Flying into Mumbai, it looked like any other city with tall sky scrapers all along the coast. I could see a thick blanket of smog hovering over the buildings, but I had expected that. I jumped into a pre-paid taxi and took off for the 25km to my hostel in the Fort area of the city. My first impression was ‘this is a mad house!’ As we darted in and out of the traffic, bumping over potholes and being deafened by the constant honking of car horns. It was stinking hot, around 35deg already by 10 in the morning and I thought, ‘this place is crazy?!’.
I spent three days in Mumbai, more than most travellers can tolerate but I actually learnt to really like the city. It had beautiful but mostly rundown colonial style buildings and of course the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel were the main highlights. The food was excellent, I will never forget the flavours and spices from my first meal in India, absolutely mindblowing-ly good.
Except Mumbai is such a big city that spending time in the small pocket around the Fort does not really give you any sense of reality. There are infamous ‘slum tours’ which have been accused of making poverty a tourist attraction but when the hostel said they had a guy who lived in the slum himself and could take a small group around for a few hours I decided to do it. Dharavi slum, the third biggest in the world, is home to around 1.5 million people, give or take a few hundred thousand as statistics are widely inaccurate.
I wasn’t doing the tour to ‘see poverty’ though, the slum is also known for its innovative transformation in the last few years to a place where many have informal jobs and are earning a living. My local guide said that he had noticed a big change in the last few years, where people once were begging and desperate, now they are able to get by. This is all thanks to Dharavi being the centre of cheap labour and labour intensive jobs particularly in the garment industry and recycling.
We walked around the skinny alleyways to find that many buildings were dedicated to specific materials. One building was for cardboard, one for plastics, one for metal and so on. There were mountains of rubbish that people had collected and also some which had been brought from outside, even overseas, to be sorted. People were sitting pulling apart everything from plastic toys, to washing machines, to computers and then separating wires from plastics from metals etc. Once sorted the plastics would be chewed up in a big machine and soaked until they could be bundled up and sold to be remelted and repurposed in larger factories. Similarly, paper and cardboard was also being recycled and even the metals were being melted down and manufactured into something else.
The conditions looked terrible, nobody in a Western country would sit and pull apart old computers to recycle them for $2 a day. But I couldn’t help but think at least these things were being recycled, unlike our country where people throw things away and replace them regularly without thinking about what happens to our rubbish. Our guide seemed to believe that these industries were a good thing, as people could now earn a living without needing any education or skills. At the same time, the garment industry for example are knowingly exploiting people for there cheap labour and the big companies are the ones making a profit.
Despite the ethical issues with a so-called ‘slum tour’ I thought it was good for us to see with our own eyes the impacts of our waste and our desire for cheap clothes if it only makes us more aware of our own purchasing decisions. And it’s also the reality for many people in the city, there’s no point in ignoring it and only spending time at the tourist sites.
So I survived India’s second biggest city, without it scaring me away from exploring the rest of the country. If anything it made me more curious to explore the rest of the country, is there really this much traffic and noise everywhere in India?! I guess I’ll find out.