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Slumming it in Mumbai

Our close-up look at how half of the city lives

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I thought I wouldn’t have time to write anything about Mumbai when I was actually in Mumbai – and I was right. But it still seemed wrong to leave the blog dangling without covering the final destination, especially when it’s such a vibrant, chaotic place where so many unusual experiences are possible.

We arrived in Mumbai about a week ago via the overnight train from Goa. We had booked first-class tickets, since there were none left in second class, so we had a four-berth, lockable compartment all to ourselves. We were feeling fortunate indeed, since when we booked the tickets, there were only three left and we were waitlisted for the fourth. Sitting pretty in first place on the waitlist, we figured we were golden; but after a full month of waiting, we were still waitlisted, and were starting to think we would have to simply board the train on the day of departure and then fork over a little baksheesh to persuade the conductor to let us keep Ciaran (who had the waitlisted ticket) in the compartment with us. But as it happened, Ciaran moved up the list to a confirmed ticket two days before the journey, so everything went smoothly.

The first-class compartment was the epitome of faded glory. Spectacularly comfortable by Indian train standards, with spacious berths, a private sink and a door that locked, it nonetheless bore the evidence of years of hard use – faded upholstery, sticky floor, dirt in every crack and crevice, sink looking a little the worse for wear, window too smudged to see much out of. We asked ourselves the question that does seem to come up so often when you travel in India: Since labour is so mind-bendingly cheap (the average wage amounts to about $3 or $4 a day), would it really kill this hotel/railway company/restaurant/bus company to just run a rag over things every so often??

The kids, however, thought our compartment was fabulous, and slept well, as they always do, arriving at Mumbai central station at 6 a.m. the next day rested and ready for adventure. We began by piling our backpacks in a heap and staking a claim to two chairs in the massive, packed, chaotic waiting lounge until the sun came up. We planned on walking to our hotel, and didn’t want to try finding it in the dark. Watching the ongoing scene unfolding all around us made the time fly by. Apparently this station serves 2.5 million people every day. It has more than 80 platforms. The sheer volume and variety of people and belongings all around us made for topnotch people watching, and I spent a good part of the hour feeling thankful that we were arriving at, rather than departing from, this station. It’s confusing enough when a station has five platforms, let alone 80. Ciaran spent the entire time with my sunhat pulled tightly down over his face to prevent friendly passersby from trying to grope his hair.

We had just three days in Mumbai. Rather than rattle on about our every move, I’ll focus on the highlight: our visit to Dharavi, Mumbai’s (and Asia’s) largest slum. I’d like to say we did this on our own and simply strolled around, but we’re just not that intrepid and, of course, we didn’t have our own wheels. We had heard about a Mumbai company, Reality Tours, that offers a so-called “slum tour.” Although that sounds obnoxiously voyeuristic, it was actually just the opposite. Reality Tours uses some of the proceeds from its tours to effect positive change in the slum, and has recently built a new kindergarten there. It also runs a community centre where English and computer skills are taught. Reality Tours says it is trying to dispel the myth that all people who live in slums are impoverished, uneducated and shockingly poor. Although this is no doubt true for many people and slums, Dharavi—a 1.75 square kilometre area that is home to a million people—is also a hive of economic activity, a place where more than 10,000 different types of products are manufactured. Nobody in it is living there for free; most pay rent in the order of 1,500 to 2,000 rupees per month ($30 to $40). We decided that after so many weeks spent on India’s beaches, a close-up look at Dharavi would be eye-opening and educational for all of us. It is estimated that 55 per cent of Mumbai’s 23 million residents live in slums, and we wanted to get away from the usual tourist traps and take a closer look at this other side of the city.

Leaving our hotel with our guide, Ganesh, we drove towards Dharavi along a route that took us past several other fascinating parts of Mumbai. First there was the red-light district, where we learned that many of the girls and women working there are sold by their parents to traffickers. The parents are typically very poor people living in villages where jobs are scarce; traffickers can persuade them to let go of their young daughters by convincing them that a good job is waiting for these girls in the big smoke. But the women become the property of their pimps, and are kept indoors nearly all of the time, in brothels, until years have gone by and they’ve earned their freedom. After that, they can stand on the street and solicit for themselves—the traffickers permit this because they know the women will rarely try to leave, said Ganesh, understanding that they would not be accepted back by their families and lacking both the skills to do other work and the self-esteem to pursue training.

As a side note, I had earlier requested that we skip this part of the tour, seeing as how it wouldn’t be appropriate for the kids—but I guess Ganesh didn’t get the memo! We let him offer all of this information without prompting him for very much more. Mark did, however, ask about the going rate for a prostitute: 150 rupees (about $3). Not much, but roughly equivalent to a full day’s pay for the average worker.

After that, we were headed to the dhobi ghat, Mumbai’s giant manual laundry machine. Here, more than 2,000 workers wash more than 300,000 pieces of laundry in small, open-air cement cubicles every day. From the bridge over the ghat, we watched them beating the crap out of piece after piece of laundry while clean, wet clothes and towels dried on lines strung up all over the place. Much of Mumbai’s laundry comes here—the ghat services hotels, hospitals and residences. The minimum charge for any piece of laundry is 5 rupees, about a penny. Most of the workers also live at the ghat in small shelters near the 7,000 washing cubicles. It’s not much of a life—but the increased use of washing machines in Mumbai is actually not good news for these workers, according to Ganesh; it’s slowly putting them out of work.

