Saturday, 22 March 2014

Five Myths About Slums

The tourist tours around Dharavi slum in Mumbai have sparked much debate - is it an important eye-opener or just poverty porn? I decided to find out for myself, and found it to be a worthwhile experience which shattered some of the preconceptions about slums I had picked up at school and in books.

1. Slums are where the poorest people live

The word 'slum' has nothing but bad connotations in the west. We immediately think of self built shacks, open sewers, disease and deprivation. A slum is commonly thought of as being defined by its poverty. But in India, the definition of a slum is simply a settlement built on land owned by the government. This means it is likely to be informal or even illegal, but it is not home to the poorest. As our guide explained, the poorest people in Mumbai can't afford to live in a slum.

2. A slum is on the periphery of a major city

This is what I was taught in geography lessons. But given the real definition of a slum, this doesn't have to be the case. Dharavi is relatively central in Mumbai, making it quite a desirable location. With two motorways and several trainlines nearby it is a convenient location for commuting. In fact, some people choose to move from their homes in the suburbs to Dharavi in order to reduce the length of their journey to work.

3. A slum is a self built makeshift settlement

Slums come in many forms across the world and even within India or just Mumbai. A slum may be a small collection of shacks. Dharavi is home to one million people, and most of them rent their accommodation. Houses are bought and sold and cost the equivalent of several thousand pounds. The standard varies, but many have two stories, and looking out across the slum you can see satellite dishes everywhere. Many people have smartphones and wireless broadband is the norm.

4. A slum is unproductive and most people don't work

Slum dwellers are generally thought of as being self-sufficient at best, and probably struggling to feed themselves. Dharavi's economy on the other hand is valued at 700 million dollars, and produces a range of goods to be sold domestically and even internationally. The biggest industry in the slum is leather, despite the traditional Hindu customs. Recycling is a major field of activity, employing hundreds of workers to sort, clean and sell plastic or metal containers. And fashion conscious westerners wearing Ralph Loren clothes may be surprised to learn that their garments may be produced in a slum. Thanks to its location Dharavi has a thriving economy and there is little unemployment.

5. A slum is a dangerous place

The stereotype of a slum as being a place of rampant criminality is widespread. The picture of Rio 's favelas shown in the film 'City of God' is just one example. However, our guide told us that Dharavi is safer than most other parts of Mumbai, and that the risk of pickpockets or mugging was far higher in the touristy area of Colaba. Dharavi didn't escape the ethnic violence that swept across India in the 1990s but today the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities live peacefully together.

Of course, Dharavi is just one slum, and our guide emphasised that it is not the norm. Dharavi appears suspiciously often in books, articles and TED talks covering slums. However, at the very least, Dharavi shows that some of our fundamental ideas about slums are flawed.