Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bombay / Dharavi

With trains, buses and cars already explored, it was time to try the domestic flight network as a means of transportation from Delhi to Bombay. It is a standard journey that stretches to 10 hours as a consequence of the airport delays, traffic and other issues. Bombay is massive and downtown feels like a typical major city in an emerging market, with unmaintained relics of former prosperity alongside more recent efforts at development. We do the standard tourist route through the places in which the 2008 shootings take place. At the leopold cafe, there are still bullet holes in the walls. 
The highlight for me was, unexpectedly, our visit to the Dharavi slum. Made famous in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the slum is essentially a square kilometre community of corrugated aluminum huts that serve both as residential and commercial space. It is situated on some prime real estate in Bombay and is home to close to one million people. Hard to believe that a population close to that of Calgary lives here. The population density is six times that of daytime manhattan - but without all of the luxuries of consistently running water and electricity. 

I had expected to find a community that was destitute and hopeless. Indeed, the conditions are harsh; as an example, there is one toilet per 1,500 people, which means the creek that runs through it has become an open sewer. But Dharavi may be one of the most industrious places that I have seen. It is a thriving economic hub. Plastic recycling, leather tanning, metal work, wood work, printing, garment finishing factories, home made aluminium swelters. Everyone was busy. 

Between the exhaust from the home made aluminum smelters and the open sewers, the air quality was probably the worst that I have experienced (imagine living here). But it was inspiring to see the level of productivity. In other struggling areas that I have visited (particularly in Asia), people have been idle, relying on handouts to survive. I don't know how the quality of life for a worker in Dharavi compares to someone in a less industrious area. Perhaps this is slave labour and I should be mortified by what I see. But instead I am inspired by the ingenuity and perseverance that I see in this community. 
And while a highly productive community should equate to hope for the people here (despite the massive health and education issues that would exist here in its current state), there is a big challenge facing Dharavi. The value of the land that the slum exists upon has been estimated to be worth about $10 billion. There have been extensive discussions regarding what to do with this land, and what to do with the people and industries that reside here. Sitting at my desk in Calgary, I could never have appreciated the complexity of this debate. Probably, I still cannot. But being here in person, seeing things for myself, I have a better appreciation for the possibilities and challenges of places like this.


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