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India's Tourism Industry Thrives on Largest Slum

  • Aru Pande

One of the world's largest slums is also a center of industrial production. A tour company is highlighting life in Dharavi, a mini-city within India's financial hub, Mumbai.

With a million people crammed into less than three square kilometers - Dharavi is one of the world’s most densely populated slums.

Life-long resident Niyamath Khan, 70, recalled the transformation of what was once a small fishing village.

“Fifty years ago, this was an open space - now there are so many people here," Khan remarked.

One organization gives outsiders a glimpse of life inside this bustling Mumbai neighborhood, through walking tours aimed at dispelling negative stereotypes of slum life.

Reality Tours and Travel CEO Stephanie Hays said visitors are surprised at what they see.

“That’s what people don’t understand, that there are hospitals, there are schools, and there are businesses. There is industry, there is everything in here, and I think people are shocked by that," she said. "They are shocked by major streets running through. I think for me, the industry is what sets Dharavi apart.”

Located within the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi is literally a city within a city, an industrial center that generates more than $650 million a year.”

The slum is home to more than 10,000 single-room factories specializing in everything from handmade leather goods to recycled plastic.

Malik Abdullah inherited his father’s business turning plastic scrap into polycarbonate granules.

“Whatever items are made in India, the raw materials are prepared here and sent out," he explained. "The raw materials go to big industry, which make items that are sold both in and outside of India.”

Abdullah’s spirit of entrepreneurship is typical of the businesses highlighted by Reality Tours.

The organization said it tries to show life in Dharavi without being intrusive, disruptive or exploitative.

The group also gives 80 percent of its profits back to the slum - money it said helps empower kids and teach residents English and computer skills.

Last year, 10,000 people, mostly foreigners, took the tour; but even Mumbai residents like Kiran Jadhav participate.

“For me, Dharavi was a place, just a place where people are very poor or below the poverty line are staying. I never thought it is a place with so much industry and work," Jadhav said. "And it is contributing to a lot of industrial work for Bombay and for India, so I was amazed with that.”

Dharavi is set to be redeveloped into a more modern urban space in the coming years, with proper housing and retail areas. While the look of the slum will change, many hope its entrepreneurial spirit will remain.
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