The Slum Behind “Slumdog Millionaire”

Cardboard Recycling in Dharavi

Our first day in Mumbai provided a rather profound immersion into life in India for people at or near at the “bottom of the pyramid.”  My classmates and I spent the afternoon taking a tour of Dharavi Slum, one of the largest slums in the world and, as we discovered, a center of not only housing for Indians from all over the country but also of significant informal sector activity.  (To note: none of us took photos out of respect for the slum dwellers, but I was able to get high-resolution images from Reality Gives which led our group through the slum.  They did a great job leading the tours and I’m grateful for the images, as I truly believe a picture speaks a thousand words.)

We began the tour in a more industrial section, where we witnessed workers participating in a wide variety of entrepreneurial endeavors.  Recycling was a major activity: oil cans, paint, soap, aluminum, plastic, bags…you name it, it is probably getting recycled somewhere within Dharavi.  We also witnessed workers creating buttery confections, tanning and curing leather to make handbags, and more.  Many people were hard at work, and cars and trucks regularly made their way through the narrow passageways, piled high with materials.

Embroidery factory

Paint recycling factory

Oil can recycling in Dharavi

Mumbai has very bad pollution to begin with, but these work activities result in a particularly severe assault on the senses.  In some cases protection is available to the workers, but the temperature in Mumbai is sweltering most of the time and it is very uncomfortable to wear any more layers or masks.  Visiting Dharavi for just four hours wasn’t without consequences; my throat was feeling the aftereffects of breathing the polluted air even the morning after.  As uncomfortable as it was to witness and experience, though, I can’t really blame the workers given the environmental factors.  While my throat will recover, the vast majority of people in the slum won’t be able to escape this kind of existence, however, and life expectancies in this community are about 50-60 years.

Plastic recycling factory - crashing the plastic into little pieces

We then braved the traffic to cross the main road – a rather risky endeavor that I’ll talk more about in my next blog! – and visit a residential section.  The pathways were narrow and one-room homes were basically stacked on top of each other.  We saw sets of shoes at the entrances, laundry out to dry, and images representing each family’s religion – here in this community, Muslims and Hindus coexisted peacefully, from what I could tell.  The homes were small but it appeared that the residents worked to make them as clean and cozy as possible with curtains and flowers.  There were noticeably more women here engaged in pottery production and taking care of children (to note: the Hindu women work outside of the home, while the Muslim women do not).  There are some schools run by organizations such as the one that led our tour, so this is promising, although literacy rates are still low in India.

Boy in a narrow street in Dharavi

I asked our tour guide about the celebrated film “Slumdog Millionaire,” part of which was indeed filmed in Dharavi, and whether or not it portrayed anything close to reality.  What I could discern of the tour guide’s answer was that the movie portrayed an outdated and somewhat glamorized view of the slums, but was partially accurate at least in its portrayal of Dharavi in the 90’s.  In any event, this was my first time visiting a slum, and Dharavi provided numerous surprises.  For instance, not everyone living in the slums is poor.  There are some wealthy business owners who live or at least spend their days there for convenience sake.  In some cases, migrant workers basically live at their “office,” rolling out mats to sleep at night – this is a win-win as they have a place to stay and the owners have free security.  Secondly, homes in the slum are not as cheap as I would have expected; a one-bedroom place ran for the equivalent of about 60 USD per month.

Ultimately, I am glad to have had the opportunity to experience a small fraction of what the Dharavi slum has to offer.  It isn’t easy to witness poverty, particularly on this massive a scale, and feel almost powerless to do something.  I know that a lot of us are reflecting on this experience over the course of our week together.  There seemed to be a real sense of resilience in Dharavi, however, and many residents smiled or said hello to our group, with a desire to connect that seemed genuine.

Dharavi Kids' smiles

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

Preparing for Chazen India

I’m Krista Sande-Kerback ’14, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to blog for this year’s Chazen Global Immersion class to India!  I arrived in Mumbai late last night after close to 24 hours of travel, and after months of anticipating this trip, I am grateful to be here.

Columbia’s business school curriculum offers a significant number of case studies on companies’ strategies in India, and I’ve personally done some business with Indian companies and volunteer organizations over the years (consulting for outsourcing/offshoring projects and running the regional chapters for a global professional women’s network).  This is my first time visiting the country itself, however, as is the case for most of the students in the group.  I know that we are all looking forward to taking everything in, from sightseeing and experiencing the local culture in Mumbai and Bangalore, to participating in a dozen company visits, to sampling the cuisine, and more.

Our 30-person class has done extensive preparation in advance of our trip: applying for visas, obtaining shots and malaria pills, and participating in classes and group research leading up to our week-long in-country immersion.  We’ve been on semester break for the last month and some students arrived in India early to travel to other regions, so it will be great to exchange stories tonight over dinner.  The topic guiding the course itself is “reverse innovation.” The concept is that innovations can and may increasingly be adopted first in a cash-constrained, entrepreneurial environment in the developing world and then migrate to wealthier countries, as opposed to the “traditional” trajectory which works the other way around.   In our first three sessions, we heard from practitioners implementing these solutions in industries such as healthcare, and participated in a design simulation.  A major takeaway was that although it’s often believed that free, open, unconstrained solutions produce the most creativity, research shows that sometimes constraints lead to the most creative and success results.

Through group research projects, we’re exploring successful Indian innovations that could be adapted for the US market.  Our work expands on what we learned in the Marketing core curriculum, in that we need to dig deep to understand what drives success in the Indian market, determine what segment(s) of the US could be profitably targeted, and then figure out how to market to these consumers.

