Slumdog Success Story

The hit movie Slumdog Millionaire will likely garner a large share of the Oscar awards tomorrow, honors which it no doubt deserves. Yet along with the honors, the movie is also garnering fierce protests in Dharavi, the “slum” in which it was partially filmed. What the residents object to is not the use of the term “slumdog” to describe them, so much as the use of the term “slum” to describe their neighborhood. It is not that there is not squalor and poverty in this district. Built on a swamp at what was then the edge of Bombay, it is the home to somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million people crowded into less than 500 acres, it certainly does not lack for squalor. So why do the residents object to the title “slum”?

Because, according to an article in today's New York Times, Dharavi is a commercial and community success story. As Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava 0f PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge and Research) describe it:

Its depiction as a slum does little justice to the reality of Dharavi. Well over a million “eyes on the street,” to use Jane Jacobs’s phrase, keep Dharavi perhaps safer than most American cities. Yet Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into oppressiveness. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries. Also, you won’t be chased by beggars or see hopeless people loitering — Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an incredibly industrious city. People have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state — including having set up a highly functional recycling industry that serves the whole city.

Just how industrious is Dharavi? According to some estimates, there are over 15,000 small factories and workshops generating as much as $650 million. These are potters, dyers, seamstresses, and, especially, recyclers, who turn the trash of modern life into useful products; together these businesses export crafts and manufactured goods as far as Sweden. All of these businesses operate under the official “radar” that regulates so much of modern commercial life.

No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi. It was built entirely by successive waves of immigrants fleeing rural poverty, political oppression and natural disasters. They have created a place that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself. In the words of Bhau Korde, a social worker who lives there, “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression.”

But Dharavi is now the subject of “redevlopment” plans. For “redevelopment,” read “destruction.” Once on the edges of the city, Dharavi now occupies valuable real estate between the city's two main rail lines. Doubtless the area could use some improvements to its water and sanitation facilities, which are rudimentary at best. And some housing credits to upgrade building in the shantytown would be helpful. But that is never what “redevelopment” is about, and government is never really about “helping” such people. Rather, redevelopment is always about displacing the poor in behalf of the rich. As Mukesh Mehta, the architect in charge, gushes, “You're talking of a location that's fantastic. This is the only location in Mumbai where I can bulldoze 500 acres of land and redesign.” Of course, he makes it clear that he will re-design the current population out of existence; redevelopment is meant for a better class of people.

In many ways, Dharavi is the ultimate user-generated city. Each of its 80-plus neighborhoods has been incrementally developed by generations of residents updating their shelters and businesses according to needs and means. As Ramesh Misra, a lawyer and lifelong resident, puts it: “We have always improved Dharavi by ourselves. All we want is permission and support to keep doing it. Is that asking for too much?”

Support for poor people who help themselves? Yes, that is asking too much. Especially when they occupy some of the priciest real estate in Asia.

5 comments:

Roy F. Moore Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 2:58:00 AM CST  

Then we in the West who care must do something to help them fight for their community's survival. Let's not wring our hands and say "Oh well, nothing we can do."

Remember Chesterton's "The Napoleon of Notting Hill"?

Let's help this Indian "Notting Hill" win against it's would-be destroyers. Help them fight and win!

B. Lee Wainscott Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 1:52:00 PM CST  

This reminds me of Sark in the UK that was spoken about in the press recently...two corporate brothers came to this rural island without cars, and which uses tractors, and horse and buggy. Furthermore, they wished destroy the fuedal government. In any case, this was on bloody island untouched by materialism, and these greedy corporate brothers saw an oppurtunity..can't at least some small portion of the world remain untouched by Western materialism? Is it so bad to have a place where commerce is simple, as well as life--little shops and inns, and no cars?

Anonymous,  Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 1:59:00 PM CST  

Between 600,000 and 1mil people working in 15,000 businesses generating $650million of economic activity.

The math doesn't suggest this is a massive success story. The slum generates economic activity of between $1,083 and $650 per capita per year, or $43,333 per business per year.

This in a city whose average income is about $24,000 per year.

It's a tribute to the fact that people will do for themselves, to be sure, but to claim it as a massive success seems far-fetched.

Tom Laney Monday, February 23, 2009 at 11:23:00 AM CST  

Michael Collins read "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" the night before launching his fight for the Irish Community.

A few years ago, a handful of American Ford workers tried to launch a fight to unite auto workers on a Continental basis. They were subdued by what they believed was their own UAW.

In order to assist workers abroad, we must first have our own organization at home. We must first organize ourselves to win a fight against the pretenders who represent the Banksters and Corps.

Once we are able to defend our own families and communities we will be able to help those abroad do the same.

What John writes about may not be the "massive success" anon wants. But one family man standing for another is the basis of the society most of us are looking for, a good & highly profitable society in the long and best run.

Louise Friday, February 27, 2009 at 8:42:00 PM CST  

It's a tribute to the fact that people will do for themselves, to be sure, but to claim it as a massive success seems far-fetched.

Depends how you define "success" I suppose. There is little crime, apparently, and people are doing things for themselves. Sounds like a huge success to me.

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