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Dharavi is often called the largest slum in Asia, though several other Mumbai slums house just as many people - probably about a million - and stretch at least as far. It is crossed by two main roads, named according to their widths: "60 foot road" and "90 foot road". On one side it is bordered by huge pipes that lead into a canal carrying sewage. The oldest part is an area inhabited by potters from Gujarat who have been there for more than half a century. Not far away is a community of Tamil leather workers, Muslims and low-caste Hindus, who all come from the same area of Tamil Nadu. Their neighbourhood looks, feels and smells like a small south Indian village.

Dharavi has long had a reputation for gangsterism, largely because it was a headquarters for illegal distilling and liquor smuggling during the three decades when alcohol was prohibited. The city's mafias were decimated by police death squads and inter-gang warfare in the mid-1990s. Liberalisation dealt the coup de grâce: people no longer had to go to bootleggers to buy DVDs or Scotch. Within Dharavi, rates of petty crime are very low. There are too many eyes on the street for strangers to come in unnoticed or for muggers and thieves to get far.

Krishna Poojavi, my guide, told me that 71 per cent of the people here are said to have access to public lavatories; the rest use open ground. He said this was particularly hard for the women, who have to perform their ablutions before sunrise.


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