Just a visit to my local friendly slum

Indian slums, recently publicised in thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, are an overtly encroaching forest in the urban jungles of India. In fact, an Indian government committee created specifically to address slum settlements estimated that 93.06 million people in 2011 resided in shantytowns in India alone. And without doubt, the vast majority of those slum-residents live in poverty.

This is a tragedy that I could not ignore when I was visiting Mumbai in April for a family reunion. Dharavi, Asias largest slum, is Mumbais most infamous landmark. So, I decided to visit one of the lesser-known slums in order to better comprehend the dynamics of the slums and those who live in them; and of course present my insights, including an environmental perspective to all you People & Planet Blog readers!

I was accompanied by Mrs. Kavita Vaswani, a family friend and neighbour of my aunt with whom I was staying, who kindly guided me around the slums within the vicinity of our apartment block in the affluent Breach Candy area. On a Monday morning, we went with the aim of connecting with a side of India one rarely engages upfront, except for ones interactions with shantytown-tenanting domestic workers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and the waiters and waitresses serving at restaurants. We were thoughtfully aware of its high relevance in understanding the perplexing socioeconomic and political realities of India today.

And without further ado, let me showcase you a photographical tour of our visit to our local friendly neighbourhood slum, supplemented by a captioned explanation of each picture

The picture above shows the shantytown may be engulfed with the dirt and filth produced by the highly inadequate waste-management and dilapidated housing (to be elaborated in the next photographs), but it still presents the spiritual side of India. Spirituality is Indias greatest charm. The slum is dotted with several Hindu temples or mandirs, the grand-looking 17th Century Mahalakshmi Temple being the most renowned.

To those not acquainted with the Hindu Pantheon, Mahalakshmi is the Hindu Goddess of wealth, prosperity (material and spiritual), fortune and the embodiment of beauty. However, Kavita and I decided to receive our blessings in lieu at the more humble, sparsely attended and smaller Hanuman Mandir. Hanuman is another greatly revered Hindu monkey deity, who is emblemtised as one of the heroic characters in the Indian epic, The Ramayana. The idol above may not sculpturally adhere to an accurate physical depiction of a monkey, yet it did possess some mystical power which we both felt as we were praying. It was for us at least, a spiritually fulfilling experience.

As we walk through the narrow lanes, our eyes are bombarded by the despairing sight of dilapidated housing, caked in dirt contributed by inadequate maintenance, over crowdedness and the intense smog choking Mumbais clear air.

To my amazement, the majority of the local inhabitants were an amiable bunch, eager to socialise with us outsiders. This gave us the chance to get better acquainted with the livelihoods of slum inhabitants, by learning from them their current living conditions, residential-related issues, aspirations and their well-being. I decided to ask some of the residents a few questions on these matters. Kavita happily facilitated in translating the answers of interviewees who were not conversant in English.

We had come across Salena (right), an apparel weaver. Her daughter Ambika on the other hand is an IT student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), one of the countrys most prestigious tertiary institutions. She told us that she strives to get involved in the IT industry at the completion of her degree. And unlike her mother, who lacked even elementary English skills, she can communicate in it quite fluently - another symbol of the education and socioeconomic elevation in a country where English is the lingua franca of success.

Already, we see signs of a family moving up the socioeconomic ladder, as an older generation transitions to a younger one. I then asked them if they are happy here. They both replied yes, because they live in a central part of Mumbai, which allows them to conveniently travel around the city and that they have a solid roof on their heads, with proper access to utilities; albeit the deteriorating infrastructure. I asked them what should be improved in their neighbourhood. They both said that they wished for streets to be cleaned and the garbage to be properly cleared. In their opinion, the local municipal authorities have neglected their district and they feel helpless in voicing their need for regular clean up of their filthy lanes.

I could not blame Selena and Ambika. As we walked around the slum, we were exposed to narrow lanes that were covered in littered trash. As you can see in both these pictures, the shantytown residents have devised an informal garbage disposable system in which they throw waste into the bins. But they can do so much without the assistance of the local authorities who actually do have the resources to collect their trash and dispose it through environmentally and economically sustainable means, such as recycling. In the meantime, local authorities neglect this duty; rendering the residents to dispose their waste into the nearby Indian Ocean (five minutes walking distance from here).

Such a practice unfortunately further dirties Mumbais already polluted coastline, as it clogs with more and more unhygienic waste. Also it does not help the slum-housing formation; and its continuing existence is a product of poor urban planning, excessive population growth, appalling political decision-making and corruption that is prevalent in the Developing World, let alone India. Consequently, slums are dilapidated in infrastructural design and lack proper hygienic cleanliness; exposing the residents to an array of diseases, especially cholera and diarrhea - a major recrudescing problem in slums globally. This example of governmental institutional incompetency further highlights the severe negative environmental impact slums have on their residents. Although paradoxically both Salena and Ambika claim that they have developed immunity to diseases and rarely get sick due to lifelong exposure to the unhygienic environment in which they live.

