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The tour of the Dharavi slum (yes, the one from Slumdog Millionaire), was our Mumbai highlight. ‘Paying for someone to show you round the poorest parts of a city, isn’t that a bit crass?’ I hear you say… Well, this is something we wrestled with and researched and discussed. I mean, the English equivalent would be tourists paying to take a tour of some of Tower Hamlets grittiest council estates. That would be weird.

However, we found a tour company, Reality Tours, that was run from within Dharavi, by people that live or have lived there and the majority of the profits are ploughed back into projects in the slums. Any doubts and concerns about voyeurism quickly wore off when we met our guide and he explained the importance of the tours for him, personally. He too had lived in Dharavi and wanted people to understand that it’s not all jumping into pits of poo as depicted in Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, most Indians we have talked to were unhappy with the film, to them it’s an unbalanced portrayal of India as a poor, dirty and dangerous country.

The morning we spent in Dharvari was an astonishing and humbling experience. Home to nearly 1 million people in roughly 500 acres, it is one of the world’s biggest slums. Yes, people are living in extreme conditions, but it is alive with industry and ingenuity. The annual turnover is estimated at 500 million USD.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

The slum is divided into toxic and non-toxic areas. Certainly the toxic area was the most shocking in terms of the methods and lengths people are going to to earn some of those 500 million dollars. Absolutely nothing is wasted here: old oil drums are stripped, cleaned, repainted and sold back to the fuel companies; plastic bottles, toys, household objects, well plastic anything really is hand sorted, broken down, melted and re-set into small colourful pellets, washed and then dried in the sun by people raking it with their feet on the roofs, before being sold back to manufacturers; and aluminium is melted down in make-shift furnaces in dark rooms with almost zero ventilation, poured and set into bouillon blocks and sold within the slum for business to melt and re-use to make machine parts. The smell and heat in the aluminium furnace was overwhelming, like something out of a post-apocalyptic film or a Victorian factory.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

The non-toxic area is home to pottery, leather and catering industries. Pastry buns are made, baked and then distributed to the whole of Mumbai (though without mentioning that they were made in a slum). We saw clay being softened by men walking up and down in bare feet then made into a variety of pots and baked in brick kilns.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

Sure, these people are living in over crowded conditions with little or no infrastructure – one toilet block serves over 1000 residents and it sure ain’t pretty. The walkways between houses is one person wide making privacy an unobtainable luxury and it is incredibly overwhelming. However, the over riding impression in the residential area is that of cleanliness – the glimpses we had through the curtained doorways were of freshly scrubbed floors and pot plants. Games of cricket were taking place in the open spaces, women washing clothes then smacking them dry on flat rocks and children peeked out of doorways waving and saying ‘hello’.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

Towards the end of our tour we visited a school which the profits of our tour had helped to build and run. A dance class was taking place and children of all ages were watching intently trying to learn the latest moves. To say it was cute was a massive understatement.

Understandably we were not able to take photographs during the tour, but we did buy some postcards and these are the images you can see in this post.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

During our short stay in Mumbai we also drank a tower of beer in the infamous Leopald’s Cafe, as featured in the best-selling novel, Shantaram, queued with thousands of Indian tourists to see the Gateway of India, saw thousands of sheets, pairs of jeans and shirts drying at the city’s biggest laundry and visited the station featured in the final scenes of Slumdog Millionaire and designed by the same dude who built St. Pancras, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. 

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