Slum Dogs

August 20, 2013 10:17 pm

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As her reputation goes India is beautiful, smelly, noisy and she houses an awful lot of people, a sixth of the worlds population. Within Indias’ huge 1.2billion population coming up to a sixth of them live in the squalor of slums. They line transport links whether outside Mumbais’ International Terminal or on the tracks of a train station in rural Kerela they are ever present and from a tourist point of view captivation is unavoidable.

Arguably the world turned a blind eye to the workings of Indian slums until it was deliberately brought right into our homes in the form of Christian Colson’s Slumdog Millionaire. Overnight the world was hooked. The slums had stopped being a traveller’s tale where only those who had seen them could appreciate them, now to a small degree everyone had a vague idea of their existence.

slumdogmillionaireHowever many NGO’s continue to step up their game to fix the abysmal standards of living they are still there and growing. Increasingly rural to urban migration is rife and birth rates are extremely high (the UN estimates that 27million children will be born in India this year). The perception that Indian cities are where the bigger and better opportunities lie has also contributed to the rocketing population of Indian financial hubs.
The underbelly and brain of a slum is fundamentally run by slum lords. Slums become, as they grow, a city working within a city. They have their own governance, gangs and rules. Their illegal nature means that people rise in power through their ability to take or provide at the click of a finger.Traditionally the more backward a society the more a slum god has free reign to rule. Without the structure that government run schemes offer there is the opportunity to take it into their own hands. Often these systems run so far back and deep into society that reversing the consequences are impossible in the short term.

Mumbai is India’s heart of foreign direct investment; full of young things and increasingly the most westernised city in the country with McDonalds on many a corner. 

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However, 40 percent of housing in the city is classified slums, “unfit for human inhabitation”, although these figures have only recently been confirmed during India’s first census in 2011. Compared to New Delhi’s 15 percent slum population Mumbai is without doubt in a league of its own.

Indians are renowned for taking every money making opportunity that comes their way. They can be selfish and unbelievably friendly all for the sake of 20 rupees (less than 20p). Arguably this is what is most dangerous about the slum lords. There first schemes took advantage of the poor’s encroachment on land that was illegal for them to live on. It started out by men paying the bribes to police and government members for one hut in return claiming rent over the years from the occupant. But this is India and this is Mumbai where there is space there is occupation. Suddenly thousands of huts sprung up and inevitably the slum lords held a claim to all of them through the power of black mail. Most worryingly the growth, expansion and development of these slums is backed by a majority of government officials who are either bribed to not react or to gain support, after all they have huge sway power in elections. Services such as water or electricity are sold to dwellers with a government ministers name tagged followed by the arrival of an increased rent to pay to your slum lord and an increased bribe onto the minister.

child-rights-commission Slumlords also exploit children, often with disabilities, talent or beauty to beg with all the money they earn going straight to their slum lords pocket. The children’s only gain from this vicious cycle is a morning and evening meal – if they reach their target for the day. They may spend afternoons by traffic lights simply knocking or mornings on a train singing with a home made drum. There is no proof only stark evidence that slum lords take limbs or blind children to increase the income they can make daily. Increasingly the space between mafia groups and slum lords is closing and in many cases has already merged.

Dharavi slum, Mumbai, is changing the way the world perceives slums. Dharavi growth in business terms (as well as population that has now crept above a million) has led to an environment of more formalised work and ultimately this has had a knock on effect on the very informal workings of the modern day slum lords. Set over a vast area of land and Asia’s largest slum there are undoubtedly areas still in the depths of deprivation, rent can be as low as 185 ruppees (2£) a month. There businesses all have one thing in common, they thrive through recycling and they are even teaching the Western world a thing or two. It has let to the investment of hundreds of people and companies and finally the Indian government is constructing and encouraging the work of Dharavi. Dharavi Slum Piles of plastic, cardboard or other rubbish line the streets in an organised chaos. Bakers bake and sewers sew, Dharavi also houses one of the biggest leather industries in the world. All of this has naturally brought money to the area changing the standard of living entirely although space restriction still means that the local train tracks still act as a toilet to the majority. Or increasingly their link to their job in the city.

There is no doubt that the situation in India, Mumbai, Dharavi, is changing. People are still coming in droves to the city favouring labour intensive jobs over that of the agricultural ones they have grown up to learn. Historically those in the slums are regarded as the ‘untouchables’ in the tough Indian caste system although there is more and more evidence of inter caste marriage. Of course there is certainly a few generations still needed to flush out the remaining.

India has a long way to come before the poverty in rural and urban spaces catches up with the huge growth that other sectors of the country are experiencing such as their iron industry. However development of Dharavi will not only change lives but also attitudes. People are more aware locally and globally. Although hundreds of countries face the pressures of slums India is undoubtedly home to the biggest contrast of rich and poor. This stark contrast and rising investment to the cities leave the people in charge with little excuse not to react.remnants of caste abuse stories which in turn will change India’s attitude to those in need. Sadly at the moment the majority of them turn a blind eye and problems are still rife. It is not uncommon to hear of interceptions of higher caste members with lower caste activity sometimes down to stuff as simple as their dress.

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