I am deeply humbled by the massive scale of poverty in Mumbai: about one million people live in the 174-year-old Dharavi slum, stretched between the Mahim and Sion stations of the Western and Central railways respectively. This piece of land is heart-shaped and therefore known as “the Heart of Mumbai”.
The slum is loosely divided into industrial and residential. At 5 pm, we entered the slum from the industrial side. From plastic recycling, pottery making, baking local snacks, to re-purposing used tin cans into the very shingles residents used to build their own homes, the slum offers workers many job opportunities. Many of these workers had migrated from North India and left their families behind in order to earn a living here. Residents pay INR 2000 as deposit, and about INR 2000-2500 as monthly rent. Workers earn about INR 100-150 per day. Assuming they work every day for 30 days a month, their disposable income could range from INR 500 to 2500, or about USD 10 to 50, per month. This is significantly more than what these workers would earn back home, which would be about INR 20 per day. Ludicrous earnings come at a great cost: these workers work and live under horrific conditions. Workers solder without any protective gear, handle industrial chemicals without masks, and do heavy lifting without any equipment.
Luckily, there seems to be no signs of child labour. When I asked the tour guide what happens when these fall sick, he shook his head and smiled bitterly, “they go see the natives.” I presumed that meant seeking homeopathic care, because these workers simply cannot afford staying in hospitals and filling their prescriptions. Because of the horrific working conditions, many of these workers would only stay for 6 to 9 months, and then send their savings back home. Unfortunately, getting out of the poverty is never too easy, and many ended up returning to the slums. The vicious cycle continues.
As we transition into the residential area, we ran into a group of children who had just returned from school. They were excited to see visitors and waved at us with fervour. We returned with hand waves as the mind boggling scene began to settle in our minds: these children were playing on a mountain of garbage. The government spares resources to supply the Dharavi slum with electricity, water, and public toilet. However, such minimal infrastructure is simply not enough to support livable conditions. It puzzles me that the government has the ability to support the infrastructure at Dharavi but chooses not to moves these one million lives out of the slum.
The slum is so crowded that even Ganesh, Jesus, Buddha, and other gods co-exist under the same roof in the community shrine. Among the many pressing issues that the India as a country is facing, I believe a few are particularly pertinent to the increasing population in slums: the lack of affordable housing, low adult literacy rate, and shortage of job opportunities for low-skilled workers. As eluded to by various guest speakers on this trip, government reforms in agriculture and manufacturing are in dire need. We hope that through this trip, we further raise awareness of poverty issues in India, and join forces to tackle these burning issues as soon as possible.
Photo source: National Geographic