are as hard-working as I’ve ever seen, and life wasn’t so bad for the people who call this place home.

The slum is split up between the industrial part and the residential part.

The industrial part is chaotic, hot, dirty and smelly. There are over 7,000 different businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in the slum that are filled with thousands citizens working their butt off without air conditioning.  When I was walking through the industrial part, I only saw men.  Men were everywhere.  When I asked my tour guide why there are only guys working, he said that women are forbidden to work in the factories of Dharavi.

The most common businesses in the industrial part are pottery, leather, plastic and steel.  But there are several smaller industries that reuse EVERYTHING to produce something else.  I’m talking about every kind of material that you can think of is somehow reused in Dharavi.  You know all of that waste that we throw away in the West?  It all ends up in a place like Dharavi and reproduced into a new product. It was amazing to see this happening with my own two eyes.

I’m not just talking about paper, plastic, leather, aluminum and glass.  Those are the obvious things. I saw factories that were using parts of old-school cassette tapes from the 90s. I saw workers extracting pieces from beat-up VHS movie tapes (remember those). I even saw one entire factory that was dedicated to reusing the leftover bars of soap at hotels and remade into clothes. It was truly amazing to see how hard these people work, and how much they save from all of our waste.

The work environment for nearly all people is extremely hazardous and unsafe, which leads to diseases and fatalities. During the tour, they took us into a room where workers were burning coal over a running fire and I could hardly breathe; I had to stick my nose under my shirt to gasp for air.  It must have been 150 degrees Farenheit inside the room, and the workers didn’t even wear a mask because they couldn’t afford one. Their lungs must’ve been completely black.

Perhaps the most unique characteristics of Dharavi is the extremely close work-place relationship.  Every square inch of land is used to produce something.  They don’t waste any space.  And all of the work is done by hand which is moving opposite of the hi-tech society that we live in today. It’s almost like time doesn’t pass in Dharavi.  I picture the slum being the exact same 30-40 years ago.

The second part of the tour took us through the residential part of the slum.

I learned that the residents of Dharavi are made up people from all over India, who migrated from rural regions as well as locals from the Maharastra state. The entire residential area lacks any sort of infrastructure such as roads, public conveniences and toilets.  It was, by far, the dirtiest and most hectic living conditions that I’d ever seen.   The residential area is also the only place in Dharavi where I saw women, and most of them were housewives.

The housing areas were split by religion. All of the Islamic people conquered one area, while the Hindus has a different section and the Christians has their territory. The slum has numerous temples and churches to serve members of each religion in their respected areas.

Each home and living area is extremely crowded and small.  As I was peeking into houses, I saw some tiny rooms with up to 8 people living inside. The rooms were so tiny that when all 8 people were laying down side-by-side, their bodies were covering the entire width of the floor space. And nobody had any pillows, mattresses or blankets. No kitchens, living rooms, or toilets either.

There is, on average, 1 toilet for every 1,450 people living in the slum.  To me, this is the craziest fact about Dharavi that really puts things into perspective.  Most people use the alleys and the river as a toilet.

Our tour guide told us that about 90% of all housing units in Dharavi are illegal.  There are hundreds of thousands of makeshift homes, that are so fragile that they can collapse at any time by the weight above it.

Nothing that I saw around the homes were clean. Pipes were broken and pouring dirty water into the kitchens and the streets. Kids were walking barefoot on top of dumpsters. Stray dogs and goats and cows were pooping on people’s doorsteps. Mothers were doing laundry on the dusty sidewalks. People were drinking contaminated water. Everywhere.

But somehow, despite all of this, life in Dharavi just worked. And it worked well.

It’s hard for me to convince you that living in Dharavi isn’t so bad for the people who live there. But it’s true.  The slum locals don’t know any difference, because they’ve never seen the outside world.  They only know and understand life in Dharavi.  Once you see and experience the slum, and then you will understand what I’m talking about.

I did manage to take several Go pro videos when I was touring inside the slum, even though they strictly said no photographs or video is allowed. I put together this brief video of random clips inside, which will give you a better perspective of what I saw. All videos were taken with the Gopro by my waist. Check it out below:

To be quite honest with you, if I was a poor person living in Mumbai, then I would definitely choose to live in Dharavi as opposed to any other slum. Especially in this expensive city and financial district of India, where rent prices are among the highest in the world.  The rooms in Dharavi are very cheap (as low as $3USD per month) and each room is equipped with electricity and gas stoves for cooking – which are provided by the government. Many rooms have TV’s as well. The slum is also centrally located in the city between Mumbai’s two main suburban rail lines, so many people who live in Dharavi can easily commute to work. Our tour guide told us that 20% of Dharavi’s population is made up of government officials like police officers and fire fighters, due to the affordability of homes.

