Tag Archive for 'slums'

Mapping toilets in a Mumbai slum

At India Ink / NYT:

It was while stepping over the channels of ochre fluid that run between the raggedly cascading apartment blocks that make up the Mumbai slum known as Cheeta Camp that James Potter discovered a real-life version of what could be a scene out of a magical realist novel by Salman Rushdie: a toilet facility that gets built and then torn down again, always on the verge of being finished, but never usable.

“Five or six people circled around to tell me the tale of the perpetually about-to-open toilet. Apparently, for the last 15 years or so, the toilet had been built, demolished and rebuilt three times,” said Mr. Potter, a Hindi-speaking student who is pursuing his master’s degree in public health at Harvard.

Each time, local politicians claimed that the lavatory facility would open “after the elections,” but that never happened. Instead, the residents told Mr. Potter, the government workers would just tear it down and start to build a new one next time the elections rolled around. “The neighbors didn’t have any expectation that the current structure would be opened any time soon,” said Mr. Potter.

Mr. Potter was one of a dozen students from the Harvard School of Public Health who traveled to Mumbai in January to research life in the city’s slums. More:

Also read in Harvard Magazine: Into India


Bill Gates Q&A with Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

From The Gates Notes:

Bill Gates: I’m interested in the questions of economic mobility, as many of the urban poor have moved to the city for economic opportunity that seemingly doesn’t exist in rural areas. Have you had a chance to spend time in more rural regions of India? While there are obvious differences, what is your take on the underlying issues you have seen in other parts of India? Elsewhere in the world?

Katherine Boo: Traveling in rural India with Annawadians and others, I’ve come to share the view of Abdul Husain, a young garbage sorter featured in my book whose family hails from Uttar Pradesh. As he puts it, a city like Mumbai is hard on migrants, terrible sometimes, and also better than anywhere else.

To rural Indians, the attraction of cities isn’t just the greater prospect of economic mobility. Cities also allow people to escape from caste and gender identities and start discovering what it is to be an individual. (One of the most heartening things I discovered in Annawadi was how little caste identity mattered to the young.) The problem, of course, is that a handful of cities can’t sustain the dreams of 1.2 billion people.

 To create more opportunity in the countryside, the central government has lately spent serious money building roads, colleges, water projects, and a rural work-guarantee program–investments that government officials hope might also quell Maoist insurrections in some of the poorest stretches of central India. But opportunities aren’t being created fast enough, so the urban-rural inequality gap continues to grow.

Foundations like yours have been working to address the still-massive problem of malnutrition and stunting in rural children, treat preventable illness, and improve access to potable water in Indian villages. That’s crucial, and it’s making a difference in outcomes. But if I had foundation funds at my disposal, I’d also be keen to support more of the activists currently risking their lives to expose corruption in public governance via relatively new and potent right-to-information laws. Supporting such local activism is a sensitive area for nonprofits, and it’s not a particularly photogenic form of charitable relief. But corruption is a great underlying issue—one of the few things that rural and urban India still have in common—and improving the accountability and transparency of governance may make more of a difference in the long run than opening another health clinic or school. Good nonprofits may supplement the work of a functional and accountable state, but they can’t replace it. More:

Property in Mumbai

In The Economist:

Take the view from one of the towers clustered in midtown, owned by Abhisheck Lodha, a razor-sharp American-educated tycoon making billion-dollar bets on transforming the city. The odd skyscraper erupts out of low-rise clutter. There are pockets of tall buildings on old mill land and along the city’s west coast. But much of Mumbai—supposedly a rival to Hong Kong, London and New York—looks flat and knackered. To the east the vista is of derelict factories, rotting low-rise rent-controlled buildings and the odd slum. To the south lies the ossifying old city centre, with its ageing port, colonial showpieces and Soviet-style offices and bureaucrats’ flats. The nearest green spaces are a racecourse and a club on whose ample lawn members feed stray dogs buttered toast.

Mumbai has perhaps the most extreme statistics of any metropolis. Its land mass is small, stuck like a crooked blade into the Arabian Sea. It has poor transport links, so people who work in the city live near it. That in turn means it has the highest population density of any big city. But it is also low-rise. Panama City has a taller skyline.

The result is tiny living spaces of 4.5 square metres (48 square feet) per person, compared with 34 square metres in Shanghai. And prices are high. Mid-town flats cost $1m-3m. The average price of a 1,000-square-foot pad in the city is perhaps $250,000, or 90 times GDP per head. With flats out of reach, the share of people in slums has risen to perhaps 60%, compared with 20% in Rio de Janeiro and Delhi. Of the rest, about half live in rent-controlled digs, sometimes propped up by wooden staves, or flats for public-sector employees. More:

The letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’

Paul Beckett in WSJ / India Real Time:

I agree with some elements of the rave reviews. It is an astonishing portrait of a much-overlooked section of Mumbai — and Indian — society. The protagonists of the book are given extraordinary space to tell their tales, to elucidate their hopes, ambitions, disappointments and frustrations. Their tragedies are rendered in heartbreaking detail.

