The GiveWell Blog

Thoughts from Dharavi tour

Last week the staff of GiveWell went on a tour of the Dharavi slum, organized by Reality Tours. Consistent with the tour’s policy, we took no pictures, but here are some thoughts:

  • In some ways (and consistent with our understanding of relevant data), the standard of living seems below anything I’ve seen in the U.S., outside of being literally homeless (and not in a shelter). Many of the residences consist of a single 150-square-foot room, at the top of a narrow ladder, housing an entire family. The paths to the homes we saw are so narrow that we had to walk in single file. These residences (according to our guide) command rent of 1500-2000 INR (~$32-$43) per month, with a required deposit of 25,000-30,000 INR ($545.50-$654.60), and do not actually house the poorest people in the slums; the poorest are the factory workers, who live in what seem like health-risk-prone conditions in the slum’s factories (plastic, textiles, etc.)
  • Despite this, the slum is said (again by our guide) to be something of a destination, and not just a last resort.
    • People come from far outside Bombay in order to work in the slum’s factories and send money home. With stable incomes of 100-200 INR ($2.15-$4.30, not adjusted for purchasing power parity) per day plus lodging, these people may be in the category of the global “middle class”.
    • Many of those living in the slums could easily afford to move out, but choose to stay for the community. The guide told us about a friend of his who had become an airline stewardess and still spent most of her time living in Dharavi despite owning a relatively expensive flat; he also told us that many of those living in slums work in call centers (working in a call center is considered a relatively desirable and high-paying job). We ran into one young man who reported having a bachelor’s degree in physics and a job at a call center, and spoke excellent English.
  • Living in Dharavi does seem like a much better situation than that of many people I see living in shelters (or no shelters) on the street. According to the guide, many of the homes are legally protected against demolition (if the government demolishes them it must provide compensation), and receive electricity and water.
  • One of the things we’re very interested in, but have not come across any data on, is what job opportunities look like in different parts of the world, i.e., how much one can hope to make with different qualifications/skills/connections. This question has strong consequences for the what sort of education is helpful in different areas. Some notes on our guide’s responses to our queries:
    • The factory jobs in Dharavi are plentiful and require little other than a willingness/ability to do manual labor, which is why many come from outside Bombay for these jobs.
    • Some jobs in textiles (tanning leather; making clothing, paid by the garment) require more skill and pay upwards of double what the unskilled jobs pay.
    • The jobs that many people in this area hope to get are call center jobs, which pay relatively well and require a college degree. Still better-paying are accounting jobs, which require specific university-acquired training.
    • Overall the picture is very different from the picture I got on my trip to Africa, where nonprofit jobs seem to be seen as most promising and few/no options exist for those without the appropriate level of education for these jobs.
  • The guide mentioned that workers clean containers by dipping them in hot water, and have to be careful not to burn themselves. Natalie asked why they don’t wear gloves, and the guide responded (paraphrasing) “They are used to this way of working. You give them gloves and they stop using them after one day.”
  • Near the end of the tour, we visited a kindergarten run by Reality Gives, the sister nonprofit of Reality Tours. The children were participating in a spirited celebration of the Ganesh festival. There were 10 teachers present for 20 children; we were told that this was because we were in the transition from morning to afternoon classes, but even if there had only been half as many teachers present it still would have been far more than I’m accustomed to seeing in a kindergarten.


  • Alexander on September 21, 2010 at 4:36 pm said:

    I think I’ve mentioned this to at least Elie before, but if you guys are interested in getting good information about conditions in the slums, including Dharavi, I really recommend getting in touch with the people at SPARC. They have a long track record of working with slum dwellers across Mumbai and India, and I trust them a lot more than Reality Tours (although I have not heard anything particularly bad about Reality Tours, so I don’t mean to insult their reputation).

    I’m also interested in your claim that “[m]any of those living in the slums could easily afford to move out, but choose to stay for the community.” Although I think it contains a kernel of truth, it seems to me to misrepresent the overall situation. First, there is just not enough legal housing for everyone in Mumbai to live in. I can’t remember the exact statistic (the people at SPARC would know it), but some huge portion (1/2?) of Mumbai’s population lives in slums of one kind or another. Second, geography plays a huge role in housing cost in Mumbai. So while it’s possible that someone living in Dharavi may be able to afford a flat elsewhere in the city, it’s probably much further north (i.e. Thane or Borivali), and therefore more distant from many of the work opportunities. Third, I totally agree that many people who live in slums could go back to their native villages, but they came to Mumbai (and the slums) for the precise reason that they had greater economic opportunity. They may stay for the community, or for the economic opportunities that they were not able to find elsewhere.

