It finally happened. After the shoot getting postponed day after day, we set the schedule for Monday morning. I meet Vinay, my assistant, at the train station, then meet Eva on a bridge by Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai and India, and one of the largest in Asia. Spread out over 175 hectares, or 0.67 square miles, nearly 1 million people cram into this relatively small space making it one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world.
I was asked to keep my camera in my bag for the majority of the ‘tour’ of the slums so that the people don’t feel like a spectacle or caged animals. This is frustrating because there is a lot to photograph. When I saw this scene, I could not help but getting out my camera.
There’s more to the story! More Photos! Keep reading –>
With a guide from Reality Tours and Travels, Vinay and I see the innards of Dharavi. The tour is basically a set course that all of the tours follow, going through specific districts to see specific things. We enter an industrial area where all kinds of plastics are recycled. If you’re in Mumbai and ever wonder where all the plastic bottles magically disappear to, this is it. (It is somewhat amazing, with all the trash that is around the city, there are rarely any plastic bottles. And when I set my trash out for pick up, my plastic bottles are always the first to disappear.)
All the unsorted plastic is brought from all over the city in gigantic bags to this place where it is sorted by quality. After it is sorted it is shredded into bits, washed and laid out to dry. They melt down the plastics, die them different colors, and send it through a strainer creating long spaghetti-like strings that are then chopped into little pellets that are sold to plastic molders around the country.
The workers make something like 150 rupees a day, or $3, and most sleep in the factories unless they have a family in Dharavi. A lot of immigrants from other states come directly to Dharavi when reaching Mumbai, and many come without their families.
Other factories make parts for machinery or the machines themselves. Some take vegetable oil cans and refurbish them for re-use. We also tasted and saw the best known bakery in Dharavi. Pretty good. But Dharavi isn’t just factories, a LOT of people live here. Getting into the housing areas you enter extremely narrow alleyways, my shoulders scraping both walls. Wires hang everywhere delivering electricity and cable TV to most of the homes. I would have to stoop low to get through any of the doorways. The individual dwellings are not large, with many people sleeping in the same living space. Even the it is a sunny day, almost no natural light makes its way into the alleys. BUT the people smile. They laugh. They have a place to sleep, they have a job, they have their families. Of course they desire more, but they make the best of their situations. Certain people groups live in certain areas. The Muslims here, the Hindus here, the Madrasi (people from the south) live in this block and make pottery. They are very tight nit and they protect each other. We could not continue in down one alley because of a wedding celebration blocking the way, so we found another way around. Dharavi is a maze, I am glad to have had a guide. Also I found myself relieved every time we popped out of the dark alleyways, able to breathe again. I wouldn’t say I am claustrophobic, but it was stressful being in that tight of conditions.
When I think of slums, I think back to my time in Uganda. Tattered tents and lean-tos sitting on top of mud and garbage. People just sitting about swatting flies and mosquitoes. That is not the case here. The homes are mostly solid and have electricity. The people work; it is estimated that exports from Dharavi are worth around $650million USD every year. Though many areas have running water only two hours a day and 1 toilet per however many people (some areas I think were around 70-1), Dharavi is productive. It is not ideal and things are changing, but it is not the worst of the worst. The government is developing multistory housing that residents can take for very cheap if they can prove they have lived in Dharavi since before 2000. Many areas are starting to look like most other parts of the city.
Back to the school.
Eva takes us to a school that was started by the company, Reality Cares, and uses new education theory. I’m not sure of the details, but it involves teachers sitting on the ground with the children and everything being done in circles. At the lower levels all the children sit on the floor, but as they grow older they graduate into chairs. If you are interested in finding out more, check out this website, www.muktanganedu.org. Right now the school is just one classroom of kinder-gardeners, but the school will grow with the children, next year adding 1st grade, in two years adding 2nd grade and so on.
I took these photos partly for ATMA, the NGO that supports all the other education NGOs and schools in its program, and partly for Reality Cares. ATMA is trying to stretch my commitment to volunteer to its limits…
This girl was so funny/cute when she was eating. One picture couldn’t capture it all.