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Next Stop, Squalor

Is poverty tourism "poorism," they call it exploration or exploitation?

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Late one morning I met Poojari at the Churchgate railway station, where we hopped on a dilapidated commuter train for the 25-minute ride to Dharavi. Waiting for us there was tourist Jeff Ellingson, a 29-year-old technology professional from Seattle. Before we got started, Poojari explained that the company has a no-photography policy, to keep the tours from becoming too intrusive. (For the same reason, each group is limited to five people.) Then we took a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.

Dharavi stretched before us like a vast junkyard, a hodgepodge of brick and concrete tenements roofed with corrugated metal sheets that gleamed dully in the sunshine. Poojari gave us a moment to take it all in. "We'll show you the positive side of a slum," he declared.

In the face of such squalor, his words seemed jarring. But Dharavi's industriousness is well documented. Its businesses manufacture a variety of products—plastics, pottery, bluejeans, leather goods—and generate an estimated $665 million in annual revenue. In other words, Dharavi is not just a slum, it is also a node on the global economy.

Dharavi's industries are arranged geographically, like medieval guilds, and the first alley we visited belonged to recyclers. In one small "godown" (as warehouses are known on the subcontinent), men were disassembling old computer keyboards. In another, men smeared from head to toe in blue ink stripped the casings from used ballpoint pens so they could be melted down and recycled. A few doors down, workers used heavy chains to knock the residue from steel drums that had once contained polyester resin. Poojari told us that some of Dharavi's empty plastic bottles come from as far away as the United Kingdom. "People from a rich family, when they drink from a plastic bottle, they don't know what happens to it afterwards," he said. "Here, you see."

Few of the recyclers wore gloves or other protective gear, despite exposure to solvents and other chemicals that caused my eyes and throat to burn after just a few minutes. The working conditions were typical of Dharavi's unregulated businesses. Some of the worst were in the foundries. From the door of one dark, unventilated space, I watched a heavyset worker dressed in a sarong ladle molten steel into a belt-buckle mold that he held between his feet. His bare feet. After cracking open the mold to reveal the glowing red buckle in its bed of sand, he glanced up, and for a moment our eyes met. His face was wooden, expressionless. I mumbled thanks and moved on.

Not for the first time on the tour, I felt like an interloper, and I wondered how the slum workers and their families felt about white-skinned strangers who showed up to gawk from the threshold. For Dharavi was undeniably grim. As we neared its center, the alleys narrowed and cantilevered balconies closed out the sun, casting everything in a permanent gloom. Children played next to gutters that flowed with human waste, and hollow-eyed men bent nearly double under the weight of burlap-covered loads. But if the people of Dharavi resented us, they kept it to themselves. Some even seemed happy to take part in our education. "Here, everybody is working," a man said genially, and in perfect English, as we paused outside the yogurt-cup recycling operation where he sat sipping tea with the owner.

The welcoming reception probably had something to do with the tour operators, who have cultivated good relations with the slum workers as well as local police. There are, moreover, certain rules. From the door of a one-room garment factory, I spotted a boy who looked to be no more than 8 sitting with other workers at a long table, where he was embroidering fabric with fine gold thread. I nudged my guide: "Ask him how old he is." Poojari shook his head no. Pointed questions were not part of his compact with the slum dwellers.

As it happens, Ellingson and I did not see many child laborers in Dharavi, perhaps because of laws limiting employment of children under 14 or, more likely—as Way suggested later—because they were sequestered out of view. We did see several schools, however, and plenty of kids in uniforms. "By plane you are coming?" one boy asked in English, before declaring, with evident pride, "I'm studying in 8th standard."

Blighted though it was, Dharavi had the feeling of an established community. Signs in Hindi advertised the services of doctors and dentists. An outdoor barber administered a shave with a folding razor. A laundryman stood against an alley wall, pressing clothes with an ancient-looking iron. At a small factory where recycled plastic was melted down and turned into tiny pellets for use by toymakers, the owner, who was in his late 20s, told us that his father had started the business three decades ago. Like many of the slum dwellers, the factory owner was a Muslim, although Dharavi is nothing if not diverse. Its residents come from all over India, and many have lived there for a generation or more. Poojari said that one of the slum neighborhoods is dominated by the descendants of potters from Gujarat state who settled in Dharavi in 1933. When we visited the potters' district in the early afternoon, we were puzzled to find few signs of life, other than smoking kilns and an old man napping on a rope cot. It turned out that most of the potters and their families had taken the afternoon off to attend a wedding.

Ellingson drew a comparison with Palestinian communities he had toured in the West Bank. They were "a lot wealthier, but it's like society has broken down," he said, adding that in Dharavi, "it feels like something is functioning." I had to agree.

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