Day 56 – Mumbai, India
We scheduled something a bit different for our stop in Mumbai since we have been here before and seen most of the highlights such as Elephanta Island, Dhobi Ghat (the laundry), India Gate, and the Taj Hotel. The ship we took in 2012, the Amsterdam, is in port and is also on her World Cruise, even though, this is the first time our paths have crossed. The Amsterdam, a Holland America ship, is parked right next to us at the dock.
Helen Megan, a friend who is a concierge host for vacations.com is on the ship and we have arranged to take a private tour of her and her husband, Elvon Harris. Helen has the enviable job of going on long cruises helping her passengers enjoy their voyages and making various arrangements for them. We first met in 2012 on our first world cruise, where she helped Sally and me in Hong Kong and we have stayed in touch ever since.
When Helen first suggested we take a tour of a Mumbai slum we hesitated, unsure of what a tour of a slum actually was, and not being sure we wanted to go. She convinced us that it was a worthwhile tour, not often available, and definitely not a tour that would be offered by the cruise ships. As much to see Helen and catch up on “Amsterdam” news, as a desire to see the slums, we agreed to meet for the tour.
After clearing Indian Customs and Immigration (which is never easy and always time-consuming) we met Helen and Elvon in the cruise terminal. We also ran into some Sun City friends as they came off of the Amsterdam and briefly caught up. We met with our tour guide and planned our itinerary for the day – which included the slum tour, some shopping (shopping! I am shocked), a trip to the pharmacy to pick up our previously emailed order, a visit to Helen to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, and lunch. I am always apprehensive taking meals ashore, and I know nothing of Indian food – but it is an adventure, after all.
Helen, our guide Dahram, and I plan out the day.
We boarded our van and headed out through the Green Gate into this city of 22 million people and about that many taxis.
Coming out of any controlled environment, like the port, and entering this city is overwhelming. One is struck immediately by the mayhem that is Mumbai – thousands of taxis, people going every direction, everyone in a hurry, every manner of transport imaginable from trucks to ox-carts to bicycles and humans. The variety of costumes is amazing.
On our previous visit we learned that Mr. Tata, one of the world’s richest men, and the owner of Tata Motors (among others) was coming out with a new car, aimed at low-income families that was targeted to be the cheapest car in the world. I asked Dahram to let me know if he spotted one. As luck would have it, one parked right in front of us when we made a brief stop. Here is a picture of a Tata Nano – 5 passenger sedans, with A/C – price $2,000. If imported, and updated to U.S. government standards it would probably cost $30,000. One flaw – it can only be driven an hour or two then must stop and rest from over-heating.
Our tour is to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia (approximately 500,000 people living in five hundred acres) made famous by the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire”. Not just a slum, but an economic miracle, where the poor are gainfully employed and small business entrepreneurs are thriving.
We began the tour by meeting another guide, Owes, at the edge of the slum who is working on his Master’s degree. He gave us the guidelines for our visit: no pictures (sorry), be polite, there will be many odors – do not react, it will offend, and ask all the questions you want.
We ascended the steps of a pedestrian bridge, crossing the railroad tracks marking the boundary of Dharavi, and made our way across and into the slum. As we entered the busy street, we immediately became objects of curiosity for many of the residents – some stared intently, others noticed us in passing – but all were aware of us, and obviously knew we didn’t belong even though we had been instructed to dress plainly and no jewelry, we were noticeably not residents . I guess as tourists we are used to observing, not being observed – no hostility, just curiosity, but as we have learned everywhere, a smile and a nod of acknowledgment works wonders.
Our first stop was in front a shop front with a door and man out front collecting fees for entering. Music was faintly coming out, and we tried to guess the purpose. Owes told us it was their local movie theater – the owner had set up flat screen TVs in his front room, pallets on the floor, and was charging 1 rupee (about 2 cents) for admission. A multiplex.
How has a slum area been turned into an enterprise zone for the working poor? It is not a government program, but rather seems to have emerged naturally as migrants to the city merged with entrepreneurs and market opportunity. As business people took advantage of market opportunities they recruited workers from their villages in India and brought them to work in Dharavi – usually they provide housing and some provide food, plus they pay about 300 rupees per day (about $5) which most of them send home through the cash transfer services available in the slum.
These are businesses at the lower end of the economic spectrum, including a heavy emphasis on recycling opportunities and small manufacturing.
Our next stop was at a plastic recycling business. I guess I should describe the environment since we weren’t allowed photos. We turned off of the busy main street into a narrow alley. There were concrete block and cement structures, two or three stories high, with all of the work activity on the first floor. I would estimate the buildings to be several hundred years old, with no evidence of paint or cleaning. The alleyway was either dirt or had accumulated enough dirt to cover the concrete. The workers sat or squatted next to their work, in that particularly Asian manner of squatting that they are so comfortable with and I could never accomplish in a million years. People were working in the rooms and moving through the alley delivering raw goods and finished products. In the first room of the plastic business, they were removing any metal from the plastic and sorting it into different grades. It then is passed through a crushing machine, in the next room, where the plastic is ground into small pieces.
One of the interesting aspects of business in the slum is the natural synergy which has developed. The man who made the crushing machine for his business now makes them as a product, selling them to recycling businesses inside Dharavi and elsewhere. Observing the men operating the grinder, I could only think of our governments’ O.S.H.A. regulations and how quickly they would end this operation.
The next shop was an aluminum recycling business, shredding aluminum cans, and melting them into shiny 20 lb. ingots.
We next saw a business which recycled paint cans, cleaning them out, repairing them and selling them to the paint company.
We passed a small temple/church, which Owes informed was the most unusual in the world. It was a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian worship place, which accommodated all four faiths.
Our next stop was a leather company. This was not a recycling business, but rather a business which came here many years ago as a group of Muslim leather tanners migrated and set up their business in Dharavi. They specialize in tanning goat skins and turning them into fine leather products, which they sell in their retail outlet (the only air conditioned place on the tour) and yes – Sally bought a purse. Helen negotiated the purchase of three custom made leather laptop back packs, to be delivered to her home in California, at an incredible savings to her.
At each business we noticed that the owner was very present in the business – not in the middle of the labor, but lurking not far away, observing closely. No high-rise headquarters for these guys.
As we made our way out of Dharavi, through the extremely busy main street we passed many school children, all in uniform, going to or from school for their half day of lessons. Families are required to buy uniforms, backpacks, and shoes for their student.
Among the 500,000 residents of Dharavi, we saw not a single beggar, were not approached by anyone; and, after our initial apprehension, felt perfectly safe. According to Owes, the strong sense of their original community remains an influence on their lives, resulting in the same cohesive living patterns from their villages. Behavior is controlled by social norms; and therefore, there is no breakdown of law and order even in a slum.
As a business person, I was very impressed, with what I saw in Dharavi – there is a wealth of support for the human spirit and free enterprise, to say nothing of the $500 million in business generated each year.
As a tourist I was aware that while I had seen the five star cocoon of wealthy Mumbai, and had seen the grinding poverty of poor Mumbai, I had now seen the third Mumbai – the enterprising working poor. Very impressive.
We thanked Owes, and rejoined our van. Time for lunch and a welcome cold Kingfisher beer, at Trishna Restaurant.
What a change in environs this represented.
I have no idea what I ate, but it was tasty and the beer was cold.
We dropped Helen at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, drove to Nariman Point, picked up our goods from the pharmacy, and returned to pick up Helen and head back to the ship.
Here is a shot of India Gate, built by the British early in the 20th century for the King and Queen of England. However, they didn’t finish the gate until several years after their visit.
Back aboard with much to contemplate about what we saw today. A great tour!