I returned from India on Sunday following a weeklong trip that focused on developing the next phase of our social investment strategy in country. As I flew home, I reflected on the experience, the personal conversations and the meetings with colleagues, NGOs, government leaders and entrepreneurs.
The meetings were all very promising. But, most memorable moment of my trip was my visit to Dharavi — one of the world’s largest slums. Dharavi was predominantly mangroves before the late 19th century, inhabited by Koli fishermen. However, as the fishing industry disappeared, the swamps were filled and present day Dharavi bears no resemblance to the fishing village it once was.
In a city where rent is amongst the highest in the world, Dharavi provides a relatively affordable option to those who move to Mumbai to earn their living. Spanning an area of about .67 square miles, it is a city within a city with one never-ending stretch of narrow lanes, open sewers and cramped living quarters. It is home to more than a million people — many of whom are second-generation residents — and is one of the most densely populated areas of the world. Estimates also suggest that annual revenue generation in the area to be more than US$650 million due to the large number of thriving small-scale industries that produce embroidered garments, export quality leather goods, pottery and plastic.
At first, I was apprehensive about the tour. I knew it would provide good context setting for the rest of the week, but I was also conscious of the fact that visitors could be perceived poorly by the residents. The last thing I wanted was to be “another Westerner coming to visit the slum from that movie”. When we arrived at the train station to meet our guide, Manoj, I addressed my concerns. Manoj eased my fears, telling me that the residents would prefer to dispel the misconceptions of the slum and although we should “be prepared for looks”, overwhelmingly visitors are received positively.
He was right. On our tour, we were greeted with smiles and kindness. I immediately felt a sense of community and spirit.
Now, please do not assume it’s all positive, that everything’s “all good”. It’s not.
• The working conditions, especially in the “toxic industries” are nightmarish.
• Cholera, typhoid and malaria are common.
• 18,000 people are crowded into a single acre.
• There is one lavatory for every 1,500 residents.
• Often times, 5 or more people are living together in dwelling that is typically 10×10 feet in size.
• There is not a single public hospital.
• There are only a dozen or so public schools and play areas for children are minimal.
The situation for many is challenging to say the least. But, for the working poor in Mumbai, this is home and, I respect that.
The state government has a multi-billion dollar plan to redevelop Dharavi and transform it into a “modern township”, with what they deem as proper housing complete with shopping centers, hospitals and schools.
There has been significant local opposition to the plans, largely because existing residents would receive only 225 square feet of land each, only families residing in the area before 1995 would be eligible for resettlement and there’s lack of clarity if small businesses in the “informal sector” would be relocated.
A wise person I know often says that life is fairly simple. “People are the same everywhere in the world – they want to live a better life than their parents, and they want their kids to live a better life than them.” It is this thinking that brought many to Dharavi. It is this thinking that enables them to preserve and create. It is this thinking that will continue to drive them to continue to focus on bettering their conditions. It is this thinking that drives me to ensure our social investments are focused and pursue a purpose of helping the world run better by improving people’s lives.