Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"Voices of Change": Surviving in the Shadows Part I

January 19, 2012

Editor's Note: Over the next few days, in our "Voices of Change": A Trip Through Dharavi blog series, we'll introduce you to one of the most unique living settlements in the world: Dharavi. Home to almost one million people, living in one square mile in Mumbai, India, Dharavi is a slum challenged by immense problems. But it is also home to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children filled with hope and strength. In November 2011, a group of 11 "Young Global Leaders" had the chance to visit Dharavi with Melanie Walker, Deputy Director for Global Development Special Initiatives at the foundation. And please share your comments, thoughts and experiences with us!

My only hint of what was to come was the little girl in the parking lot scratching at my window asking for money. She kept her hand on the car as we drove away. I had just arrived in Mumbai. I was told that begging is a business in India and yet it still touched my heart to see this child in need. Although I did encounter my share of outstretched hands, it didn’t seem much different than the gypsies I came across while studying in Rome. The scale was just larger.

As a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum, I was participating in a Learning Journey hosted by the Gates Foundation. We were going to witness and capture voices of the poor in Dharavi—one of the largest slums in Asia. In our morning briefing, I was shocked to find out that about 55% of the city’s inhabitants live in what is called “informal dwellings.” Given the latest Census data, it could be as high as 70%. That equates to about 7 to 8 million people living in the slums—the same number of people in all five boroughs of New York City. They were primarily migrants who squatted at the edge of town, but as the population grew they eventually engulfed the city.

To put this into context, Mumbai is the richest city in India—home to the multimillion-dollar Bollywood film industry and the Bombay Stock Exchange, which lists companies with a combined equity market cap of over $1.6 trillion. It has the most Internet users in India and is a hotbed for technology innovation. According to the Forbes 2011 list, the city boasts 21 billionaires, including energy tycoon Mukesh Ambani, whose 27-story skyscraper is valued at $1 billion—the most expensive home in the world.

By contrast, in Dharavi, the estimated 600,000 to 1 million residents are crammed into a maze of self-built structures with tin roofs and a sprinkling of dilapidated high rises. Narrow alleyways open onto squares where children play with sticks and rocks. You look up and see clothes drying. You look down and see garbage rotting. If you dare to take a deep breath, you confront the smells of the living. “No spitting” signs are prominently displayed.

This mega-slum, if cleaned up and developed, would be prime real estate.

Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy

Mumbai’s garbage gets dropped in Dharavi and gets picked through and transformed. In fact, it is home to the largest plastic recycling industry in India, and almost 2000 manufacturing entities from textiles to leather tanneries. As a city within a city, it has its own services—from grocery shops to hairdressers. There is activity everywhere with people of all ages selling everything from fruit to jewelry. We encountered a woman trading clothing for pots and pans. Bartering is a way of life. Approximately 80 percent of the people both live and work here. It’s like a big pot of gumbo—not a melting pot, but a mixture of cultures and castes, languages and ethnicities.

“I am from Mumbai but I don’t know Mumbai,” shared one young girl. She had never been out of her slum neighborhood even though her family has been in the city for three generations. Her parents pay most of what they earn to live in a 150-square foot space with no toilet. The area was officially declared a slum in 1971, which allowed for water taps, toilets, and electrical connections. Although many rooftops have satellite dishes, there is still only one toilet for every 900 or so people. I spent 10 years doing work in Harlem and our “projects”—public housing for low-income families in the U.S.—seem like luxury condominiums by comparison.

With the plans to redevelop the slums, the main question is what will happen to all of these people. Blocks away is the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), one of the city’s new business districts, which boasts the third most expensive office market in the world just south of the airport. It’s a strange dichotomy, and a challenging dilemma for the policymakers and urban planners. This mega-slum, if cleaned up and developed, would be prime real estate.

“The Dharavi Redevelopment Project demonstrates the uncomfortable truth that informal localities attract the keen attention of the state and of the real estate industry, when the value of the lands they occupy begins to soar,” explained Sheela Patel, Director of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), an NGO involved with urban poverty. While the government works out how to integrate these two worlds, potential solutions are emerging from this shadow city including a more collaborative, pro-poor approach to development.

After our daylong excursion, we were shuttled back to the security and luxury of our hotel compound. Guards checked each vehicle that entered. At the India Economic Summit, there were heads of companies and heads of states discussing high-level issues such as poverty alleviation and youth unemployment. It made me wonder how these gatherings could have a greater impact on the people we had just visited. Every two or three hours we had a break between sessions, with tables overflowing with enough food to feed a handful of families in the surrounding slums. It made me even more conscious of consumption in our society and how much we waste. In many ways, with their focus on recycling and reusing things out of necessity, those in Dharavi had more sustainable habits than we did.

When you push back the dusty exterior, Dharavi is a story of survival and promise. This informal township is not pretty, but it’s functional. The people are resourceful and resilient. They have made a way on their own, building homes and creating an ecosystem to support their community. They exhibit humanity and dignity among extreme poverty. Some have elevated their economic status but cannot find affordable housing outside of the slum. They have the ability to add even more to India’s GDP if afforded greater access to the basic rights of education, home ownership, and a political voice. These so-called slum dwellers are not lazy, throwaway people. They are the working poor. For outsiders the slum is simply an eyesore to be demolished; for these people it is simply home.

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