With more than 12 million inhabitants Mumbai is the biggest city of India and also one of the poorest. Because more than half of the urban residents live in slums. These are startling 6.5 million people. Dharavi is considered as the largest slum in Mumbai, located in the city centre. This is also the largest slum in Asia. The Mumbai Suburban Railway, Line 1 and Line 2, crosses this slum straight. I also went by this partly over ground, partly under ground train and I could see all that suffering and misery with my own eyes. Anyone who has ever visited a slum or has seen it in real live, knows what I am talking about.
Small huts, barely built out of stones, wood, clays or cardboards, are lined up close side by side. In narrow streets children play together, women talk and do their laundry. In some streets, so-called business streets, you can also see traders sitting and selling food or handcrafts. Of course, these traders are almost always slum dwellers, too and they often sell illegal goods. Because who once lives in the slum, can just escape from here with difficulty. The whole life takes place in only one hectare – if it is even so much. Especially larger slums, such as Dharavi, are small enclaves, which drop out from the rest of the cityscape like a downer. And somewhere they blend in too.
Above all, the hygienic conditions in the slum areas are disastrous: In other ways as well, India doesn’t shine for its proper sanitation, but here only a very few people have access to sanitation or running water. The road becomes a public toilet. Women, who go outside to the toilet at night time, are often victims of sexual violence in Indian slums. But just very few cases are reported. Who would ever believe a slum dweller? Therefore, more and more (foreign) organizations support the expansion of sanitation in the slums. In addition to the lack of sanitary infrastructure whole India still suffers from another problem: More than 1.2 billion people produce much waste. The household waste collection service isn’t even able to come after and to clear away all the debris. And so piles of garbage towers up meters high in the forgotten neighbourhoods, in the slums.
As I took the metro from Navi Mumbai to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of the most famous stations of Mumbai, we also crossed Dharavi. To prevent sexual assaults, the carriages were separated by sex – women in the front, men in the back. The train didn’t have doors. The seat rows were disrupted to both sides by gaping holes which were called exit. When driving you had to be careful that you don’t get too close to these holes or hang on for dear life. But that was not the most curious thing: For the first time in India I have seen a transvestite who – as he was dressed and probably felt from inside – took place in the women’s compartment. The women watched him suspiciously and neither offered a seat nor lost sight of her. An incredible intolerance happened right in front of me and I couldn’t do anything.
But that wasn’t all from the cabinet of curiosities so-called “Mumbai”. The train had – how could it be otherwise – no wastebaskets. And what does the Indian traveller do when he/she, has trash but no trash basket? He/she throws it away anywhere, preferably out of the window straight into the slum. And exactly this happened in front of my eyes: A young mother showed her approximately six year old boy, where the chocolate wrappers can be trashed. She threw carelessly out the window when we were crossing Dharavi and she told her son that he could do that too. It wasn’t the only trash which masses near to the tracks. Rather, it seemed that the slum dwellers live inside the garbage from the train passengers. And they don’t even bother. Because as soon as the train passes, they run to the discarded garbage and look if there isn’t still one or another food rest. It looked like a well-practised symbiosis and nevertheless it startled me.
I will never forget the little boy with his bare feet climbing up the mountains of garbage, the mother with a baby sling searching for scraps of food and the gray-haired man with his sad eyes staring right to the train. As if he could change his whole reality only through this small view. All of these images have been burnt forever in my mind.
A few minutes after the slum pass we arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. I waited until the train was almost completely empty and the crowd had passed me by. Somehow Indians never have time, when it comes to transportation. Buses don’t stop, but you have to boldly jump out at low speed and in trains, everyone wants to be the first getting off. Well I entered the platform as one of the last. And it was grossly overcrowded. I made my way through the crowds and somehow I also found my travelling companion, my Brazilian, finally.