Radheshyam Nehrua, from Uttar Pradesh, dries plastic chips on the roof of a recycling shed.
From The Archive
Daniel Brook
No. 25  July 2014

Slumming It

 The gospel of wealth comes for Dharavi 

Radheshyam Nehrua, from Uttar Pradesh, dries plastic chips on the roof of a recycling shed.
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In a speech to the financial elite of India delivered in Mumbai in 2010, president Barack Obama opted for an unusual form of flattery. He saluted “all the Mumbaikars who get up every day in this City of Dreams to forge a better life for their children—from the boardrooms of world-class Indian companies to the shops in the winding alleys of Dharavi.” It was a notable name-check. Despite the president’s mangled pronunciation, his audience of well-heeled Mumbaikars all knew what Obama was talking about. Dharavi is their metropolis’s most famous slum.

Were Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to come to America and do the same—hail the impoverished workfare mothers of Anacostia while on a state visit to Washington, say, or give a shout-out to the tenants of Harlem’s housing projects during a speech on Wall Street—it would be an uncomfortable moment. But, of course, it would never happen. If Modi’s speechwriters tried to throw in a mention of a famous impoverished neighborhood, higher-ups would surely excise it. The American myth of equal opportunity is greatly cherished, they would inform the prime minister, so in the interest of being a gracious guest, let’s not mention the places that call it into question.

But Obama’s tribute to Dharavi went over remarkably well. Those present at the tony U.S.-India Business Council summit seem to have taken it as the compliment he intended it to be. By the time the president sang the praises of Asia’s largest slum, as it’s known (although these days Karachi’s Orangi neighborhood is challenging it for that dubious distinction), the ideological precedent for this sort of thing was well established. Through a decade of academic apologetics and media mythologizing, Dharavi had been transmuted from India’s most shameful urban space—the warren of exploitation, filth, and disease that it plainly is—to the pride of Mumbai. Prince Charles had visited Dharavi on a postcolonial inspection tour in 2003. (Prince Andrew would follow in 2012.) A cover story in National Geographic had presented Dharavi as a place of audacious dreamers. The Wall Street Journal had recommended Dharavi’s “dusty, bustling” leather goods market to “adventurous shoppers in search of true bargains,” and the New York Times had advised visitors to the Indian financial capital to take in Dharavi’s “hives of entrepreneurship,” where toil the “majority of Mumbaikars [who], of course, cannot afford nightclubs or cool boutiques.” By 2010 Dharavi was a well-established symbol, and what it symbolized was the capitalist dream: a wonderland of innovation in which resourceful economic actors deftly evade the interference of an overbearing government.

Mumbai's Dharavi, the most crowded slum in India--six hundred thousand people in five hundred acres--occupies some of the most valuable real estate in the world.
© Adam Ferguson / VII Mumbai’s Dharavi, the most crowded slum in India–six hundred thousand people in five hundred acres–occupies some of the most valuable real estate in the world.

Before long, the idea of the market-affirming slum went global. Shantytowns all over the developing world were reconceived as industrious anthills of pluck and ingenuity, places that showed capitalism at its best. It was a stunning feat of intellectual alchemy, like a pundit using Soweto as an illustration of the wisdom of apartheid.

It caught on because it tapped into one of the most durable fantasies of the business culture—the notion that the poor make better, tougher capitalists than the rich. Durable because it delivers what all such fantasies aim to deliver: a balm for the middle-class conscience and the conviction that the poor enthusiastically support the system that keeps them poor.

And it worked. Soon an expatriate American journalist was pulling together a book of essays under the working title Everybody Loves Dharavi.

For Mumbaikars fortunate enough not to have to live there, Dharavi is less a place than an odor. A settlement of between six hundred thousand and a million people living on a 530-acre V-shaped no-man’s-land created by two divergent commuter rail lines, Dharavi is a neighborhood that middle-class Mumbaikars zip by on express trains. When a train passes the slum, the smell turns foul. It is precisely the stench you would expect to emanate from a neighborhood with one working toilet per one thousand people. (Lacking air-conditioning, the doors of Mumbai’s commuter trains are permanently bolted open for ventilation, making the olfactory assault of Dharavi all the more intense.)

