How the Other Half Lives

Indian street children search for reusable scrap at a garbage dump in India's financial capital, Mumbai. (Photo: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP-Getty Images)

For millions of children in India, daily life is simply a struggle to survive. Amidst the country's growing prosperity, there is a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots. As in other nations with great wealth disparities, much of India's elite embrace its increased wealth and emerging superpower status, while choosing to pretend that they do not see how the other half lives. Hundreds of millions are shut off from the boom, living completely outside the affluence it brings. A full 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and only 33 percent have access to sanitation.

Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are all home to massive, sprawling slums in which a large portion of its citizens live. These slums are severely lacking in essential services such as decent housing, sanitation and access to clean, safe water. Their denizens are pushed to the very margins of society, existing in the smallest sliver of space possible. Living on the periphery, they are often a source of embarrassment to those who wish to present only the glowing face of Indian success.

In Mumbai, I flitted in and out of the two Indias. One is on the streets, right up front — the beggars, the pavement dwellers, the slums, the street children, the tiny laborers who pick through the litter for recyclables when they should be laughing on a playground. It's noisy, in your face, assaulting you.

The other India is cocooned behind all this, tucked away from it. This India is one of quiet, air conditioning, service, amenities, middle and upper class people living their lives much as the wealthier live their lives anywhere. They are doctors, professors, engineers, computer programmers and other professionals. They live in beautiful gated homes or modern flats and spend evenings in premier restaurants and hip, trendy nightclubs with loud techno music and drinks that cost as much as they would in New York or London. Mostly, the two Indias exist separately from each other, as if each half is unaware of the other side's existence. Sometimes, however, they clash, which is happening more and more every day, in social upheavals that demand change, reform and equality.

In the middle of Mumbai sits a place called Dharavi, widely known as the largest slum in Asia. The land on which Dharavi sits was once swamp, later filled in to become a sort of human dumping ground for the poor of nearby Mumbai. As the city sprawled outward, however, inexorably due to immense growth it grew to encompass Dharavi. Surrounding luxury high-rise buildings look down over its teeming 550 acres. Although exact population figures are difficult to ascertain, it is estimated that close to a million people live in Dharavi.

One of the official indicators of a slum, along with lack of water and sanitation, overcrowding and non-durable housing structures, is the percentage of residents living in illegal housing. Children living in such poor conditions are more likely to die from pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles or HIV/AIDS than those living in a non-slum area, and are more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses and other infectious diseases. The illegal status often deprives residents of public services; in Dharavi, for example, there is only one toilet for every 1,500 residents. Not only is most of the housing here illegal but so is 90 percent of the commercial activity. Half of Mumbai's sixteen million citizens live in such an urban slum.

Yet it is not a slum in the way I had imagined — not a ghetto. It looks and feels much more like a village one would find anywhere else, just not right in the middle of the huge, sprawling city of Mumbai. Industry and entrepreneurship abound. Very few people are idle. Entire cottage industries thrive here: weaving, food, clothing manufacturing and pottery. Small business owners work hard at production, and all around me is the buzz of things happening.

One of Dharavi's largest industries is recycling, estimated to be a nearly $1.5 million a year business. Eighty percent of the waste from Mumbai is recycled in Dharavi, and industry that employs almost 10,000 people including children. These small workers collect and haul plastic, glass, cardboard, wire hangers, pens, batteries, computer parts, soap — virtually anything that can be turned into something new with useful life. Here, nothing is considered garbage.

The streets are very narrow lanes and often our driver has to reverse all the way back out to let trucks or oxen-led carts pass us. After a while we get out of the car and walk, instantly attracting attention. I watch women making papadam, a thin crispy bread with bits of pepper in it. They roll the meal out on little stone tablets on the ground and then place the tortilla-like rounds on cone shaped wicker baskets to dry. The children of Dharavi follow me, posing for photos or running shyly away. They smile at the camera and tail me like little sleuths, giggling.

Down another lane, I am led up a steep ladder with a rope handle hanging down from the ceiling rafters, to watch men working at sewing machines, making shirts in assembly-line fashion. One does the cutting, another sews the sleeves, another the collar, and on down the line to the finished product. The man in charge shows us a beautiful completed shirt, which he says will sell wholesale to a retail store buyer for 15 rupees, about 35 cents.

In another section of the neighborhood, clay pots are being made, a woman mixing the clay for her husband as he sits at the potter's wheel, skillfully and intently forming the perfect urn. Kilns line the middle of the alley, their smoke permeating the air and creating a stifling heat in the already 95-degree day. Up and down these lanes sit thousands of clay pots and bowls of all shapes and sizes; I pass an elderly, stooped woman who is laboriously carrying a load of the pots on her head to a vehicle to be transported for sale.

To me, this place dispels the myth that poverty is due to laziness — that the poor somehow deserve their lot in life because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise lacking in some important character trait that the successful possess. Dharavi is a resounding rebuttal to that belief. I have rarely seen people work so hard in all my life, up to 18 hours or more each day, much more so than many middle-class earning hundreds or thousands times more. Born into the right mix of circumstances — as the vast majority of "self-made" successes are — the industry-makers here would no doubt be thriving business people with comfortable bank accounts. Instead by pure chance they were born into a world with far less access to education and far fewer opportunities to climb onto the next rung of economic prosperity, no matter how smart or hard-working they are.

As I look around I find myself musing about leisure time, recreation, entertainment. Many of the residents here walk, sometimes quite far, for their families' daily water supply, a process that can take hours. Between their cottage industries and taking care of a home and children, I'm certain that most people in Dharavi work from far before dawn until night. Leisure time is a luxury, the province of the well-to-do, and just one more indicator of the abyss of difference between the haves and the have-nots of this world.

To have leisure time, to be able to enjoy entertainment, is a luxury for the wealthy — as is space. My friend Dita once observed that wealth requires space, and nowhere is this more apparent than a place like Dharavi. The residents here seem to have no privacy, no moments of solitude or sanctuary. Poverty eliminates both space and leisure, two elements that seem necessary to most of us and which we often take for granted.

Due to its location on one of Mumbai's most prime pieces of real estate, Dharavi itself is in danger. City authorities have unveiled "Vision Mumbai," their plan to create a world-class city by 2013. It calls for 'eyesores' full of citizens who don't pay taxes, such as Dharavi, to be eliminated and new, expensive condominiums erected in their places. Residents will be forcibly evicted into government-built housing nearby.

Perhaps then, living in massive gray concrete bunkers and dependent on the government in a way they aren't now, the residents will be living in a true slum. And I wonder, what will become of all these children?

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