Who is a Slumdog?

When director Danny Boyle accepted the award from the American Academy of Motion Pictures (The Oscar) for best motion picture he thanked the people who had helped him make this glorious moment possible. His dream had come true at last. He had once told his children that if he ever won the award, he would jump up and down like Tigger (in Winnie the Pooh), and so he did just that as he took the golden trophy in his hand for his role in creating “Slumdog Millionaire“. He graciously thanked his family and the many others who had worked on the film and then in closing briefly thanked all those in Mumbai who had helped him make this film and even all those who did not help.

As he left the stage I thought to myself what a missed opportunity it had been. A man had realized his dream at last in front of all of us and when all the world was listening to his voice in those few magic moments, he chose to focus on his own life, not that of those in the slums of Mumbai about whom the story had been written. Given the global controversy over the film’s alleged misleading depiction of the slums and the people who live there I was surprised and disappointed that Mr. Boyle did not use the open microphone to express more than his reason for his bouncing “Tigger dance”.

The week before the awards ceremony I was back in the slums of Mumbai again. For the past four years I have been a frequent visitor there as I connect and reconnect with the slum dwellers I know whose life’s work has been to fight for their rights as citizens, raise their voice for better infrastructure and the basic services that other city dwellers enjoy, while at the same time taking responsibility for bettering their own living conditions in the face of continued neglect and disregard from their government.

india-067On this particular visit I was spending the day with a man I know named Jockin who is the head of the National Slum Dwellers Federation. Jockin, himself a slum dweller, came to Mumbai in 1963 at the age of 17 to find work. He, like so many others, left his rural home with nothing and migrated to the growing urban center of India in search of a better livelihood. The result of this massive migration of people to the cities over the past several decades has been devastating. The cities are incapable of developing fast enough to meet the onset of demand for infrastructure and basic services and this has resulted in an explosion of shanty towns or slums where inhabitants are left to build their own shelter and live in conditions that are sub-human in order to get on with life and find work. While some of those slums have over the years been raised and replaced with modern buildings, new ones are created as people re-settle and new migrants enter the city every day. Today it is believed that 60% of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in slums. A quick glance across the cityscape as one lands at the airport reveals pockets of slums all over the city from hillsides to small clusters wedged between skyscrapers in Worli – the new shiny business district. The largest of the slums in Mumbai is called Dharavi, sometimes referred to as Asia’s largest slum. It is here that many, but not all of the street scenes in “Slumdog Millionaire” were filmed.

The challenge of slums and slum living is not unique to India. It is a growing issue across the world. In the last 200 years the population of the world has increased six fold to reach approximately 6.6 billion. Two years ago the UN announced that the world had passed a significant point in history. For the first time more people lived in urban areas than rural areas. By 2030 it is estimated that over 66% of the world’s population will live in cities and with a population growing by 82 million people the urban population in the world then will be almost as large as the total population of the world today. Unless urban and national governments across the world can increase the speed and efficiency with which they ready their cities for this onslaught, the idea of slums will be commonplace, not exotic pockets of poverty and deprivation about which people make popular movies.

So when a movie like “Slumdog Millionaire” wins an award of such accolade, it is an opportunity for someone to call attention to a phenomenon that is growing around us and to help us to understand what that means for all of us. If its creator cannot do this, then hopefully others will.

I did not like the movie because I thought it was misleading and focused excessively on the negative elements of Mumbai, but I understand why there were many more who did like it. The story was an adaptation of a book called “Question &Answer” by Vikas Swarup. A quick read that delights because it is a testimony to the human spirit and the dream that someone, born into abject poverty and orphaned can rise above it in spite of the odds because of what he has been able to teach himself and because of his integrity and compassion for others.

I asked some of the slum dwellers I met with what they thought of the movie. They had all seen it on pirated DVD’s that had been circulating around their community. The first man I spoke with was a retired bootlegger named John. He had once made his living peddling booze in the slums, but today his business card listed a number of legitimate professions including TV press reporter (he showed me his press badge, nestled in a filthy wallet), a community worker, a chief promoter of one of the developments which had been initiated by the slum dwellers and a general secretary of a local power company. He came originally from Goa, a state south of Mumbai that is known for its lovely beaches. His father worked in the railways and brought the family to Mumbai when his son was only 6 months old. He had lived in the slums ever since.

John did not like the name of the movie. “We are not dogs, we don’t live like dogs. People who see that movie might think that people who live in the slums live like those in the movie. It is not the case” He went on to explain “Here we know what everyone is doing. We live so close to each other that if someone gets in trouble we come to help them because we can hear them. If someone is hungry and has no food, we feed them. We look after each other because we live with each other”.

Later I would have an interesting discussion with a woman from another slum in Bandra. She was busy calculating how much money she had collected from the women’s saving cooperative that she was a part of. When I asked her what she thought of the movie she said that the love story was nice but she did not like the many scenes that depicted the slums as centers of blight and filth. The slums are awful to live in because there is no infrastructure, she commented, but she did not need to be reminded of that in a movie, when she could see that in front of her every day.