After that, we drove along several blocks occupied by “pavement dwellers,” people living in permanent ramshackle tents and shelters set up on the sidewalks. This living situation is actually a step down from slum living, since the pavement dwellers have no access to city or government services like water, electricity, sanitation or medical care. I was reminded of the unfortunate characters in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. We also went by “Labour Junction,” a corner where hundreds of unemployed men hoping for a day’s work wait for large trucks to pull up in search of manual labour for the day. The rate of pay for 10-12 hours of hard labour—and you never know what you’ll be doing before you jump into the back of the truck—is, again, about 150 rupees.

Finally we arrived at Dharavi, where we would spend the next two or three hours wandering through labyrinthine alleys to see how and where people live and work. As expected, the homes, such as they were, were tiny, cramped and overpopulated; the section we visited had 6 toilets for 1,500 people. The slum receives running water just three hours a day, requiring residents to store it, if they can. We started with a look at some of the industries that have sprung up in the slum, from cloth dyeing to recycling to pastry-making and pottery. For the most part, everyone was very friendly; we received a lot of curious looks and a good number of smiles and waves. Ganesh seemed to be on very good terms with a number of people in different areas of the slum, and it turned out his sister teaches at one of Dharavi’s elementary schools, which we also visited.

The main thing that struck us about all the industry was the lack of protection for the workers. People were busy melting paint off of paint cans for recycling, melting aluminum and plastic products, boiling the oil from food-oil cans for reuse—all without benefit of face masks, gloves or any other kind of protection. The smoke coming from the aluminimum, plastic and paint-can recycling areas was absolutely toxic. We were standing a good 20 feet away, and found breathing difficult. I commented on the lack of masks, and Ganesh said even if someone was to provide them, the workers would refuse to use them. It’s just too hot inside where all the melting takes place (which was certainly true), and in any case, he said it is very difficult to get the workers to appreciate the hazards. “They’ll just tell you, ‘I’m only working here for five or 10 years, it doesn’t matter,’” he said.

Everywhere we walked, we were struck by the lack of beggars and hawkers. Although the slum was cramped, hot, often unsanitary and didn’t smell very good—Ciaran spent the entire morning with his shirt pulled up over his nose—we didn’t see very many people looking miserable. Ganesh seemed proud to show us around. He explained that part of the reason for Mumbai’s extensive slums is its sky-high real estate prices. Even people with regular jobs and average salaries often cannot afford to buy or rent anything very desirable, so a spot in a slum such as Dharavi is not necessarily undesirable compared to the alternatives. As a government-sanctioned slum, it is safe from any threat of demolition and receives electricity and city water.

Still, said Ganesh, disease is an intractable problem in the circumstances; typhoid, hepatitis, cholera and other illnesses are not uncommon.

It’s difficult to describe everything we saw and learned from Ganesh that morning and be concise at the same time; he was a fount of information about the history of Mumbai’s various slums, the government schemes to improve or eradicate them over the past decades, and the current conditions and statistics. One thing he mentioned that stood out concerns a current government policy whereby a slum house that has existed since before 1995 can no longer be demolished by the city unless the city replaces it with a 225-square-foot flat for the owner. But according to Ganesh, most times when this happens, the occupant will rent out the new flat and set up camp elsewhere in the slum again.

After several hours of traipsing through Dharavi, we were all ready for some hand washing and a lunch break. The afternoon was spent on more conventional sight-seeing; we took in Mahalaxmi Temple, the Haj Ali, Nehru Park, the Ghandi museum and a Jain temple before returning to the Fort area for some dinner.

Leaving Mumbai the next evening near 10 p.m. was also unforgettable. The ride to the airport took nearly two hours, and was by far the most dangerous, suicidal driving experience we enjoyed in our entire six months of travelling. The driver put all of our bags in the front passenger seat and asked the four of us to squeeze together in the back, so Ciaran rode on my lap the entire way. When he fell asleep, it became my job to stop his lolling head from being flung right off his body during the many sharp swerves, sudden stops and near misses. Our driver would hurtle at top speed down sections of highway, weaving violently in and out of lanes, leaning on the horn and aggressively cutting off rickshaws, tractor-trailers and buses when it looked like they might want to get ahead of us, only to come to a screeching, smoking stop when the traffic ahead of us slowed down suddenly—as it frequently did.

I put all thoughts of sudden death out of my mind by watching everything that went by on the side of the road, and there was no shortage of arresting sights. We sped past a funeral procession where nearly 100 men were following a flower-adorned casket borne on the shoulders of several other men—yes, on the multi-lane highway; we went by a fire in a tiny, two-storey rowhouse that was being watched by hundreds of people who spilled over onto the highway. It was interesting just to watch the various neighbourhoods fly by along the side of the road during our final two hours in Asia.

When we arrived at the airport all in one piece, we were grateful for the miracle and I, for one, wondered about the general life expectancy of Mumbai cab drivers.

Posted by The Rymans 06:16 Archived in India Tagged family_travel

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