There are current redevelopment plans in Dharavi to refurbish the work places of existing factories, construct new schools and roads, and build brand new apartments for the residents. But this project, as you might imagine, is a very difficult one to approach and it may take decades see a difference in the society.

As for now, Dharavi will keep pumping on, producing things in bulk and establishing itself as the most productive slum in the world.

My Lesson Learned

Like I said at the beginning of this post, touring Dharavi was the most eye-opening and real experience that I’ve had in all of my travels.

The #1 lesson that I learned was to appreciate everything you have in life.  I will never take these things for granted anymore.

It was a wake up call for me.

I think that everyone should see how people live in Dharavi, and then they will begin to appreciate how lucky we are to not have been born into this.

So take a moment to realize all of the material things that you have – cars, houses, computers, cellphones, internet, ipads – and just think that no one in Dharavi has the privilege to own these things. We are very lucky to live the life that we live.

Imagine what it would be like to live for just 24 hours inside Dharavi.  Just think about it for a second.  And then realize that people spend every breathing second of their life inside this place.

Thanks for reading 🙂 Please comment below with your thoughts and questions! 

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Drew

Hello! Since 2012, I've been traveling and partying my way around 74+ Countries. Shortly after I graduated from The University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a job as an English Teacher in South Korea for 18 months. Now, I'm traveling and blogging full-time on a never-ending voyage around the world. Please comment with any questions you have, and feel free to join me on Snapchat & Instagram @drewbinsky :)

DrewA Look Inside Dharavi – The Biggest Slum in the World (Mumbai)

55 comments

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  • Mark Bailey - January 9, 2017 reply

    Just came back from Dharavi, it was by far the most amazing experience I’ve ever had! I felt privileged to see a people stand up and fight against a very unjust and disfunctional world.slum is the wrong word, they have made the best homes in the worst circumstances ever.they alone put rich and snobby people to shame.

  • Bobbie sanypoop - December 8, 2016 reply

    Hi, y do pople wanna go like hello no thwnks

  • Día Internacional de la Niña: 62 millones son aún analfabetas en el mundo | Goldman Sachs is not an after shave - October 11, 2016 reply

    […] más ni menos-, vive en los llamados slums o barrios de chabolas y bate el triste récord de tener el más grande del mundo. No es difícil imaginar la exclusión social y la violación sistemática de derechos que sufren […]

  • xoxo - October 10, 2016 reply

    I’ve got a question. A factor contributing informal housing is access to work (formal and informal). My teacher told me that there is a really big work competiotion and a small availability, thats why it is really hard to find a job. Does anyone know how many people have formal work in slums and how much they earn? And how does the government keep up with all these new people coming in and giving them work (Migration from rual areas)? The work they do in the slum is that informal working or does it count as formal working? Many thanks if someone could answer my questions… i am a bit confused

  • Denise doran - September 3, 2016 reply

    You should not have made a video when the conditions of the tour are not to do so. You say you are not benefitting financially but your site is a blog and if you choose to show content that people will not see elsewhere due, you are inviting more tradfic to your blog. If you a global traveller you should be a responsible one. I wont watch your video nor revisit your site.

  • Gina - July 31, 2016 reply

    I am just back from Mumbai, where I visited the Dharavi Slum as well. We spent some nights contemplation whether to do it (slum tourism, poverty porn…) or not, but decided to do a tour eventually. For me it was an eye opening and awareness thing. My perception was as exactly as Drew describes it, far worse than what I could have imagined from my standard European living perspective. I am still shocked about the extremely challenging working conditions in the commercial part, and the living conditions overall, that are daily normality for thousands (millions?) of people there. Children seemed happy, although playing sourrounded by dirt and rubbish, which showed me (again) that my perspective is not the ultimate measurement. The few women we saw in the residential part were beautiful and nicely dressed (in Indian Saris), which was a bit in (positive) contrast to all the rubbish an dirt. They were all watching us walking through their habitat, but they did not really care about us. This made us less uncomfortable with our tour. Overall, if you have the opportunity, visit such slum – it is necessary to confront us (here I mean everybody who had the luck to be born in rich countries like Europe and US, Australia, etc.) with such reality. Not that I can do a lot to change the Dharavi-Slum (or any orher slum), but we should at least be aware of it.

