Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest and oldest slum, sprawls over two square kilometers. It is a warren of muddy lanes lined by low shanties, some in permanent concrete, but most in makeshift corrugated iron and plastic sheets.
Open drains line the alleyways, but splashes of color come from potted plants and wall paintings advertising small businesses.
Fahim Vohra, a Dharavi resident and founder of Be the Local, shows me around. “My grandfather emigrated from Gujarat and settled in Dharavi, opening a grocery store, and we have lived here over three generations,” he says. “I was born here and went to a school nearby. My world began and ended here. I did not know I lived in a slum when I was a child.”
A person can spend a lifetime in this city of contrasts without ever knowing how the other half lives. “I got a job in a tourism company as a local guide, but never felt comfortable with the alien way in which they treated Dharavi,” says Fahim. “So I thought why not start something myself, along with my friends?” That’s how Be the Local was born, and now young local people show visitors (mostly foreigners) around this micro-universe.
“We customize our tours according to what visitors want to see,” says Fahim. “Some want to observe the enterprise and small businesses. Fifty per cent of Mumbai’s waste is recycled here. Dharavi is full of small scale industries that turn used plastic, cardboard and glass into reusable items. A large part of the population work at manually sorting the garbage before it is channeled to the workshops and factories. Dharavi is also known for its leather products and ready-made garments.
“Other want to see the life of the different ethnic communities that live here: Muslims, Tamils, Gujaratis, Marwaris. But universally people are amazed by the courage, determination and sense of achievement that our locals have.”
I ask Fahim what makes his home unique. “It’s the sense of pride that Dharavi is the most productive community in Mumbai,” he says with absolute conviction.