my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations

in which I visit the largest slum in Asia


Curious slum child - head shaved for lice

Curious slum child – head shaved for lice

Mumbai is certainly a city of contrasts. From the moment I arrived and saw Katherine Boo’s airport slum as described in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, it was impossible to escape all the pavement dwellers and beggars. The wretched of the earth, Frantz Fanon called them. It is heartbreaking to see hundreds of people camping on the streets, cooking, eating, sleeping, playing, and even laughing and joking. And yet a recent survey shows that Mumbai is ranked  6th in the world’s billionaire cities, with 26. Probably the richest of these is Amitabh Bachan or ‘AB’ as he is fondly known, who has built the most expensive tower block in the city – just to live in.

AB's monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it

AB’s monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it

Then there’s the Bollywood aspect. Everyone is star-struck: queues of people mob Shah Ruck Khan’s house (just below where I stayed at Bandra); he is the most popular star in the world  – his fans run into billions, as does his fortune!

extras - or starlets? - on set

extras – or starlets? – on set

When we came across a film crew on the sea front, the traffic (including us naturally) stopped to see who was there. ‘Ah that’s Abhay Diol – not a big star yet’ observed driver Mehtab, as we were chased away by officious security guards. I think he meant on Shah Ruck Khan scale as his bio reads as a major success story for a 37 year-old!

the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi

the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi

My week in Mumbai would not have been complete without a visit to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia and where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. We went with an NGO Reality Gives (, who invest 80% of the fees charged into projects to help women and children in particular, to provide schools, medical advice and care (especially on childbirth, birth control and disease). We are allowed into the slum only because we are with the charity – as a result there is a strict no photo policy although friend Cindy as a three-tour veteran is allowed to take surreptitious shots so long as she doesn’t look through the viewfinder…so some of the photos here are taken from waist height and through pot luck!



Our 19-year-old guide, Deya has his own sad tale: mother desperately ill and he was being laid off the next week, prior to the monsoon. Life is tough in India.

After an early breakfast at Leopold’s, made famous by Shantaram, we met our fellow visitors, a South African couple, the Butcher of Hermanus and his wife, both died-in-the-wool Afrikaners; totally uneducated and therefore interesting they had chosen to come. Many comparisons all day to Khayelitsha…of a rather superficial nature it has to be said.

the dhobi ghats

the dhobi ghats

Our route to the slum took us via the dhobi ghats where the city’s laundry is done by 5000 migrant men in tiny booths, earning $3 a day; and the red light district where we craned our necks for prostitutes, obvious through their fancy clothes and heavily-made-up faces. 9 am is a little early for a working girl, however, and those we did see were camera shy.

We learned that a girl is bought for Rupees 30-40,000 and then spends her life trying to repay her buyer with her work. With a fee of as little as Rupees 250 a time it can take forever, and their forever is now about 39 years old. HIV ad AIDS is endemic; we learned from a Canadian woman, who works with their children, that they have had to give up on the mothers as they are simply not interested or able to be helped.

snapped these two shy prostitutes

snapped these two shy prostitutes

But their kids at least have a chance, although once the stigma of being a prostitute’s child is known, they often have to change school.

Deya knew his stuff all right and the facts are incredible. Dharavi is over 170 years old and was built on a mangrove swamp; it covers an area o175 sq km and is home to over 1m people. As 55% of people in Mumbai live in a slum it is not surprising that Dharavi contributes $665m to Mumbai’s productivity a year, thorough 10,000 businesses. How? You might well ask.

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Plastic being sorted on the roof ready for melting down and being made into tiny beads for re-selling

If you have read Boo’s fascinating account of life in the airport slum (Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) you will know that recycling is the key to it all. It seems all Mumbai’s waste (in fact 80% is recycled) arrives in Dharavi – bottle tops and aluminum for smelting in giant vats; plastic – not just bottles, but chairs and large items are made into tiny beads and are put in enormous sacks; paint tins are painstakingly stripped of labels and scrubbed; iron is put in cauldrons over a furnace and is made into ingots. All of this is carried out in dingy, airless rooms, with toxic fumes and no mind to health and safety.

sorting the aluminium

sorting the aluminium

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Sitting in a sea of plastic recycling

The workers are peasant farmers from Uttar Pradesh who migrate to the slum for 9 months of the year, returning only during the monsoon for planting. They work 12 hours a day, eat and sleep in these cells, leaving only to defecate, either in one of the disgusting public loos, or in the ‘air-conditioned’ toilet in the mangrove swamps. Plastic workers earn $2-3 per day; the iron crushers $4. But with 2012 seeing the worst drought of recent years, these men have little choice if they are to support their families and buy seeds for the planting season. The rate of suicides in agrarian communities caused by debt has never been higher.

There are other industries too – cloth dyers, potters, tailors and tanners – the largest leather works in India is in Dharavi.