The social hierarchy of their slum is convincingly depicted: contrary to many portrayals, the poorest of India’s urban dwellers don’t all necessarily strive to get to the top; they mostly just want to get ahead of the people around them. It is an obvious point once it’s made but is worth making again and again — it’s a major reason why the country doesn’t erupt in well-organized rebellion from the bottom.

How dedicated was Ms. Boo in bringing these characters to life? It is already legendary in journalistic circles that, as she notes in the afterword, for a central scene in the book of a woman setting herself alight and its immediate aftermath, the author conducted “repeated interviews of 168 people.” All this, even though only one person actually witnessed the self-immolation by looking through a small hole near the roof of the woman’s dwelling.

Well, that brings me to my chief objection: I wish some of those interviews had been redirected to the other characters and trends in the book outside of the slum, which are held chiefly responsible for the slum dwellers’ collective misery. More:

Young and vulnerable

A new UNICEF report presents a hard-hitting view of the condition of poor children in urban India, writes T.J. Rajalakshmi in Frontline. 

COMPARISONS between and studies of living conditions in rural and urban India are aplenty, though disaggregated data on the specific deprivations confronting populations in urban centres are not all that easy to find. This results in disproportionate allocation of resources to urban settlements. One of the consequences of the lack of disaggregated information and uneven advances, often because of a serious lapse and lack of interest on the part of policymakers, is that children in informal settlements and impoverished neighbourhoods in urban areas are excluded from essential services and social protection. This is one of the crucial revelations in the State of the World’s Children 2012 report of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) titled “Children in an Urban World”. The findings of the report seem to suggest that there is a universality in the living and other conditions of the working poor. The focus of the report is somewhat skewed towards detailing the conditions of children of the urban poor in the developing world without identifying the systemic reasons for them. more

A shocking satellite tour of the world’s biggest slums

More at Business Insider

Dharavi, India. A slum in Mumbai with approximately 1 million people.

Orangi town, Pakistan. A slum in Karachi with approximately 700,000 - 2.5 million people.

A definitive account of a Mumbai slum from one of the world’s best reporters

In The Caravan, Girish Shahane reviews “Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo [Penguin India]:

 Boo locates her book in Annawadi, a settlement established by Tamil labourers near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in 1991 when repairs were being made to a runway. The settlement’s character was altered by an influx of Marathi migrants, and is being reshaped again by a wave of North Indians. Its changing demographics and proximity to a recently privatised terminal make it an ideal site for exploring economic opportunity and gross inequality—the exacerbation as well as transcendence of social divisions that the metropolis engenders. Annawadi is hidden beyond a concrete wall painted with an advertisement for ceramic floor tiles that, if the repeated slogan is to be believed, remain “Beautiful Forever”. The effort to keep the shanties out of sight behind a high barrier is futile: once aloft, airline passengers are bound to notice slums spreading like eczema around the airport, alongside roads and railway tracks and across once-green hills. More than half the residents of Mumbai live in such settlements, which represent both the city’s capacity to offer jobs to millions of new migrants, and a catastrophic failure of urban planning.

More than half a century ago, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his book Tristes Tropiques, “Filth, chaos, promiscuity, congestion; ruins, huts, mud, dirt; dung, urine, pus, humors, secretions and running sores: all the things against which we expect urban life to give us organized protection, all the things we hate and guard against at such great cost, all these by-products of cohabitation do not set any limitation on it in India. They are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper. To every individual, any street, footpath or alley affords a home, where he can sit, sleep, and even pick up his food straight from the glutinous filth.” Affluent Indians often suggest that eliminating the grime which so disgusted Lévi-Strauss demands a kind of delete button to erase squatter colonies from existence and memory. However, NGOs like the National Slum Dwellers Federation have led a salutary reimagining of shanty towns as centres of productive labour rather than the habitat of dispensable parasites. Foreign correspondents reporting on Mumbai’s emblematic slum, Dharavi, are now more likely to focus on textile exports than on poverty. More:

And here’s the link to Jonathan Shainin‘s review of the book

The chawls of Mumbai

In Mint Lounge, a review of Neera Adarkar’s The Chawls of Mumbai (ImprintOne, 162 pages, Rs1,200):

Mumbai would not be the city it is today without its chawls. These three- and four-storey blocks of one- and two-room tenements dotting all of south and central Mumbai, built on a massive scale over the 19th and early 20th centuries by both the colonial government and private landlords, stand at the centre of the city’s social history. Although each of the great chawl neighbourhoods—Girgaon, Girangaon, Kalbadevi, Worli, Byculla—has its own distinct history and religious and class composition, together they form an architectural and city-specific continuum through which many of Mumbai’s traits can be understood. The quiddity of chawls and their influence “as a historical actor” on Mumbai’s landscape are illuminated through a variety of academic and narrative perspectives in Neera Adarkar’s excellent new anthology The Chawls of Mumbai.

