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 of 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 “redevelopment” 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.