An apartment block in Mumbai, India. (Shashank Bengali / Los Angeles Times )


Column: Inside Mumbai

Through the streets of Dharavi, at the center of Mumbai is a vibrant culture, though many people struggle to make ends meet.
<a href="" target="_self">Sara Bonaparte</a>

Sara Bonaparte

September 25, 2023
The megacity of Mumbai, India’s economic and financial center, owns two records: the highest number of millionaires and billionaires and also the biggest slum in the whole Asia, Dharavi. For many, the city of Bollywood is the embodiment of the Indian Dream, but is it really?

I came across Dharavi when I first watched a YouTube video by Project Happiness. The people featured in the video captivated and inspired me to write this piece, especially the children and women, through their hard-work, kindness and altruism. After learning about the culture and the socio-political situation there, I knew I wanted to give a voice to thousands whose human rights are continuously violated.

Here, extreme success and misery cohabit: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. From lavish restaurants, luxury shops, apartments and skyscrapers (including the second most expensive house in the world after Buckingham Palace, called Antilia) for the super rich, to a labyrinth of poorly-constructed, overlapping houses with only a few square meters of space, the former Bombay shows a complex variety of lifestyles.

In the slums, catching a glimpse of amusement and joy through children’s eyes and actions is very simple, despite the bad smell due to open sewers which overwhelm air, proper drainage system, the scarcity of clean drinking water and among others, poverty. Through the streets, some kids happily play cricket and create competitions with painted-wings pigeons. Schooling never stops: even in the small factories, where teenagers can master their future job. Dharavi is in fact home to hundreds of thousands of small-scale manufacturing units, for example plastic recycling, garments, leather and more. 

While more than 22 million people live in Mumbai, 60% of them still live in the slums, according to Reuters. However, the treatment reserved to slums area residents as second-class citizens is significant. 

Mumbai residents living outside of the slums area said in an interview on the YouTube Channel “the Asian Boss,” “If I meet someone that is coming from a slum area, my first thought would be, that the guy is not well-dressed, not well-groomed and his language is not going to be proper. It’s going to be full of slang.” 

Because of these stereotypes, getting an admission into a competitive school or finding a job may be hard, they also said. A preschool teacher in Dharavi named Fareesa explained that once parents settle in the slums, they work hard only to give their kids the best education, so they won’t face the same difficulties they had to face from living in the slum. But some of them are rejected by private schools, only because they are from the slum area, no matter their academic achievements.

The stereotype and the perception of people living in Dharavi as “filthy” is also pointed out during the interview. Still, this is due to the lack in the majority of slum houses of sanitary and water supplies. A basic right that every human being should have. In agreement with India’s Swachh Abhiyaan one toilet seat should not be used by more than 25 women and 30 men. However, according to surveys by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in Dharavi there is estimated to be one toilet per 190 people

“All political parties come here using the water issue as their trump card,” Syed Lateef told the Guardian in a 2017 story. “All of them say that when they come to power, water issues will be resolved. Water pipes have been installed and reinstalled, but we don’t get water. We buy it.”

Additionally, public toilets are collapsing: 58 percent lack electricity and many don’t even have proper doors or facilities for women to dispose of sanitary pads, which are becoming harder to afford in the slums. In fact, “Disposing them off was a very big problem as the garbage is not cleared regularly,” 20-year-old Rupali Kadam told the Hindustan Times. Having menstruations is not a choice and women from the slums are well aware of this. The government should guarantee free sanitary napkins to women in need and protect their health. As reported by the Hindustan Times, in 2018 a group of 10 women started stitching reusable period pads with the support, through workshops, of a non-governmental organization named Dharavi Diary.

Through their perseverance, strength and initiative they deeply inspired me: the more I learned about their stories, the more I was fascinated by the beauty of this world. Behind the word “slum” everything is not how you think it is. But one thing is for sure: the hunger for success for the super-rich and the economical struggle of the poorest in the slums remain the true paradox of The City of Dreams.