  • Augustine Naduvilekoot - June 21, 2016 reply

    I visited and worked in different slums of the world, such as Bombay, Rio de Janeiro: Parke Uniao, Jakarepagua, Nova Holanda, Baixa de Sapateiro, Mare, Villa de Joao, Rosinha, and so on. There are very good people and bad people, loving and helping even in poverty and in utter misery.
    Drug, violence and mafia -traffickers- many were my friends, but they never rob me nor attacked me. I loved them and they recognized and appreciated my work. But we have to ask this question, why they are poor ?. What & who made them poor?

  • Lillian - June 5, 2016 reply

    I live in Mumbai… I have heard so much about Daravi yet have never visited the area… must go

  • Daniel Hughes - June 3, 2016 reply

    wow! I really want to visit Dharavi! I’m going to use Dharavi as a case study in my geography essay to look at problems facing cities.

    Drew - June 14, 2016 reply

    Cool!

  • Paola - May 2, 2016 reply

    Amazing!! I stayed at Mumbai in 1989, I am italian…we only passed near the slum, going from the airport to our hotel. Not visited, but now i would like to get there. I read the book Shantaram, it’s really touching. Thank you for your post!

    Drew - May 3, 2016 reply

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Colin - April 20, 2016 reply

    Did the same tour from Reality Tours in November 2015. Really good job by them and their guides – a life changing experience. Enjoyed watching the video, brought back memories of it!

  • Arunlimbu - April 10, 2016 reply

    After studying your experiences in Mumbai dharavi. I can say that, the real face of life is not so easy what we see..

    Drew - April 15, 2016 reply

    Yes

  • Erika (teacher from NYC) - March 22, 2016 reply

    Hi, Drew. I appreciate your passion but I’m concerned that you missed what I thought was the point of this tour: dignity for Dharavi. Unlike Erik below, I don’t dismiss all “slum tourism.” I agree with you that this tour–which I took two weeks ago–is paradigm shifting and important. But your effort to “look beyond the stereotype” here gets lost in your sensationalism and pity (what Jess below calls “poverty porn”). You make Dharavi residents sound ignorant (“The slum locals don’t know any difference, because they’ve never seen the outside world. They only know and understand life in Dharavi”) and as if their purpose in life is to help us feel grateful (“Appreciate what you have because you could have been born into this”). When you were in Dharavi, did you notice the stream of neatly dressed commuters heading out as you entered? or meet residents at the community center who have jobs elsewhere in Mumbai but have to lie about where they live because of the stigma? Did you realize that one or both of your intelligent, thoughtful guides was probably from Dharavi? Reality Tours, an ethical organization that returns 80% of profits to the community, an organization you and I both support, is trying to help us respect Dharavi and the people who live there even as we also see the problems. I think you want to do that, too, but many of your flourishes (not to mention your casual violation of the privacy policy) are getting in the way. I agree with you that the living and working conditions in Dharavi are unacceptable for human beings, and I also felt some relief upon leaving, but that’s not a place to stop–that’s a place to start asking about how this injustice arose and how to correct it. You have a voice to call your fans to that questioning and that work. Please use it. Thanks for listening.

    Drew - March 22, 2016 reply

    Thanks for your thoughts, I will consider what I’ve written

    Henrique Koscheck - September 10, 2016 reply

    Erika, Drew clearly said that a number of urban professionals live in Dharavi due to the high living cost of Mumbai, and that this neighborhood is a place the city is going to invest, as there are potential growth for improvement. DId you read the article or skipped to his conclusions?

  • Jess - March 12, 2016 reply

    Not meaning to be disrespectful to you, but this is straight up ‘poverty porn’. Dharavi is so much more than deprivation, and posts like this just reduce it to just that. It’s a diverse place, a microcosm of Mumbai (or any lower middle income city) really. Filming people without their knowledge isn’t cool, especially with the intention of publishing that footage. There are MANY unacceptable problems in Dharavi without a doubt, and it’s important to raise awareness, but there are more respectful ways of doing so. PS. it’s not the world’s largest slum (second largest in Asia though), but that’s a really common misconception so hey.