Leaving the industrial area for the domestic quarters seemed like a relief – at least we were not being roasted by open fires and by the sun, which was burning in the high 30s. First we entered the Muslim area, where there were home industries such as bakeries (supplying the whole of India and even exported!) and a disgusting black soap made from unmentionable ingredients judging from the smell. But the streets were narrow, over open sewers and, in some cases, completely dark. Kids were everywhere, including a smiling but severely handicapped boy who reminded us of ET, with bulging eyes and shrivelled legs. He was being lovingly cared for by his older sister.

The elder siblings are often the carers

The elder siblings are often the carers

On the odd street corner there was a tiny shop, its plastic glittering in the dark. We wound round and round until we came to an open area – which was in effect a rubbish tip of smouldering, stinking detritus, with young boys playing a boisterous game of cricket and some even younger kids playing shop, making little pies out of dust and piling them high. Facing on to this nightmare were the public loos; the smell was stomach turning.

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Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking rubbish heap

On, on we went, stopping to step over two dead rats, over open sewers, alleys awash with rubbish and stagnant water, pausing by the slaughter house which even the Butcher declined to enter – the smell of rotting and recently killed meat proving too much for him. ‘I don’t actually kill the animals – I only cut them up’, he told us.

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Muslim boys on their way to Friday prayers

Now we were in the Hindu area, houses slightly larger – these are the homes of the millionaires we were told. Larger than the standard 10sq meters, which rent at $60 pm or can be bought for the equivalent of R1m (£12,000), some had several floors. ‘The millionaires are happy here as the authorities don’t come; they don’t pay tax, and they choose to live here because of the sense of community; many have lived here for generations,’ Deya told us. In fact only 4% of the population pays tax, but some of these guys probably should!

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Bicycles are about all that can pass in the streets

The Hindu women’s home industry is papadom-making, rolling them out after expertly snipping just the right amount from the long dough sausage using a toe, one hand and some string. Then they are put out to dry in the sun. While we watched a small girl decided to squat over an open drain and do her business, right next to the drying papadoms; father then came to rinse her off – meanwhile she started helping herself to some of the drying condiments. ‘These are sold all over India’. Yikes! Never will I eat one again without ascertaining where it is made. We were all rather revolted by this episode it has to be said. But it is normal life in Dharavi…

Pots drying in the GUjerati area

Pots drying in the Gujerati area

Ironing is a profession

Ironing is a profession

From there we made our way through the Tamil area, which was mostly shops, including those selling alcohol and, finally, to the Gujarati potters, who are churning out earthenware water and milk containers on their wheels, which are then baked in extremely hot kilns. Again a cottage industry.

It’s hard to describe the vibrancy of it all – the people milling around, the naughty children giving you high fives: ‘Hi, Hi,’ they all shout and wave as we wander by. The women, whether in Shalwar Khameez or sari, looking colourful, but most appear careworn and tired, either thin or with the obesity of poverty. I am not surprised – a woman’s life is very hard, whether on the street or in the slum. They are hugely outnumbered by men, and seem to have an endless supply of children who all need looking after, and all of this in addition to their work.

goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling

goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling

Animals are everywhere – goats, chickens, cats, rats – dead and alive; the occasional vicious dog rushing at us. Satellite dishes abound, and many houses have TV blaring out at us. In modern India it is a must-have for family life, and brightens the lives of the generations who share one small room, complete with a washing area and a cooking area, leaving room only for nose to tail sleeping.

Dharavi is an extraordinary place, a city within a city, self-sufficient in all ways, with no need for its dwellers to leave. But it is unsanitary and filthy, a poisonous hive of activity, however much its inhabitants purport to love it.

PS I added a few of Cindy’s nice shots into the Gallery – thanks Cindy for letting me use some of your photos for this blog. It would have been dull without it. And thank you for being such a good hostess!

outskirts of Dharavi

outskirts of Dharavi

a rather wider slum street!
a rather wider slum street

Author: vickyunwin

I am a writer and traveller. Our darling daughter Louise died on 2 March 2011, aged 21 ( and I started writing as therapy. We never know how long we have on this earth, so I live for every November 2013 I was diagnosed and operated on for a malignant soft tissue sarcoma in the calf, followed by 6.5 weeks of radiotherapy, so am embarking on a different kind of journey which you can follow here. I also have another site with my blueprint for health and well-being.

5 thoughts on “in which I visit the largest slum in Asia

  1. So evocative Vicks- you really gave a flavour of the colours and liveliness as well as the stench and press of humanity in Dharavi- what a privilege to have visited, Fi xx

  2. Enjoying your blog, Vicky, but missing your company! Back in the UK – my epic 34 week Australian project is finally over… xxx

  3. well done you Marion for such an epic stint…I am back on 19 June for 5 weeks so we will definitely have a catch up

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