Our first group activity, a tour of the massive Dharavi slum (which features prominently in a number of films such as “Slumdog Millionaire”), will start in about an hour.  I’ve just spent the past week on campus immersed in another block week course on the “marketing of luxury products,” which featured meetings with executives from some of the most exclusive global brands.  I’m sure that experience will provide a fascinating juxtaposition to what we’re about to encounter in this country known for its huge contrasts.

More to come very soon!

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

Mumbai, Oh Mumbai!

As of now, we have been in India for three full days and I am starting to think that its tourism board’s “Incredible India!” branding is an accurate descriptor for what we are experiencing. There is a saying by G.K. Chesterton that, “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.” And after the first day and a half of self-contained bus tours, I am finally feeling like a traveler. We are getting out and interacting with Mumbai’s people and landmarks in a way that is beginning to feel a bit more organic.

Andrew Gordon, CBS '13 , meeting curious children in the streets of Mumbai.
Andrew Gordon, CBS ’13 , meeting curious children in the streets of Mumbai. (Photo credit: Cory Bronson, CBS ’13)

For instance, one group of CBSers was able to return to Haji Ali Dargah – a mosque and tomb situated in Worli Bay – after having viewed it from the bus window on our first morning. Their account was that the walk out to the mosque was the most awe-inspiring part because they were surrounded by a mass of people from a religious cross-section, all pressing against each other to reach the seemingly floating holy place before high tide signaled its close for the day. Truly, built-in free time is allowing all 42 of us on this trip to make the experience our own – an aspect I do appreciate. On the other hand, our tour guides have been phenomenal at succinctly explaining cultural nuisances that comprise the context of what we are seeing.

On my next post I will begin to cover our business meetings. For now though, I will just reflect on the cultural observations that we have made so far.

On our first day in Mumbai we took a whirlwind tour of the city itself, stopping briefly at its Hanging Gardens to look out over the city’s skyline by the Arabian Sea. Because it is still the holiday season, the park was full of parents with children at play. As we passed, many people stopped to stare at us and street vendors clamored to attract attention to their wares. Foreigners definitely stand out here at first glance because of race, and this fact has made me realize a distinct difference this major city has as compared to the global salad bowl that is New York City. Nevertheless, there is plenty of diversity in religion, ethnicity, and language – all on display in every facet of life. The Tower of Silence, we were told, is a place where Parsees lay the deceased to be eaten by vultures because they do not believe it is right to bury or cremate their loved ones.

The streets of Mumbai are not for the faint of heart! Cars, livestock, and people all share the road.
The streets of Mumbai are not for the faint of heart! Cars, livestock, and people all share the road.

Of course, deviations from what I consider usual are not all as extreme. On a shopping trip to the Palladium Mall – an opulent designer- branded symbol of India’s meteoric growth in wealth over the past two decades – some of us grabbed a bite to eat at McDonald’s. The first things I noticed were signs for seperate “veg” and “non-veg” kitchens and a menu devoid of beef and pork. The two prominent religions here are Hinduism and Islam, so most customers are vegaterians or only eat chicken and/or fish. Because of these options though, I tried a tasty spicy chicken sandwich, complete with paneer cheese and a side of french fries sprinkled with piri piri powder. As a former marketer, I have been intrigued to see how foreign brands translate their products and messaging to suit consumer tastes and behavior here.

On the topic of consumerism though, I think I can state for the group that it has been difficult for us to identify what “creature comforts” signify a middle class status. According to the United Nations, India’s Gini Index was 36.8 from 2000 – 2011, meaning that the economic spread between the upper and lower classes is one of the widest in the world. For comparison, the United States’ spread was 40.8 during the same time period (one of the highest) and Sweden’s was 25.0 (the lowest). So, on our trip thus far we have seen extreme displays of wealth (ex. Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor, $1 billion dollar Antilla) and extreme realities of poverty (ex. The Dharavi Slum – a robust city within a city that houses about 1 million people in 1 square mile. I will not post about them here, because I think CBSers who have recently visited on other Chazen trips have done a sufficient job of writing about this jarring experience here and here).  Though, I will note that our tour guide informed us that not only poor people live in slums. Because real estate prices in Mumbai rival those of New York and London, middle class and wealthy individuals choose to live there too for convenience to the city. Additionally, some slums – including Dharavi – are legal, so the government provides municipal services. Plus, because both native and foreign people often have a certain low economic expectation of slum dwellers, Indians with more money can evade or underreport taxes there without a lot of suspicion.

All of this stated it is easy to see that wealth here does not buy complete isolation from the effects of living in a still developing nation. Lack of strong environmental regulations is the cause of a thick blanket of smog that floats over the city at various times of the day – sometimes blocking out the sun. This fact also contributes to the reason even some of the nicest residential buildings look a hundred years old from the outside – covered in soot and peeling paint caused by the harsh toxins in the air. Crowded roadways, unreliable power grids, and a polluted water system in some places all contribute to India’s infrastructure problem.

Still, I feel confident in stating that our trip so far has not been overwhelmed by feelings of hopeless frustration with conditions here. If any feeling has dominated for me it has been a sense of unbridled excitement that this country, which fought free of colonialism less than 75 years ago, is innovating so quickly to become one of the world’s largest economies. Business leaders that we have spoken with are intelligent, poised, and on a nation-building mission. And as an MBA student, it’s energizing to see how firms are making the “triple bottom line” a priority in a country where it is most critically a necessity.

~DeShaun Maria Harris, ’14 (Follow my travels: