What is the first word that crosses your mind when you hear the word – slum? Poverty? Lack of work? Starvation? Violence? Dirtiness? Huge density? These were the words that I associated with slums before I got to know more about this unique structure. I was not totally wrong. The dirtiness, bad smell and the density that you can’t even imagine is common to most of the slums around the world. Slums of India are similar but I will not focus on all of them.
I will share with you my knowledge about one of the largest slums in the world – Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Even though Mexico City’s Neza-Chalco-Itza slum is four times bigger than Dharavi, this slum in Mumbai remains unique and outstanding out of other slums around the world.
The beginning of Dharavi slum
Let’s focus first on some basic facts about this slum. It was founded in 1882s during the time when India was a British colony. Before that time this was a mangrove swamp which belonged to Koli fishermen. But after years the swamp was filled with human wastes and rotten fish. Fishermen could no longer use this area. They changed their profession into bootlegging liquor. This place remained empty. First Gujarat people came there to start a potters’industry. Tamil Nadu inhabitants established tanneries. Immigrants from Uttar Pradesh focused on textile goods. With more and more people moving there because of low prices of land, new factories were founded and the place was getting more fame in this area. Especially poor immigrants from many parts of India were choosing this place to move in.
Huge density of Dharavi
Now in Dharavi slum there are more than 60 000 structures with more than 1 million people living in 2.39 square kilometers. The density and diversity of the population can be really shocking. You can find there Hindus, Muslims and Christians, that is why all the religions have their own temples. There are so many shanties that the daylight has problems to reach the narrow passages. They have few floors and on every on them there is some work going on.
When you enter Dharavi you have to quickly adjust to the smell of sewage. There are not enough toilets – according to the survey from 2006, one toilet was for 1440 inhabitants (of course, now the situation is much better and the number is pretty much acceptable). But not everyone agrees to be provided with more toilets, some people believe that it would just waste water. For them water is not so easy to get, yes, now there are more taps everywhere, you don’t have to walk for kilometers to get it but still in many parts it is available only for a few hours. In one small room less than 30 square meters you can find up to 15 people who are living there accompanied by uncountable mice. But I must say that even these problems are going away slowly by the efforts of the government and NGO’s.
Citizens struggle with hygiene problems which lead to malaria, diarrhea and tuberculosis. Malnutrition is common. Children have problems with tooth decay. People don’t care so much about health here, they think about money. They don’t come here to rest, their priority is work. They hope that when they start their “career” here they can grow higher. There are thousands of stories there about people who came here barefoot and now they own properties worth millions of dollars.
Unknown facts about Dharavi
That was the bad side of the slums. Most of them look like this so there is no surprise. Now let’s focus on the economic potential of them. This is actually something that people are not aware of. Dharavi slum officially generates 1 billion USD a year, but the reality is much more shocking – it is 5 billion USD a year – black money is counted in India in huge numbers. Avoiding taxes, black and white money transactions, real prices in real estate markets – all this you can find in one of my future blog posts. This 5 billion USD of GDP will be much more than many cities in Europe. And please don’t worry about GDP per capita here because the over all size of economy matters more in the world. Otherwise, Luxembourg would have been the boss of the world instead of USA.
The industries in slums are not small. Lots of them are internationally connected web development companies, application and software developing companies, IT, call centers. They export goods around the whole world. They manufacture for the most luxurious companies. Did you know that the dinner checks in the most luxurious hotel in Mumbai are actually made in slums? Go to the best confectioners and you will be surprised that snacks are coming from Dharav slumi (but of course, don’t generalize – not everything is being produced in slums). They focus mostly on leather business, pottery work, textile goods. Even the trend to recycle waste came to the slums and it is becoming one of the leading businesses in Dharavi. Dharavi (like other slums) gives a great opportunity for young people who can’t afford renting an office or building their workshop from scratch – slums can provide you everything in a small price that let youngsters (and not only) start their live as entrepreneur and then climb the ladder. Not only they can save on rent but also cost of living is very small and the concept walk to work saves also money, energy and causes less pollution. They give much more to the planet then they take from it. Dharavi is also a place where children and teenagers have to chance to create something unique and surprise the world. There are lots of examples of this and I came across a few recently. Ansuja Madiwal (a 15-year old student), who joined the Dharavi Diary program in 2014, thanks to her amazing skills built a special mobile app called “Women fight back” which is helping women in distress. Another teenager – Fauzia Aslam Ansari (14-year old) developed an app which is there to organize water collection by starting an online queue for water.
A very interesting and surprising thing is that according to the research carbon footprint per capita in Dharavi slum is much smaller than in high-income districts in Mumbai. In more developed area people commute to work by car and in Dharavi this solution is impossible – even auto rickshaw can’t enter these narrow streets. Also energy consumption level is very low in comparison to other part of this metropolis. As I mentioned before the recycling industry is also growing in Dharavi.
What should be done with Dharavi?
The problem of Dharavi has been discussed for years. There were plans to raze and redevelop this part of the city. International companies like Lehman Brothers or Dubai’s Limitless were also interested in redeveloping this place. The topic of Dharavi slum is broached in the University of Harvard and by many prominent economical gurus. The latest plan includes the construction of houses, schools and roads for 57 thousand families in 2.8 square kilometers. There would be also additional space (3.7 square kilometers) for commercial area. This idea has as many supporters as opponents. The other group claims that any changes in this structure can cause many irreversible changes. The prices of the rooms can go higher (now it can be even around 4$ per month) and people will not be so keen to come here to work and live. People think Dhavari redevelopment is only for the government and is not including inhabitants better life. Residents will get their tiny apartments, but the rest will be given to investors who will build their own factories or shops there. The chain of this unique industrial system will be broken. Many people claim that politicians just want to get rid of slums because that brings bad fame about India, but they forget that according to many researches it is estimated that the informal sector is responsible for the majority of India’s annual economic growth and 90% of all employment. Remember that today’s slum is tomorrow’s vote bank. What does it mean? It is simple – people in slums will mostly vote on one political party or candidate, they are like a family and it is much easier to convince them. They live in much more congested area than rich people that is why it is much easier to connect with them and gather them so they can listen to politicians. They have a leader who will tell them whom they should vote for in the next elections.
Why stay in Dharavi
People who come here, there are not forced to stay here for decades, but they have work here, their life is based on this place so they don’t want to leave it. They come here freely. They have friends here, they belong to this place and even though they have more savings than you can even think of, they don’t want to leave this place. Dharavi slum gave them food, so they want to dedicate their lives to Dharavi. There are families who live here for generations. They have there everything they need: schools, hospital, shops, electricity, gas, television and even video players. It is located between two main suburban railway lines so no surprise that many who don’t work in Dharavi chose to live here because of good localization and cheap accommodation. Also remember that slum is a slum for us, for many it is their home and home is not just about the walls and the doors , it’s also about the neighborhood. Ask yourself a question – would you like to leave a house where you are surrounded with lots of nice neighbors and childhood friends, where you have everything to live and where you are simply so happy? I bet many of you answered yes. Home is where the heart is and for many slum citizens slum is where they belong to. Many of them are very rich but they don’t want to live anywhere outside the slum. You can’t even imagine how many people are offered to get houses by the government and still refuse to move out or simply rent it to others instead. On the other hand, remember that slum means lots of freebies from the government, NGO and other charity organizations. People there (and other poor people who don’t live in slums) get special cards that allow them to buy things form much cheaper price than common citizens. What is really surprising that the crime rate here is really small. Of course fights or robberies happen here as well, but in comparison to other wealthier parts of the city, the frequency of police intervention there is lower. Even if you are a foreigner, you can feel safe there.
What we have to understand is that middle class in Europe is able to call themselves middle class and wear brands like Zara thanks to this people. If slums or low wage workers are washed away, many of us will not be able to afford lots of things as the prices will go surprisingly high. More on ”why the world needs slums and the dark secrets of global economy” you will find soon in my future post.
Of course, as you already know there are thousands of places like this in India. Maybe not on such a scale, but slum is a big part of the Indian landscape. But remember, India is not only about slums, this is just a small percentage of this country. India’s huge size gives you the opportunity to explore different places with different style of life. But this is the beauty of this unique and out of the ordinary country. Now the question arises here- Why and how a slum is born? This is a huge topic and I will talk about it separately in my future post.