It was morning in Mumbai, and the chicken I had been watching peck away at piles of rubbish decided to cross the road. While the hum of city traffic was increasing with each passing minute, the street my wife and I were standing on remained mercifully devoid of cars and rickshaws, thus ensuring the chicken’s safe passage to the other side.
I checked my watch, and then checked my open-toed sandals to ensure I hadn’t stepped on anything unsavory. Our guide for today’s excursion had yet to arrive, and the call for caffeine had me investigating the small shop that had just lifted its rolling metal door for business. But before I could purchase a ubiquitous can of Nescafé coffee from the street-side shop, our charismatic guide from Reality Tours & Travel arrived and launched us on a full day of insight and inspiration.
On this morning, we were off to learn more about India’s rapid economic development by taking a tour of the Dharavi slum on the outskirts of the country’s financial capital, Mumbai. With a population of almost a million people, this shanty town manages to generate over US$500 million dollars worth of goods and services every year. By getting an inside look at this leap of economic development, Tricia and I could hopefully learn more about India’s overall growth and its implications for the future of Asia.
Inside the Dharavi slum, which is under constant pressure from redevelopment forces, we were introduced to micro enterprises ranging from food processing and palm oil purification, to tanneries and scrap metal. From seeing Dhobi Ghat, one of the largest outdoor laundries in the world, to an assortment of recycling operations, we began to understand how India was lifting its poorest inhabitants out of poverty.
However, despite the great economic gains being generated, the pollution being produced by these industries was thoroughly disconcerting. Seeing the lack of significant government oversight reminded me of the early stages of the Western industrial revolution. When I think of Dhravi, the image that stands out in my mind was of a man smelting aluminum in an enclosed space. Without any personal protection, this man was clearly demonstrating that the drive to generate an income for the betterment of one’s family takes precedence over personal health concerns in India.
Fortunately, the tourism dollars we spent on this eye-opening tour were being funneled into charitable works to aid the people of Dharavi in their development efforts, including self-defense schooling for women and programs for youth. We even managed to see some of the women snapping kicks and punches during our visit.
It is easy to get lost in economic development statistics and the numbers behind destination marketing campaigns. But, when you see the smiling children following you through the streets of Dharavi, you remember that it is not about increasing incomes for GDP’s sake. It is about improving the prospects for India’s future and the country’s children.