Reflections on Touring the Slums of Mumbai

IMG_0476[1]After landing late in the evening Sunday night, early the next morning, we were introduced to the culturally rich and economically diverse city of Mumbai through a two hour tour of one of the largest slums in the world, Dharavi. Putting it as mildly as possible, it was a cultural shock witnessed and appreciated through a jetlagged fog- insanely hot, dirty, overwhelmingly pungent, and such a level of poverty, that I, at least, had never seen. While an eye-opening and truly illuminating experience, it also set the tone for the rest of the day and held the potential to influence the rest of the trip. As we climbed on and off the bus, traveling from historic site to historic site, the Mumbai we encountered seemed just as crowded, just as hot, and just as overwhelmingly chaotic. It was hard to appreciate the intricate colonial architecture, the tree lined streets, and the beautiful views of the developing financial center along the coast line without remembering the morning’s experience.

At dinner tonight, we had a discussion, debriefing our overall stay in India. We debated the pros and cons of having such an extreme introduction to the city as our very first exposure. Some thought that putting it at the beginning showed the true environment within which our client, a real estate developer, was working. They argued we had a better understanding of the challenges facing a developer when scarcity of land and extreme real estate prices lead to the creation of slums. Others, at least initially including myself, agreed with the need to see the slums to truly understand all of Mumbai, but questioned the tours placement at the beginning of the trip. Issues raised included negatively impacting an overall appreciation of the city and starting with a belief that the cultures were so drastically different that business interactions would necessarily start on uneven footing.

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While I am still not convinced which is the correct answer, we universally agreed that it was important to have seen this part of Mumbai. For more than half of the residents in Mumbai, this is their reality. In order to understand the full economic, social and cultural fabric of the city, one must understand the organization of economic centers in such conditions at the same time that he or she experiences impressively grandiose landmarks such as the 27 story private residence for 4 people or the Taj Mahal Palace and India Gate.

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