Dhararvi: Asia’s Largest Slum

For our final days in India, we left the parties and beach side resorts of Goa for Mumbai, a city known for its glamour and glitz as much as its poverty – more than half of its residents reside in the slums.

We took a tour with Reality Tours and Travel, our guide was a young man who grew up in the slums himself. When asked what it was like, he simply replied “it was fun.”

We took a train to the Darharvi Slum, the largest in all of Asia, which located on the outskirts of the city between two railways.  Before we entered the grounds, he gave us a few rules: “no picture taking.  It will smell bad, do not make any faces of disgust, this will hurt the feelings of the residents.”

We nervously entered the slum and found it to be much like another any other part of Mumbai, it was a city within a city, just a bit more dilapidated.  The interior consists of vast sewer-lined alleys with mazes of concrete dwellings, where families live in shoebox dorms, not more than 10 feet across.  We were fortunate to be invited into a home of one of the residents, he proudly introduced us to his wife and two small children.  There was not much room for the six of us to move around in the tiny space, but they did have a roof over their head and a place to sleep, much more than many people in the country could ever hope for.

The slum got its start in 1933 and incorporates only 1.7 square kilometers.  More than 1 million people call this home, yet it does not feel as nearly as crowded as a typical day strolling the streets if New Delhi.  Each part of the slum inhabits residents from different parts of the county with different trades.  We visited a small plastic factory and watched workers sort through the various recyclables that have been shipped from all over the world.  At the leather factory, a worker informed me that my belt was made from Indian leather. Our group entered a soap factory to witness men slicing large bars into small cubes, and along our walk we stopped by a bakery and were given fresh, warm pastries from a baker who wore a wide smile and would not take a single rupee for the treat.  After being broached by so many beggars on the streets, it touched me how generous the poor can really be and I found it beautiful.

We entered a small, barren dirt lot covered in rubbish and found some children happily playing cricket.  They were all too excited to take photos with us.  Our next stop was a small chai shop, and despite the intense heat, we stopped  to savor a glass of the warm, sweet milky tea we had grown to love.

At the suggestion of one of our fellow tour mates, we decided to visit a bar. We were quite shocked there was even a bar here, and despite the fact the bartender stated “no foreigners allowed,” our guide had a talk with him and we soon found ourselves tucked away in a dark booth at the back of the room.  All eyes were on us, but this was no different from any other experience in India.

Our group members shuttered when I stated that I wanted to use the public restroom but it was something I wished to experience. Most homes here do not have a toilet, so they come to the public toilet, mornings tend to have long lines, so we are told, although many use the railways or open fields as they tend to smell better.  For the men, there’s many open urinals along the streets, and you can smell the stench much sooner than you can see them.  While the women’s loo was not all bad, it wasn’t pleasant either.

I personally found our day at Dharavi to be incredibly eye opening.  The people here do not have modern luxuries but that does not stop them from living a good life.  Their industries are thriving, their children run and play like those in any Western city and they are happy.

Reality Tours (www.realitytoursandtravel.com, 9820822253 phone) runs tours daily.  Costs range from 300-600 Rs and last 2.5 to 4.5 hours (unless you stop for a beer).  A large part of the profits go to a Dhararvi -based NGO.


  • Ana said:

    Andy, I’m not sure you’re correct about expat staff I mean, lots of the pelope who have large benefits packages, as you put it, also have worked in developing countries for a very long time. Most of them have spent a lot of time among the poor etc. And yes, maybe the heads of delegation etc. don’t spend enough time milling about in the slums, but I’d argue they rarely need to for the kind of work they do and in any case, at one point they will have been the underpaid intern/whatever who does do that kind of thing.I don’t disagree that pelope should know about the places they are, but they don’t need to go on a poverty safari, and certainly I disagree it’s got anything to do with seniority. Even among the interns and things in Malawi, how pathetic was the uptake of Chichewa? Almost no-body took lessons on a regular basis, and very few could say much more than muli bwanji’, osdandaula’ and kachasu’.


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