    Drew - March 15, 2016 reply

    Thanks for your comment. The video was for my purpose to show people what it’s like, and I am not benefiting it (financially) or any other way. I wanted to show people that there is much more to Dharavi than what it seems from the outside — including all of the industrial aspects and factories. Thanks anwyays

    Henrique Koscheck - October 15, 2016 reply

    Hi Drew, could you please erase my message. I believe I didn’t express myself well enough in here. once you do I will write a short but better response against the notion of “poverty porn”. thanks!

    Henrique Koscheck - September 10, 2016 reply

    So, if I watch a Hollywood movie in Beverley Hills, will I get caught red handed by my grandmother watching “luxury porn”? Don’t we all love committing public indecency while walking along the halls of great shopping malls – the temples of luxury porn?

  • Anita - February 13, 2016 reply

    Hi everyone, I’m a student and my dissertation is about Dharavi slum, as I have been researching I found out that it is one of the biggest slums in the world, however, some recent articles say that it is no longer the case…can someone tell me why is that? and if it is true? my main focus is on sanitation and its impacts in the human health. Thank you.

    Drew - February 16, 2016 reply

    Apparently there is a slum in Mexico that is “bigger” in size

  • Anna Sonavane - January 19, 2016 reply

    Our brothers & sisters are living the life in worst in-hygienic circumstances. We talk about more comfort and Bullet trains. The residents in Dharavi are not idling but every house is working. At Least basic minimum facilities must be offered to them. Many recycling ideas can be learnt from the Dharavians. They are living with all odds. Let us know how to live under odd circumstances and still be productive. Entire Dharavi should be subdivided into suitable parts and improved logically by collective efforts. Nothing is difficult,What is required is to take the matter seriously above politics,parties and other walls.

    Drew - January 22, 2016 reply

    Thank you for your comment, Anna

  • Kamil Moses - January 11, 2016 reply

    Hey Drew, thanks for this post. I was actually trying to read about slum life coz I’m a student of architecture. But with this I saw this morning got me thinking about a lot. I’ve quite been ungrateful with some things, but this just change my perspective. Thanks again.

    Drew - January 14, 2016 reply

    My pleasure – thanks for the note

  • Vipul - December 23, 2015 reply

    Hey drew ,I’m from Delhi & I want to get slum living experience ,so I want to know that ,is that possible to got any room in dharavi slum ? For your kind information I’m a mechanical engineer by profession .

    Drew - December 24, 2015 reply

    What do you mean any room? To sleep or just for the tour?

    Judith - May 23, 2016 reply

    Please consider watching Kevin McCloud’s “Slumming It”, a British series (two episodes), available on youtube. He spends two weeks filming in Dharavi — with permission — and living with a family. Despite his initial culture shock, McCloud gives a sympathetic and insightful view of life in the area. He highlights the challenges people face, including poor sanitation, but emphasizes the intricate and complex social fabric that enables people to survive and, at times, even thrive. McCloud manages to convey the contrast between how residents see themselves and how they’re viewed by outsiders, including the elite of Mumbai . He suggests that in aiming to remove an “eyesore”, redevelopers are set to destroy functioning communities in a grab for land.

    Drew - May 25, 2016 reply

    Thanks for the suggestion

    Kati - June 20, 2016 reply

    I literally just finished watching that documentary for a case study for my ethics class. Kevin really did show ever fascist of life in Dharavi. I completely agree with Kevin. Yes Dharavi needs a major over hall with roads, toilets for every person, and take out all the trash to make it actually livable instead of people dying way to young; but to tear down something that was created organically from peoples need to work and live and be happy is completely repulsive. Progress isn’t always best.

  • Caitlin - December 2, 2015 reply

    Hey Drew,
    This is an amazing read thank you for documenting your experiences! I am traveling to Mumbai in February with my boyfriend and want to experience slum life as well. I was wondering how you felt in terms of safety. I know it’s a different climate over there for women and my boyfriend and I don’t have too much experience with travelling. However I think it’s a must to experience both sides of the city! Do you have any tips for safety in visiting Dharavi? Thanks in advance!