Kavita before she guides me into another slum that is adjacent to the sea and neighbours the one we were previously in. This one was a local Marathi fishing village in the days before Mumbais rapid urban growth encroached upon its territory, coercing it into its current shantytown state. Can you still notice the trash littered throughout the lane?

A proper picture of this seaside settlement. For all the shortcomings of inhabiting a slum, at least the dwellers of this one can enjoy a picturesque view of the Indian Ocean. Sunsets are quite visually breathtaking from here.

Again, both Kavita and I were welcomed to a friendly crowd of local tenants. One family agreed to be interviewed by me, with Kavita being my translator once again. In the middle, we have Ashish (middle), with his son Siddharth (right), sitting next to me (left). Ashishs wife and of course Siddharths mother, Anjali, was also present. She however declined to have her photograph taken. Despite that she was as approachable as the rest of her family when we interviewed them. We are very happy here, Sir. We have electricity, a roof on our heads, in the centre of town and we are next to the sea. We only wished that the government would clean our streets. Otherwise, what more could we ask for? This is what Ashish told me when I asked him on his sentiments towards living in his current abode.

He is a chauffer who runs his own car rental business, while Anjali works as a beautician at a nearby hair salon. I then asked Siddharth what he does. Like Ambika, he is part of a younger generation of English-speaking, formally educated Indians. He told me that he is a primary school student at St. Stevens. I was quite surprised as St. Stevens happens to be one of Mumbais most prestigious English-medium schools. I later learned from my Aunt that unlike other renowned schools in the city, which are only reserved for the elite, St. Stevens offers classes to children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds - often without financial compensation. He further mentioned that he wants to become an airline pilot when he grows up. Dont you see another parallel story to the one of Selena and Ambikas family? They too are a family moving up in life, as one generation gives way to another.

After socially mingling with that nice family, we pottered about the slum, often encountering swarms of flies! I decided to take another picture of typical dusty lane in this area. Do I need to say more?

As we left the slum, we came across the local office of a private security firm. The gentlemen sitting were one of the security guards. He was more than happy to speak to me about the slum. He told me that they were not here to protect the local inhabitants but the business interests of a private property developer who had recently bought the block of bricked squalors. The property developer intended on demolishing them to replace them with a plush five-star multi-story condominium. My biggest concern was the future of these dwellers. Were they going to be another impecunious community displaced and made homeless and thus further impoverished by the selfish, vested interests of the wealthy elements; something that so often occurs? Dont worry Sir, the new owner has allocated some of the apartments to all the current residents as compensation assures the security guard. If that is the case, then it is a positive sign that the residents shall have better housing in the near future- another indicator that livelihoods of many of the slum dwellers are ameliorating.

Once my conversation with the security guarded concluded, so did my tour of the slums of Mumbais Breach Candy. On reflection, the living conditions of the slum residents are quite shocking to an outsider such as me; particularly the deteriorating infrastructure and the unhygienic environment that the local inhabitants must face. What has been already discussed is just the tip of the iceberg of the socioeconomic, political and environmental problems residents of shantytowns generally endure.

What I saw on that day reminiscently embodies a widely held perception on spatial inequalities in relation to environmental degradation - it is always the poor who face the brunt of environmental damage, even though they are the least polluting. Albeit such circumstances, Kavita and I came across resilient, honest, hardworking individuals who make the most out of their current lifestyle. My observations do indicate that their livelihoods are improving. At least with the two families we interviewed, we know that their children, Ambika and Siddharth respectively, are climbing the socioeconomic ladder through perseverance in formal education.

Even if these people and their living conditions may transparently appear as impoverished to eye of the average Westerner, they still fare much better than the hundreds of millions of Indians who are still suffering in extreme poverty. My Aunt in fact comically mentioned to me after my tour that these slums were not real slums. I still beg to differ, but she made a valid point that their livelihoods are nowhere as severe as the most destitute of Indians. The ones who Kavita and I met on that day were certainly properly nourished, employed in steady income professions, even if they were informal, and were able to put their children though good schools, so that they and future generations would benefit from the socioeconomic and even political opportunities that their forefathers and foremothers never had.

There are villages in the hinterland of central and eastern India where peasants face all kinds of horrendous abuses from feudal landlords through a forcibly imposed caste system, which has rendered vast numbers of them in a viscious cycle of poverty. They are consequently inflicted by indentured labour, malnourishment, illiteracy and socioeconomic immobility institutionalised by a prevalent caste system. Even in Mumbai, there are other slums festering with shacks running without electricity, whose lanes are ravished by horrendous diseases while hoards of starving and illiterate children and adults crowd these settlements. At least in this one, there is hope for the residents. They are definitely joining the ranks of Indias burgeoning middle class, the prime symbol of Indias success; and eventually metamorphosing into a developed nation.

Photographers: Kavita Vaswani & Kunal P. Kirpalani

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