The man I was spending most of the day with, Jockin, had lived in the slums for more than 40 years. He had created the National Slum dwellers Association which was a network of community activist in slums all over Mumbai and India who shared what they learned with each other in their constant struggle for land rights and basic services. Word of his work had spread across the world to slums in other countries and the next day he would be leaving for Brazil to meet with slum dwellers there. When I asked him what he thought of the movie he shook his head, ” Who is a slum dog? What is a slum dog? I don’t know. The people here don’t know the answer either. That movie is not about Dharavi, it is not about the slums. This movie is by people who do not know anything about slums. There is nothing to do with slum. It is bad in its conception. We are not dogs here; we are hardworking people who live to support our family and help those in our community who are less fortunate. People come here all the time believing that the slum is a place of crime and starvation. They think people here are lazy, fooling around, picking pockets. These are the notions of people who are not involved here.” He added “”Slum” is human habitation, filled with human habitats. Slum is only a slum because the buildings are built by the people themselves not by someone else.”

india-070In considering what I have learned from Mumbai’s slums over the years and the people who live and work here, I have recognized that my sanitized western perspective had to be adjusted. The slum of Dharavi is a medium sized city unto itself. It has a population of about half a million of which 70% not only lives but also works here. Most if not all are entrepreneurs running some type of business that the rest of the city would not deign to touch. There are over 1,000 recycling businesses here that collect the garbage, old building materials, empty oil cans, plastics and discarded industrial containers from around the city, then clean them up and resell them back to companies to reuse. Dharavi is also the center of leather production in the region. The Tamils who came to Mumbai from the south of India over the past 50 years, brought with them leather making expertise. Now 38% of the leather that in tanned and worked in Dharavi is exported around the world for manufacturing purses and shoes. There are other businesses too. Every morning 3 million little breakfast pastries are made in Dharavi and delivered all over the city so that the Indian middle class and others can enjoy them for breakfast. The domestic help that cleans the homes and drives the cars of middle class Mumbai also reside here. The slums are a vibrant and integral part of the Mumbai economy as well as the greater Indian economy. One cannot ignore that the economic growth of both India and China for that matter, have been built partially on the backs of these urban migrants.

But regardless of their significant and useful roll, slum dwellers and the slums in which they live are an eyesore and an embarrassment to many city leaders who would prefer to pride themselves on clean and efficient, prosperous metropolis’s. Many would just as soon see them disappear completely or at the very least move them all to some remote spot far away from eyeshot. Today the slum dwellers of Dharavi are fighting again for their rights. Several years ago an architect named Mukesh Mehta devised a plan to redevelop this particular slum since its location right in the middle of Mumbai made it potentially a very profitable real estate opportunity.

Without consulting the slum dwellers themselves Mehta approached the government and devised a scheme whereby the slum would be divided up into parcels and auctioned off to various developers from around the world who would be required to build some low income housing in exchange for having the right to construct brand new building for commercial and high end real estate purposes. The plan proceeded as such for awhile until Jockin and his associates caught wind of it and raised the roof, exposing it to the world for what it was: a corrupt scheme to make millions at the expense of the poor (who had been rightly given the land originally by the government and had been paying lease fees on it ever since).

That the slum needs to be redeveloped there is no question. Everyone would agree with that, particularly those who live there. The infrastructure and basic services are non-existent; people live without drinking water, toilets, electricity and proper sewage disposal. Their houses are made by themselves or others who came before them and arranged in a haphazard form around filthy twisting alleys and walkways that make Dickens’ London look like a modern planned city. But if the scheme proceeds as Mehta originally intended, the once vibrant neighborhoods and communities where people cared for each other and worked would be demolished and replaced by high rise residential units, designed by someone who had never lived in a community such as this.

So why should we in the rest of the world care about this? What is happening today in Dharavi is significant for all of us to understand. How the government in partnership with the slum dwellers deal with the redevelopment plans for Asia’s largest slums may set a precedent for how slum redevelopment is handled not only in India but all over the world.

In Slumdog Millionaire, the character played by Dev Patel is empowered to take control of his own life in spite of the odds against him, because of what he has learned on the streets and because of his own strength of spirit and integrity; he rises above it all to find a better life. So too have the slum dwellers of Dharavi learned to build functioning, supportive communities and sources of livelihood, in spite of the odds against them. They are entirely capable and qualified to contribute to a meaningful and sustainable plan for the redevelopment of their city, if they are allowed. If they are not allowed to be part of this process the longer term effect may be more damaging than one could imagine.

img_0355Slums can cultivate industriousness, integrity, and a sense of community if those who live there believe they can affect the quality of their own circumstances and be a part of the outcome. But slums can also breed crime, apathy, anger and ultimately terrorism if they are places of hopelessness and powerlessness.

If and when the world is successful at achieving the former for its growing urban centers of blight, then we should all be ready to do a “Tigger dance” in celebration together.


February 23, 2009

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