    Drew - December 9, 2015 reply

    Hey Caitlin, the tour is very safe. You will be guided with 2 tour guides the whole time. DOn’t worry about anything 🙂

    Drew

  • Ramona Kotur - November 10, 2015 reply

    Let’s hope the Dharavi slum redevelopment scheme sees the light of day and conditions improve dramatically for people living there. Good work, Drew, in bringing international attention to a terrible situation. Ramona, Paris.

    Drew - November 14, 2015 reply

    Thanks 🙂

  • INDIA: The Ultimate Travel Guide - The Hungry Partier - May 16, 2015 reply

    […] streets are very dirty. In some places, human feces are seen in alleys and in rivers (mostly in the slums). The smells of trash and urine are volatile.  The living conditions for many are unsanitary, […]

    Erik - November 3, 2015 reply

    Typical slum tourism. Not something to be commended.

    Drew - November 5, 2015 reply

    It’s not “tourism” and the money goes to charities for the slum

  • Amanda - April 14, 2015 reply

    Thanks for posting. It is eye opening and the video was good for my kids to see. Part of why I travel with them is so that they learn how other people live around the world and to appreciate what they have.

    Drew - April 15, 2015 reply

    That’s so great- I love that you show your kids that at a young age! I will most definitely do the same for my kids 🙂

    Cheers from the Taj Mahal (literally!)

    Drew

  • Bilna Sandeep - April 13, 2015 reply

    Wow!!! This post is simply amazing!! in fact its inspiring to see how they live a satisfied and productive life inspire of the tough living conditions..
    I have seen the place only in movies.. In fact the thought about the Mumbai slums always brought me shivers!! But this post is truly a different take!!

    Drew - April 15, 2015 reply

    Thank you Bilna!! I’m glad that you could connect with my experience 🙂

  • Natasha Amar - April 13, 2015 reply

    Great Post Drew! I lived in Mumbai for several years and passed by Dharavi everyday while commuting to work or other parts of Mumbai. When I was new to the city, I could not help but think how it was even possible to live like that. Slowly, I began to understand that the slum dwellers don’t know any different. But I believe they are better off in the villages and in occupations such as farming. When you live in Mumbai for a long time, you move beyond what is on the surface- like how lively and cosmopolitan the city is, how modern it is compared to other Indian cities and start looking at the many layers beneath. Then you begin to realize the problems rooted in the sprawling of slum colonies- lack of hygiene and sanitary conditions, inadequacy of public infrastructure and better business for the begging mafia.
    It’s really nice to see that you took this tour and attempted to get off the beaten track and explore a side of Mumbai that many would rather not look at. I agree that it really is eye-opening and makes you appreciate everything- the roof over your head, the meal on your plate and the fact that you can choose what to do for a living and not go to bed hungry.

    Drew - April 13, 2015 reply

    Natasha, thanks for sharing your story and opinions. I agree with everything you said! That’s cool that you lived in MUmbai. I would like to spend some more time there 🙂

  • John @ TravelerLife - April 13, 2015 reply

    Looks like it was an amazing and eye opening experience. Reminds me of my first trip to China as a child and my first experience with poverty. Before that I had never realized that there were people who lived without a home and all the comforts we take for granted in the US.

    Drew - April 13, 2015 reply

    Yes exactly the same experience. Thanks for sharing your story, John!

  • Katrina the Two Week Traveler - April 13, 2015 reply

    I’ve wanted to see it for myself after reading the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers which was excellent! I couldn’t begin to imagine living there and just reading the book made me appreciate my life and everything I have.

    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas - April 13, 2015 reply

    I was just about to suggest the book! I struggled with attending a slum or not when in India last year and ultimately decided not to. Thanks for giving me a visual idea of it!

    Drew - April 13, 2015 reply

    No prob, Cat! Next time you go to India, you should visit a slum. After all, they aren’t as bad as you think they are or what society makes them out to be 🙂

    Erik - November 3, 2015 reply

    This is a disgusting example of slum tourism. Visit a slum (at the expense of the degradation of those whose live’s you are casually visiting) to better about your own circumstances. I am perplexed how such people somehow feel they are doing something humanistic in this. In truth, it is shameful.

    Drew - November 5, 2015

    I disagree – It was very valuable to witness how millions of people live with my own two eyes, and it has made me more appreciative for the things I (we) have in life. I would recommend everyone I know to have this experience.

    Drew - April 13, 2015 reply

    Ahh I should read that book! I am hoooked on Shantaram at the moment though!

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