Hiram College

By Sophie Bell ’19

Today we went to the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi, which is located in Mumbai. Going into this, I prepared myself by stuffing my purse full with protein bars, peanut butter crackers, and any other snacks I had left, as I wanted to help those who I knew needed them more than me. We had been told we could not give people money, as with prior experiences this sometimes resulted in groups of people following us, which could be unsafe. Once our guide for Dharavi briefed us, he informed us not to give even food to people.

At first, this broke my heart because we we’re going into the slums, where in my mind, I envisioned lots of emaciated people sitting and laying around, begging for food, money or anything they could get. Immediately upon getting off the bus, several very young girls, probably all younger than 5 years old, started following us. One grabbed my hand and kept saying “Chocolate? Chocolate?” I told her I didn’t have any. I even heard another one saying, “Book? Book?” I felt sick to my stomach and had a hard time simply dismissing these children, so I kept looking at them sadly and saying, “I’m sorry I don’t have any.” Which, I guess since I had left everything on the bus, was technically, but not exactly, true.

Once our guide began telling us about Dharavi, I began feeling more at ease. After telling us how there were about 570 million people per square kilometer living there, which is simply unfathomable, he began talking about the businesses. I was most surprised when we talked about the different industries located in Dharavi, including a recycling industry, which included plastic recycling and paint can recycling, a leather industry, a textile industry, and a pottery industry. Overall, the guide said these private industries bring in about a billion dollars a year.

One major problem in this slum though was a high cancer rate. This is most likely because of lack of health precautions like masks when performing tasks such as melting plastic down into pieces to be sold, or heating old paint cans so they can be reshaped. In the pottery district, people’s homes were mere meters from large kilns spewing smoke constantly. As we walked through the different industries though, the people seemed proud of their work.

Once we were in Dharavi, I have to say the guide was right—we didn’t run into any beggars. There were lots of kids running around and playing with each other down the narrow streets. There was also a comparatively large, yet small open dirt area where kids were playing cricket. As we saw all of these children, I asked the guide about the rate of children that attended school. He said that about 95% of children went to school, meaning mostly government-run public schools. However, he said most of them got pulled out of school before graduation in order to help their families with work, so that only about 60% of children in the slum graduated high school.

Throughout Dharavi, people were preparing for the celebrating of Mawlid on December 12th, which is when Muslims celebrate the birthday of Muhammad. There were strands of green pennants with the Islamic symbol of a crescent moon and star hanging everywhere, alongside “Christmas” lights. Even when we were heading down an extremely narrow, dark alley (I could barely stick my elbows out) between several stories of small homes built on top of each other, I was touched by the presence of strands of the Islamic flags.

Overall, the conditions were very poor. It was very dirty, entire families lived in houses smaller than a Hiram College double dorm room, power lines were exposed and hanging all over the place, and there was unknown liquid draining into the street, etc. The life chances for people living in such a place are pretty poor, however through seeing the people working hard, it was not as dismal as expected. It really showed the resilience of human beings, that they can make things work and figure out a way even in the most disadvantaged, darkest situations.