For the Anglophone upper class of Mumbai—the people who would attend a speech by President Obama—Dharavi is easier to ignore. For them, sealed in their air-conditioned, chauffeured automobiles, Dharavi’s stench is stanched. In fact, the city’s global business class came around to acknowledging Dharavi’s existence only once it had been resold to them as a point of civic pride, transformed from an indictment of the free-market system to its vindication.

The repackaging began in 2000 with the publication of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum by Mumbai journalist Kalpana Sharma. The book started out as a Progressive-style effort to show the world how the poor and the marginalized live. As Sharma explains in her introduction, when she embarked on the project, Dharavi was “a reality which many would prefer to ignore. . . . People in Mumbai [would] ask me, why a book on Dharavi, on a slum?” But going where Mumbaikars of her class feared to tread, Sharma unearthed tales to charm a city rediscovering its mercantile roots. The slum dwellers were not pitiable beggars or chiseling welfare queens, Sharma discovered. No: They worked hard! They made do! They were entrepreneurs possessed of an inspiring can-do spirit! The story of Dharavi, Sharma reports, “is a story of ingenuity and enterprise; it is a story of survival without subsidies or welfare; . . . [of] an island of free enterprise not assisted or restricted by the State or any law.”

What does all this unrestricted free enterprise look like on the ground? “We work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” an elderly potter named Ramjibhai Pithabhai Patel tells Sharma amidst his neighborhood’s smoke-spewing kilns. “If we don’t work, we die.”

Radheshyam Nehrua, from Uttar Pradesh, dries plastic chips on the roof of a recycling shed in Dharavi. Nehrua came to Mumbai for work and earns three thousand rupees a month, most of which he sends home to his family in northern India.
© Adam Ferguson / VII Radheshyam Nehrua, from Uttar Pradesh, dries plastic chips on the roof of a recycling shed in Dharavi. Nehrua came to Mumbai for work and earns three thousand rupees a month, most of which he sends home to his family in northern India.

This sounds unambiguously awful, and yet in Sharma’s hands a society with no social security system is repackaged as one old man’s inspiring will to succeed without mooching off the taxpayer. The cosmic unfairness of capitalism—that the poor work constantly and yet still live in poverty—is sold to the reader as a cultural expression we must respect. Which, conveniently, also lets the middle-class reader off the hook for not paying taxes to fund public pensions or labor safety inspectors. In Sharma’s schema, we honor this old man’s work ethic and autonomy precisely by not helping him.

Wearing her rose-tinted glasses, Sharma peers at a cottage-industry foundry that turns out brass belt buckles, and sees “poor men willing to destroy their lungs.” Here in Dharavi, no know-it-all bureaucrat interferes with the common people’s free choice to slowly kill themselves by not insisting that bosses provide respirators. As the author explains, “Workers [don’t] complain because in their own way, everyone gains something from this situation.” In this libertarian fantasia, safety gloves are for saps.

Sharma fakes left and veers right time and again. She cares about the poor so very much, taking pains, for example, to ask a young Dharavi resident about the neighborhood’s notorious water problem. Now, among sociologists and urban planners, the only real debate about the local water disaster concerns its precise extent; a reliable (albeit dated) study of the slum’s infrastructure cited by Sharma found just 162 running-water taps in the entire district. And yet when Sharma looks into the matter, the slum dweller she questions tells her that there is no water problem in Dharavi: “She cheerfully replied . . . ‘See those drums? We have plenty of water!’” (In the absence of adequate running water, slum dwellers scrounge to purchase drums of water on the private market, dispensing it to bathe or wash away excrement.) It would be disrespectful, Sharma implies, for middle-class Mumbaikars to pity the slum dweller who lacks the running water they take for granted. Instead, Sharma urges us to follow her own path and “discard sentimental middle-class attitudes towards the urban poor.” If a teenage girl in Dharavi “cheerfully” reports that there is no water problem in her slum, who are these smarty-pants sociologists and urban-planning commissars to disagree?

