‘Slumbai’ – A bay of paradoxes

A byproduct of industrialization and rapid urbanization slums are looked upon by the society as an appendix. Instead they are the lifeline says Abhilasha Trivedi

Touchdown Mumbai. Between vernacular and trans global architecture Mumbai is the bay of vast contrasts, of vast paradoxes, of slums and skyscrapers living together, those with and those without living together. When you fly into Mumbai and the plane is about to land, the first thing that meets your eye is a cramped sprawl of corrugated ironed roofed huts right next to the runway quietly yet powerfully reminding you that you are entering a city where nearly half of the population lives in slums quite jokingly often referred to as ‘Slumbai’!.

Dharavi is the biggest slum in Asia and one of the largest in the world and by now it is well known and fairly well documented. It’s so densely populated that it feels like being in a city within a city. About 1 million people live within 1 square mile, making it the most densely populated area on planet earth. I visited the place with a tour guide who, when I was touring inside the slum strictly said no photographs or video were allowed to be taken.Seeing life unfold in the dark nooks and crannies of Dharavi was the most eye-opening and grounding experience for me.

Watch “Waste” a documentary on Dharavi directed by Parashar Baruah


Dharavi is by far the most productive slum in the world. The slum produces goods that are exported all around India and the world. What surprised me the most about Dharavi was how incredibly organized the slum was. The slum is split up between an industrial zone and a residential zone.

The most common businesses in the industrial zone are pottery, leather, plastic and steel.  But what’s interesting is that there are several smaller industries that recycles waste.

Perhaps the most unique characteristics of Dharavi is the extremely close work-place relationship.  Every square inch of land is used to produce something.  They don’t waste any space.  And all of the work is done by hand which is moving opposite to the hi-tech society that we live in today. It’s almost like time doesn’t pass in Dharavi. I picture the slum being the exact same 30-40 years ago.

The second part of the tour took me through the residential part of the slum.

I learned that the residents of Dharavi are made up people from all over India, who migrated from rural regions as well as locals from the Maharastra state. The housing areas are designated by religion. The Muslims occupied one area, while the Hindus have a different section and the Christians have their territory. The slum has numerous temples and churches to serve members of each religion in their respected areas. So, a day begins with a Muslim performing the fajr, a Hindu chanting shlokas amidst bells and a Christian offering morning prayers and all of this just a few inches away from each other. Where else do you find this? The entire residential area lacks any sort of infrastructure such as roads, public conveniences or toilets. The residential area is also the only place in Dharavi where I saw women, and most of them were housewives. There are hundreds of thousands of makeshift homes, that are so fragile that they can collapse at any time by the weight above it.

Despite all of this, Dharavi is always alive.

It’s hard for one to believe that living in Dharavi isn’t as bad for the people who live there. But it’s true. For the dwellers it’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Their universe is Dharavi. The slum is also centrally located in the city between Mumbai’s two main suburban railway lines, so many people who live in Dharavi can easily commute to work.The tour guide told me that 20% of Dharavi’s population is made up of government officials like police men and fire fighters, due to the affordability of homes.

There is news of redevelopment plans for Dharavi. To refurbish the work places of existing factories, construction of new schools and roads, and apartments for the residents. But this project, as one can imagine, is a very difficult one to approach and it may take decades to actually see a difference.

As for now, Dharavi will keep pumping on, producing things in bulk and establishing itself as the most productive slum in the world. A byproduct of industrialization and rapid urbanization slums are looked upon by the society as an appendix. This is misleading! Slum inhabitants are rather like that artery which if blocked would cease the smooth functioning of the whole city.

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