The word “chawl” is a slightly anglicized version of the Marathi “chaal”, which means “anklet” and by extension “corridor” or, to use the Mumbai word, “gallery”. The very etymology of this architectural form, then, reveals what kind of residential space it was—one in which the boundary between private and public space was blurred, and communal areas were as significant as private ones.

Chawls began to come up in great numbers in the “Indian quarter” of Mumbai, north of the spacious, landscaped European quarter in Fort, from the mid-19th century onwards as the Indian cotton industry boomed, filling up the breach left by the Civil War in America. The colonial government and an emerging class of Indian capitalists needed labour; and migrant workers thronging the city from the Western Ghats and the Konkan coast needed cheap housing. As Mumbai (then called Bombay) urbanized and industrialized, many chawls were built by private parties on what was formerly farmland. But after an outbreak of plague in 1898, attributed to unsanitary conditions in the native neighbourhoods, the colonial government stepped in, in its own interest, to build chawls on a large scale. The massive Bombay Development Department (BDD) chawls in Worli, for instance, a colony of over a hundred chawl buildings, were built by the government on what was then cheap uninhabited land in north Bombay, now turned by the advance of history into what might be thought of as Mumbai’s centre. More:

How slums can save the planet

Dharavi, Mumbai, where population density reaches 1m people per square mile

From Prospect:

The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

Not everything is efficient in the slums, though. In the Brazilian favelas where electricity is stolen and therefore free, people leave their lights on all day. But in most slums recycling is literally a way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and 30,000 ragpickers. Six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted every day. In 2007, the Economist reported that in Vietnam and Mozambique, “Waves of gleaners sift the sweepings of Hanoi’s streets, just as Mozambiquan children pick over the rubbish of Maputo’s main tip. Every city in Asia and Latin America has an industry based on gathering up old cardboard boxes.” There’s even a book on the subject: The World’s Scavengers (2007) by Martin Medina. Lagos, Nigeria, widely considered the world’s most chaotic city, has an environment day on the last Saturday of every month. From 7am to 10am nobody drives, and the city tidies itself up. More:

The curse of the hanging latrines

Rose George at The Guardian‘s Comment is Free:

When you write a book about sanitation, people are always sending you helpful things to read or watch. I lost count of the number of friends who urged me to watch Slumdog Millionaire. “You’ll understand why,” they said. And I did, when the latrines came into view. I knew that slum; Juhu Beach, near Mumbai’s non-international airport, has millionaire Bollywood stars living on one side and the Slumdog slum on the other. The film has been accused of all sorts, but most commonly “poverty porn”. I think it did well to capture the paradox of slum life, which is that it is awful and that it can provoke entrepreneurial survival skills which can be worth millions: Dharavi, Mumbai’s most famous slum, has a recycling industry that earns £800m a year.


Extreme Mumbai, without Bollywood’s filtered lens

Lessons in cross-cultural understanding abound for a the British director Danny Boyle filming “Slumdog Millionaire” in an Indian slum. Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

When the British filmmaker Danny Boyle went to Mumbai, India, to make a movie, he found what has all but vanished from cinema here at home: life in extremis.

He also lost what he once considered central to his craft – the power to control what unfolds in front of his camera.

In Mumbai, which is also known as Bombay, thousands of people gathered every time he started shooting “Slumdog Millionaire” on the streets. Permits were delayed, then granted in the nick of time. Sometimes the city morphed overnight, as new construction sites came up and down. Best-laid plans proved useless. India took over. Kindly adjust, it seemed to say. “You have to let go,” is how Mr. Boyle described the experience this month, in an interview on tamed, temperate Long Acre here. “You don’t act omnipotent. You have to let whatever is there get into the film.”


Previously in AW:

Oh! Kolkata!

Can Kolkata rise above its poverty to become the Bengali entrepot for the East asks Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic

When judging a new place, a traveler must first always reckon with his or her point of departure. Arriving in Calcutta by bus from Dhaka, the capital of next-door Bangladesh, is like arriving in West Berlin from East Berlin during the Cold War—a trip I made several times. Grayness is left behind. Instead of the rusted signs of Dhaka, giant, swanky billboards advertising global products glow in the night like back-lit computer screens. Traffic is dominated in Dhaka by creaky old bicycle rickshaws; in Calcutta, by late-model cars. There are, too, the sturdy yellow Ambassador taxis, zippy little Indian-produced Marutis loaded with families, and many luxury vehicles.

Yet the rickshaws that you also see in Calcutta provide a signature image of exploitation worse than almost anything you’ll see in Dhaka: one human being is transported by another, who is not merely furiously pedaling uphill, but actually running uphill on his bare feet, pulling the rickshaw like an animal.

Calcutta is, frankly, obscene.


[Pic: Running out of time: New Laws are forcing rickshaws off Kolkata's streets. Atul Loke]