No, the only real way to help the poor seems to be by purchasing what they make. “If you want to eat the best gulab jamuns [rosewater-soaked doughnut holes] in town,” Sharma suggests, “there are few better places in all of Mumbai than Dharavi.” And even unadventurous souls can patronize the slum: “The next time you bite into a soft, sweet, gulab jamun at a five-star hotel in Mumbai,” Sharma crows in her “Food, Glorious Food” section, “you will probably be eating something manufactured in Dharavi.” Suspecting that your dessert was fried by a small child tending a vat of boiling oil with no safety equipment would seem stomach-churning to many. But for Sharma, knowing the luxury products you enjoy were made in slum sweatshops is a way of supporting the city’s plucky street urchins. After all, these slum businesses are the places where “many thousands have prospered through a mixture of hard work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity.” Exploitation never tasted so good.

Before long, this understanding of Dharavi had gone as viral and global as bird flu. In 2005 a short piece appeared in The Economist—surely the best shortcut to global conventional wisdom—entitled “Inside the Slums: Light in the Darkness.” It begins by describing the archetypal international business traveler’s first glimpse of India: the descent into the Mumbai airport over “a mass of corrugated-roofed slums.” Ah, but do not despair. “Hidden in [Mumbai’s] sprawling slums is a thriving entrepreneurial spirit that has spawned small businesses ranging from pottery to leather goods.”

The utterly unremarkable point was catching on—in India, poor people work! A few months later “Slum Inc.,” a human-interest feature in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, fleshed out the story line. Leading the reader on a deep dive into Dharavi, Canada’s paper of record intoned, “Yes, this may be one of the world’s bigger slums, but it is arguably its most prosperous, a thriving and productive business centre propelled by tens of thousands of micro-entrepreneurs.” Then came the statistic that launched a thousand PowerPoints: “Estimates vary considerably, but the collective economic output of Dharavi is as impressive as it is improbable: at least $800-million a year, and perhaps well over $1-billion.”

Apparently the main problem with India is that it doesn’t have enough inspiring, scrappy slums.

I have heard this $1 billion sum cited dozens of times and yet never—never—broken down into a per capita figure. So let’s do the math: The roughly one million people living in Dharavi produce $1 billion in goods per year. That would yield only $1,000 per person per year in economic output (which is then, no doubt, grotesquely carved up before anything actually gets to the slum dweller’s pocket). The Globe and Mail reporter probably earned more in a few days in India researching the story about hard-working Dharavi than his sources did by toiling every waking hour every day for the year. But what matters is sticking to the journalistic template, and so we learn, “These people may be lacking, but they are also industrious and enterprising.” The poverty may be atrocious, but they’re working like dogs.

To ascend from mere conventional wisdom to become an unconscious tic in elite discourse, the entrepreneurial slum myth needed just one more catalyst: celebrity endorsers. Enter Stewart Brand, the Bay Area guru who never saw a cultural bandwagon he couldn’t mount (his original claim to fame, on which he coasted for four decades, was launching the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968). By 2006 Brand could be found raving—first in his TED talks, and then in a book, a Wired interview, and more—about what he called “aspirational shantytowns.” As he wrote in his 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline, “squatter cities are vibrant” (emphasis, of course, in the original). “What you see up close is not a despondent populace crushed by poverty but a lot of people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.”

Brand brought this swelling global meme to its natural crescendo: poverty is wealth. It’s like a fine cut of lamb, see. “What drives a city’s innovation engine—and thus its wealth engine—is its multitude of contrasts,” he observes. “The more and greater the contrasts, and the more they are marbled together, the better.” Actually, it’s more like a spicy lamb curry served up from Brand’s bottomless Crock-Pot. “In this formulation,” he continues, “it is the throwing together of great wealth and great poverty in the urban stew that is part of the cure for poverty.” And in this delicious metropolitan masala, even child labor becomes a hopeful sign: “They don’t worry about unemployment: Everyone works, including the children.”

A woman walks through the Kumbharwada potting area of Dharavi in 2011.
© Adam Ferguson / VII A woman walks through the Kumbharwada potting area of Dharavi in 2011.

Not only are shantytowns yummy, according to Brand; “squatter cities are Green” (capitalization, of course, in the original). And as everyone knows, anything that’s green is good. There are green prisons and green mansions. The richest man in Mumbai, an oil refinery magnate, lives in his own $1 billion personal green skyscraper with hanging gardens growing out of its walls. And Dharavi is greenest of all. How so? Because they’re so desperately poor, Dharavi residents can’t afford polluting private automobiles or much in the way of disposable consumer goods. Instead, like decomposers at the bottom of a food chain, they survive by recycling the things that richer people throw away. Dharavi is home to some thirty thousand ragpickers, scavengers who find and sort recyclable scraps from the city’s garbage dumps. Thus, Brand informs his Western readers, so proud of their own environmental righteousness, “in most slums recycling is literally a way of life.” As Sharma’s elderly source might put it, if they don’t recycle, they die.