    Interesting side note: most of the people who live in Dharavi work there too. SPARC helped publish a book last year about Dharavi that documents this to some extent.

    Anyway, before I ever visited a slum in Bombay, I talked to a guy I’d met who lived in one. I asked him what defined a slum and he answered that a slum was different from an apartment building because in buildings you are competitive with your neighbor, but in slums there is a community of people of different faiths and from different places who live together and look after each other. I ended up spending a bunch of time with his family and friends, and a lot of people seemed to share the self-conception that slums have stronger communities than other forms of housing. When I spoke with wealthier people, they bemoaned the loss of community that they felt they had experienced over time, but saw it mostly as a product of adopting Western norms and practices.

    I still haven’t really gotten to my point, though, which is about the importance of not romanticizing the slum communities. I think that a lot of what I heard, even from people I got to know pretty well, was cherry picked to give me a certain (relatively optimistic) idea of life in the slums. I met a Canadian graduate student doing research on the slum where I spent quite a bit of time, and he found that while people talked a lot about community, few could identify individuals outside their immediate families that they thought they could rely on for help in an emergency.

    I’m not saying that slums aren’t stronger communities, but just that such claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

  • Alexander, I’m just passing along what the guide said, and the guide specifically referred to someone who owns a flat in Bandra, which would imply a real ability to move out if she wanted to without sacrificing location.

    I am not sure I follow your point about the supply of housing in Bombay. Are you saying anything other than that the housing is expensive? I can imagine that in a highly regulated enough area, money might not be enough to get a place to live, but my impression is that this isn’t an issue in Bombay (expats seem to have no trouble getting housing in Bandra).

    It is also not clear to me why, say, Borivali would be unworkable. Borivali is about 30 minutes by express train from the area near Dharavi. Unpleasant as the train may be, this seems like a reasonable, or at least not obviously unreasonable, alternative to living in Dharavi.

    Regardless, I agree that we shouldn’t be romanticizing slums. I haven’t verified the comment from the guide; even if true, it could be spun in multiple ways (one could think of family/communal “pressure” as opposed to “appeal”). The important takeaway to me doesn’t depend much on whether this phenomenon is “good” or “bad.” When walking through a slum one of my first thoughts is “It would be great to help these people have enough money to move out,” as if anyone who could get a college education and reasonable (college-degree-requiring) job would move right out. If there are many people who already have relatively high income in the slums, the instincts I have regarding how and through what vehicles to help change.

    One more thing – can you send a link to the SPARC work documenting that most people living in Dharavi work there too? Our guide stated that most people living in the residential areas do not work in Dharavi, though there are many who live and work in Dharavi’s factories.

  • “I met a Canadian graduate student doing research on the slum where I spent quite a bit of time, and he found that while people talked a lot about community, few could identify individuals outside their immediate families that they thought they could rely on for help in an emergency.” I mean, at least they have a community together, and they were taking care of each other. For emergency contact, that is something else that, of course if should be your family, you need someone really can count on and can try their best for your emergency situation. I do not think this extreme example present what slum community mean for people live there.

  • Alexander on September 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm said:

    Holden: I haven’t seen it online, but on pg. 49-50 of “Dharavi: Documenting Informalities” (, the authors say that 20% of people in Dharavi work outside. That said, it’s not footnoted, and I don’t know the original source, so it may only apply to the industrial areas. (Note: the book is an artistic product, not an academic study. Far from the most credible source, I realize.)

    My point about the housing market is just that slums make up a large part of it; as such, they are much more internally diversified (and generally less terrible) than one might naively think.

    I find it interesting that learning more about the conditions in the slums makes you rethink how best to help the people who live there, rather than whether they need help at all. (Not challenging this view – just trying to point out that I think most people who come to the conclusion that life in the slums is better than they had previously believed take themselves to be more or less absolved of the duty to help).

    Fei: I absolutely agree that slums are not always bad, and certainly not a permanent state of emergency for the people who live in them. I just thought the anecdote was a useful incite into some ways in which the rhetoric about community might not totally exhaust the situation on the ground.

  • Alexander, thanks for the clarifications. By “how … to help” I meant how to help people in general, including the possibility of targeting people other than those living in Dharavi (though I certainly haven’t reached a conclusion on that one way or the other, and it largely comes down to the specific opportunities/organizations I see).

    Just another data point on whether some “choose” to live in slums: last week I met up with a friend whose family is from Bombay and who has lived here for several years. Her point of view is basically in line with the guide’s: she thinks that many people are practically able to move out and choose to stay. She cited the example of her driver, who lives in Dharavi despite making a regular and relatively high (by developing-world standards) wage.

    If anyone knows of a more reliable/systematic info source on this question, that would be great.

Comments are closed.