Dharavi, India’s largest slum, has recently topped the list of favourite tourist locations in India. One of the most densely populated areas in the world, which has an area of just around 2 square kilometres has effectively become a major tourist hotspot.
The history of Dharavi dates back to the 18th century when it was not even a slum back then, but an island with a chiefly mangrove swamp. It became a sparsely populated village right before the late 19th century when it was primarily inhabited by the Koli fishermen. Back then Dharavi was known as ‘Koliwada’ as the home of the Kolis. After decades of growth under the British Raj, the Tannery industry which was considered Mumbai’s most polluting was shifted to Dharavi. As it was a leather-based industry, the people who worked in it were usually lower caste Hindus and Muslims, who started moving into Dharavi. Over time people from different ethnicities and states from all over India began to move into Dharavi and settle it. During India’s independence in 1947, Dharavi had grown and was already the country’s biggest slum. In the latter years, there were many plans proposed for Dharavi’s redevelopment but many of them were non-starters due to a lack of financial and political support and since have poor infrastructure and lack of sanitation facilities, which have been improved significantly.
Dharavi’s location makes it a junction as it is located right between Mumbai’s Central and Western railway lines. The localities of Mahim and Bandra surround Dharavi. Due to its poor drainage and sewage facilities Dharavi is vulnerable to floods every year. Being one of the largest slums in the world, living in Dharavi is very confined and it is overpopulated.
The recycling and waste processing industries are thriving in Dharavi providing employment to thousands of people living there. There are many street markets where local artisans display their handwoven textiles, leather goods, ceramics, pottery craftsmen etc. It is home to thousands of businesses and generates millions in revenue every year. Not only that, but Tourism has started to become a major part of the economy.
There are many local tour operators who provide guided tours of Dharavi, showing and explaining the problems and challenges its residents to face every day. Many foreign and Desi tourists alike are flocking Dharavi too, eager to visit the area which has been a backdrop of a number of western movies, most notably in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire(2008). It has also been depicted in many Bollywood movies like the much appreciated Gully Boy(2019) and has been a subject of various Western documentaries and Pulitzer prize-winning books. Many tourists who seek a genuine experience visit the narrow and scanty lanes, open sewers, and many local huts. They get to witness how the locals survive, sweat and live every day with their utter efforts. This tourism rush has encouraged much local youth to learn foreign languages to earn a livelihood. For many tourists visiting and experiencing Dharavi for themselves has been an eye-opener for them as they see the life in Dharavi as it is, which is usually exaggerated in the films. It attracts tourists to see the various spectrums of life. They get tiny glimpses into the lives of the residents and get to learn their stories.
While these tours have become famous given the popularity of the films that include Dharavi, there are many who have questioned the ethics of such tours. Critics say such tours can be reduced to a mere voyeuristic experience where the tourists understand and acknowledge their privileges at the expense of the unfortunate. Advocates however maintain that the proud residents have no problems with such tours and they are organized sensitively and with meticulous planning, so as not to hurt the sentiments of the residents and preserve the authenticity of the experience.