lunes, 19 de diciembre de 2016

Dharavi tour: a different perspective of the slum area in Mumbai

A plastic paper kite is grabbed by a 8 years old child, laughing out loud while running on bare foot in Dharavi Slum. The brightness of his smile caught my eye and still sticks in my mind as one of the most touching event I have seen during these days in Mumbai. I came back home with a weird mixture of feeling and a great sense of hope.

The word “slum” evokes the picture of a dirty and dusty place full of waste and surrounded by open air sewage, high level of criminality, poverty and sadness. A part of this list can be true. However, there is still an unknown side of the slum because locals avoid these areas and tourist are prevented or warned from passing through them. In order to turn around prejudices towards Dharavi slum and its inhabitants, the tour company named Reality Tours & Travel was founded in August 2005.

In January 2006 the first Dharavi tour was run by Krishna Pujari, son of rice farmers from Karnataka and Chris Way: a UK citizen volunteering in Mumbai. One of the main objective of the guided tour I took part in Dharavi slum is promoting a better and more realistic idea of the activities and life of people living there.

Dharavi as an organized social and economic system

Mumbai is also known as “the maximum city” after the success of the book Maximum City, by Suketu Mehta, because of its excesses and paradoxes. Excess in the population size, in the capability to deal with a tiny living space, excess of traffic and pollution and the paradox to host number of high tech enterprises and the largest slum in Asia.

Dharavi is a shanty or slum area located on the outskirts of Sion, Bandra, Kurla and Kalina in Mumbai, covering an area of 1.7 km². The first migrants settled in this area in 1882 and to the present day it is one of the largest slums in the world and the largest in Asia, with an estimated population of over 1 million and 600,000. Beyond the record in the population per unit area (the population density of Dharavi is around 293,000 people per square kilometer), it is the only slum in the country which has turned into an open air business area. 

Before India achieved independence from the British Empire in 1947 so far, young men have been moving from the north of the State to live and work in the suburbs of Mumbai during the monsoon and they go back home in summer, the best period for the agriculture. In the last decades, Dharavi slum area became the new destination for thousands of workers. It is the 0 km plastic yard.

This cartel seems as a warning, maybe an accusation, or something to be proud of. Here, all the plastic waste which is thrown in the trash comes and accumulates. This plastic trash, is mainly coming from the West of the world.Here the idea came: why not to make a great business out of all this trash? This is exactly what locals living here decided to do.
They found their way to recycle and reduce the plastic items in small pieces to be sold again in the market. It is a long process which requires strength, patience and good lungs. In fact, apart from some machinery built to support man's work, everything is destroyed and rebuilt on bare hands. Honestly, the working conditions are against any minimum level, however the result is the fruitful re-use of what is commonly considered as waste. And incomes for men living or moving in Dharavi to work and their families.

Dharavi looks like a system perfectly organized within a little space for so many people: there is the working area for men and the residential area where women live. The working area is divided according to the origin, culture or religion of the population: Muslims are dedicated to the food provision and leather industry; maharashtrians (people from the region of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is the capital) are house painters; Gujarati (people from the region of Gujarat) makes pottery by working the clay. Women make themselves busy by cooking, selling a special bread without yeast known as papaad or papadum.

And, of course, by chatting and gossiping about the neighborhood. The sense of community and closeness can be felt also through the loud voices of these women and girls, who are left alone by their men working all day long. They need to forget about their loneliness, they need to feel close one to the other.

Slum improvement or community destruction?

Government's decision to clean up slum areas put the equilibrium built in decades of co-existence among slum dwellers in great risk. The Slum Act enacted in 1992 provided for the “Slum Improvement and Resettlement Program sites which have not yet been acquired".It was decided that 2000 slums in Mumbai were enough. People had to move in buildings following a plan aiming at reducing the slum size in width and forcing the growth of the city in height. 

Beside the fact that there was no renting to be paid and the house had private toilets (Dharavi provides almost 700 public toilets in total, an average of 1 toilet every 2 thousand people), people did not want to move. But under the threat of destroying their shanties, thus, to be homeless if they insisted to stay in the slum, entire families were forced to move: men leaving their wives and children alone all day, sometimes nights, or weeks to go to work in the slum. These women started suffering from bad depression as a consequence, a new sickness caused by life in solitude.

A lesson of community life
New building are now created in such a manner to have long corridors on every floor, in order to recreate the environment of closeness and door by door style of life. The slum of Dharavi is considered as “a city in the city” or best said, the rejected part of the city. Its inhabitants have managed to create a well organized economic and social system by giving value to the plastic scrap western countries have sent here. At the same time, they are trying to redeem themselves in front of the prejudices which mark them.

While walking through the narrows, almost suffocating alleys of the slum, I could explore the indoor of the small houses because every door was open. Every single woman was busy in doing something, but never too busy to refuse a talk with her neighbors. I perceived a strong sense of community; a different, amazing closeness of hearts more than of bodies. A lifestyle I cannot understand but perhaps, from my silent fourth floor apartment, I envy a little.

Reality Tours&Travel has a strict no-photography policy in the slum to ensure the privacy of the residents, therefore the images added to the article are taken from its official website.

An article by the journalist and collaborator in Mumbay, Silvia Simonetta.

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