New Internationalist

Life in an Indian slum

06-05.2016-Dharavi-slum.jpg [Related Image]
Dharavi slum Thomas Leuthard under a Creative Commons Licence

This is something that even middle class Indians have no clue about, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

In 1994, my husband Stan and I were invited to the UK by Hilary Blume, founder of the Charities Advisory Trust and Michael Norton, founder, the Directory for Social Change, to record our observations on UK poverty, as people working with the disadvantaged in India. The report was called ‘Across the Geographical Divide.’

Our first visit to Easterhouse near Glasgow, considered one of the poorest and largest ‘slums’ of Europe, was a shock. The houses we visited seemed like middleclass Indian homes with hot and cold running water. Bathrooms with bathtubs and wash basins, were found only in elite Indian homes in 94. I didn’t have hot and cold water in my bathroom at home. Hot water involved turning on an electric geyser or using an immersion heater plunged into a metal bucket at bath time. The Easterhouse people, mostly unemployed at the time we visited, had a piped gas cooker and refrigerators. In other words, the kitchens of the wealthy in India. We redefined our notions of poverty finding similarities between the poor in our adivasi villages and the poor in Easterhouse quite soon.

But to the uninitiated, which includes middle class people from the poorest Asian or African countries, not merely from the western world, an Indian slum is another world. Which is why, reading about relocation for some residents of Dharavi, Asia’s biggest most well known slum, based in Mumbai, was for me, another story of hope for folks who’ve had a raw deal most of their lives.

There are a range of slums in India, starting with shacks, made of cardboard and tin sheets on Mumbai and Kolkata streets, to organized slums like Dharavi where residents pay pretty high rents to slumlords for a tiny amount of space. It’s common for a family to live 10 to a room. Often several people are working, so it’s not an income problem. The slum room might have a refrigerator, bottled gas stove and even an air conditioner for the blazing summer. All these count as luxuries, not essentials, in India. Every home will have a TV with a dish or fancier connection. What is most difficult is the total lack of privacy. Often the women have to queue up for hours to fetch water. And worst of all, most have to queue up for a long time to use a row of public toilets and to bathe. Most urban Indians, even the poorest, bathe every day if they can. It’s essential in a climate where summer temperatures can reach 40 degrees and it’s hot, humid and sticky all through the year. In Kolkata and Mumbai you will see rickshaw pullers and homeless people bathing at a roadside water hydrant in full view of the passing public.

It’s difficult for the elite to even begin to understand the humiliation of a life with no privacy ever and no bathroom or toilet. Having been introduced to slum life as a student in Kolkata and as a writer, I’ve always been acutely aware of how privileged I am, though my parents were never wealthy.

So it was immensely moving to read the stories of residents of the Mumbai Dharavi slum who have for the first time been relocated to flats. One 66-year-old woman described having worked as a maid in Dubai in order to educate her children. She saw them only once in two years when she was allowed a holiday back home in Mumbai. She was reconciled to having been born poor in a slum. And was sure she would die there. Moving into the privacy of a flat is almost impossible to imagine. Other people felt this move gives them status. Takes away the stigma involved in living in a slum. Can we, the readers of this blog ever imagine the enormity of having your own toilet to use, for the first time in your life, in the middle of the night aged 66? Some things cannot be described in mere words. It’s probably beyond our capacity to even imagine such an experience.

The Dharavi project took a very long time to implement. Reading the details was a good news item to wake up to on a sweltering May morning in Mumbai.

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  1. #1 Paul Whittle 07 May 16

    Thank you for bringing attention to Dharavi. I manage a company that has for the last decade made attempts to eradicate preconceptions and encourage not only travellers but middle-class Indians to visit Dharavi to raise awareness. If yourself (the author) or any contacts, particularly local Indians or Mumbaikars, wish to visit with us at Reality Tours and Travel please do get in touch.

  2. #2 ludwig pesch 08 May 16

    Insightful blog - worth spreading your nuanced view of the lives of the poor, their aspirations!
    It also raises the question whether there are any remedies to a squalor no sane person would ever opt for if given an alternative.
    Yes, there are, even many that have stood the test of time. For instance the housing schemes for workers initiated by enlightened city planners of the ’Amsterdam School’ (since around World War I), and architects of the ’Garden City movement’ which in Germany found its expression in the enormous yet beautiful schemes of Bruno Taut - still for all to see and learn from: ’planned, self-contained communities surrounded by ’greenbelts’, containing proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture’ (see Wikipedia for more information) Mind you, much of this benefitted workers then living in squalor comparable to Dharavi or other Asian, African ... slum today!
    These housing schemes were totally different from ’modern’ tenement slums that have marred suburban life across Europe for several decades; now seen as breeding grounds for social decay of every conceivable kind; and so different from the spirit of Dharavi communities described here!
    If anything stands in the way of implementing site-specific and culture-specific solutions for the poor, not only in Asia, it's a culture of deliberate exclusion and discrimination that reduces politics to serving the ’middle class’ (at best) while ignoring the talents, productivity and civility I have found among the poor without wanting to romanticise their situation, on the contrary. Yet having friends inhabiting a Chennai slum all their lives this blog reminds me of the possibility of changing millions of lives by ’merely’ empowering a new generation to be done with ’old habits’, just moving forward without much ado.
    Thanks for bringing back long overdue optimism into this debate!

  3. #3 Josette 09 May 16

    Indeed, Mari, it is hard for us to imagine what it is like to live in a slum! I am happy for the people who have now moved into a flat and wish this could be given to all homeless, or people living in bad situations.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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