One million reasons to visit

With Slumdog Millionaire sweeping the Oscars, Steve McKenna visits Mumbai's biggest shanty town.

The prospect of stepping foot inside a slum held as much appeal for me as swimming in a pool of piranhas. But two things changed my mind. I read Vikas Swarup's Q & A, the fictional rags-to-riches tale of a chai wallah and the inspiration for the film Slumdog Millionaire. Then I discovered a tour that promised to show there was more to slum life than poverty and depression.

Mumbai is said to boast more billionaires than Dallas, San Francisco and Tokyo yet more than half its 21 million people live in the 200-plus shanty towns spread across the city.

The biggest - the largest in Asia, in fact - is Dharavi. Its seeds planted by migrants from rural areas in the 19th century, this slum-city spans a mind-boggling 175 hectares and is home to a million men, women and children, not to mention cows, goats, dogs and flies.

On my walking tour, led by a polite young Indian called Girish, Dharavi reflected many slum cliches: a jumble of flimsy shacks, cobbled from wood, corrugated iron and plastic sheets, were scattered within a maze of dusty alleys; people wearing rags and glum faces ambled past filthy streams that doubled as outdoor toilets; and the stench at times was frankly unbearable.

And yet the slum seemed normal in many ways. Electricity was widespread and well-constructed roads buzzed with auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and Mumbai's iconic "Bumblebee" black-and-yellow taxis.

Sturdy brick homes and half-a-dozen high-rises rubbed shoulders with mosques, Hindu temples, shops, food stalls and markets. An internet cafe, a bank and a few cinemas were among the slum's more surprising elements.

We stepped inside one ramshackle picture-house to find the patrons sitting on a wooden floor watching the latest Bollywood hit.

"As you can see, they don't do seats in Dharavi cinemas," whispered Girish. I pondered whether they would soon be watching Slumdog Millionaire.

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One scene especially shattered the portrayal of slums as places of unfettered misery. As their sari-clad mothers looked on, shy little children fluttered kites while boisterous teenagers played cricket on a rubbish dump with a cardboard box for a wicket and a lump of wood for a bat. Laughter filled the air and toothy grins were everywhere.

Manual labour industries are Dharavi's lifeblood and the annual turnover in this "city within a city" is estimated at $US650 million ($1 billion), although Girish said the economic slowdown was being felt even here.

We visited tanners, potters, welders, bakers, carpenters, poppadom makers and people recycling tonnes of plastic, cardboard and aluminium.

Most of the work looked torturous and Australian health and safety officials, were they to visit, would be aghast.

It was particularly unsettling to watch a man blow-torch a battered metal casket back into shape as sparks flew millimetres from his unprotected eyes.

"Accidents do happen sometimes," said Girish. "We don't know how many because they don't exactly keep records. But people will do the work; it's their only way to earn money, pay their rent or save money to take back to their villages."

To add insult to injury, men earn 180-250 rupees ($5.60-$7.75) a day; women only half that, according to Girish.

While children help their parents at work, they must legally attend school until at least the age of 14. Some attend the community centre founded by the tour company. We dropped in to an English class, where young pupils were learning new words, including "castigate" and "chronological".

It helped to explain the excellent English of the children who came up to us in Dharavi, wanting to know our names, wishing us a happy stay in India or inviting us to play cricket. Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Tamil are, however, the dominant languages that waft through the neighbourhood.

Dharavi won't be around for much longer, though. The Maharashtra state government has vowed to demolish the slum and replace it with new homes, roads, parks, hospitals and schools. The proposal sounds good on paper but residents are already wondering if there will be room for everyone.

I was almost sad to leave the relative sanctity of the shanty town for mainstream Mumbai and its swarming beggars and tricksters.

In Dharavi, no one approached me for anything other than a chat or a handshake. The people I met were inquisitive, friendly and genuine. I felt completely safe and I discovered visiting a slum for a day can be rewarding.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Qantas flies from Sydney to Mumbai. See qantas.com.au.

Touring there

Dharavi slum tours, limited to six people a tour, are available from 400 Rupees ($12.40) and take place twice daily. See realitytoursandtravel.com.

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