This, too, was soon assimilated into the global hive mind. In 2007 the Observer (U.K.) sent a reporter to Dharavi and noted not only its “entrepreneurial spirit” (duh) and that it is “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia” (they work hard) but also that what they work on, specifically, is recycling: “Dharavi is becoming the green lung stopping Mumbai [from] choking to death on its own waste.” The story goes on to describe the “hundreds of barefoot street children, human recycling machines” who make all this inspiring entrepreneurship possible. Child laborers as human machines. Top that one, Soweto.

Next came Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who, in his much-celebrated 2011 book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, presented his Panglossian paean to the neoliberal city. If only meddling do-gooders from the labor and environmental movements would get out of the way—“Why do so many smart people enact so many foolish urban policies?” he wonders aloud—the market could work its social-mobility magic. As Glaeser baldly puts it, “There’s a lot to like about urban poverty.”

While Glaeser casts a Brazilian favela as the star of his “What’s Good About Slums?” chapter, Dharavi plays a crucial supporting role in his book. To the Harvard don, Mumbai’s premier shantytown is just one big “teeming mass of humanity and entrepreneurship.”

As Glaeser reports from the sludge-clogged trenches of Dharavi, “In one small, dirt-floored windowless room, a couple of guys are recycling cardboard boxes—tearing them open, turning them inside out, and then stapling them up again so the printing is on the inside. The space does double duty as a dormitory, for old boxes make an adequate resting spot.” What will these scrappy slumdogs think up next? “All this recycling makes Dharavi feel pretty green,” Glaeser muses, predictably.

With popularizers like Glaeser and Brand carrying the proverbial gulab jamun, the morality tale of the entrepreneurial slum became ubiquitous in the West, just the sewage-stinking air we breathe. Meanwhile, back in India, the 2012 book Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw in Dharavi and Why It Matters became a bestseller. A collaboration between pop business writer Rashmi Bansal, management consultant Deepak Gandhi, and photographer Dee Gandhi, the book upped the ideological ante considerably.

Poor Little Rich Slum is beautifully illustrated with portraits of slum dwellers and their surroundings. In other hands it might have been an Indian version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Except there’s this: it was openly marketed as a self-help book for middle-class Indians. The business of comforting the comfortable is not implied sotto voce in the margins; it is the book’s front-and-center purpose. As the authorial pair announce, in identification with their presumed readers, “We are ordinary middle-class citizens. The kind who employ maids and drivers from slums” and who initially visited Dharavi to satisfy a “sense of adventure.”

After one research trip, we learn, the trio went out for lunch at a nearby five-star hotel, a place where a single buffet ticket costs the entire monthly income of a slum dweller. In the bathroom, one author realized, the toilet stall was larger than the homes the team had just visited: “The unfairness of it all, suddenly came alive.” But as the research went on, the authors overcame those pesky feelings of moral outrage. The people living in the toilet-less homes smaller than a hotel toilet stall taught them that “we can be happy, we can be hopeful, we can be enterprising—no matter where [we] are. The question is—are you? If Dharavi can, so can I.”

An Indian man and his daughter-in-law watch television at their home in Dharavi in 2008. Residents of Dharavi fear they will be moved from their existing homes to the outskirts of Mumbai when slum redevelopment plans go ahead.
© Adam Ferguson / VII An Indian man and his daughter-in-law watch television at their home in Dharavi in 2008. Residents of Dharavi fear they will be moved from their existing homes to the outskirts of Mumbai when slum redevelopment plans go ahead.

Rather than pity the slum dwellers, you see, middle-class Indians should learn from their business prowess. What Wharton student could fail to be inspired by Poor Little Rich Slum’s profile of Jameel Shah? In 1995 the penniless Shah moved to Dharavi from Bihar (India’s version of Mississippi) and, after working for a stretch as a dollar-a-day cobbler, started his own sweatshop. Now his factory sells stylish stilettos to Bollywood starlets! The price for a single pair is equal to his old monthly salary!

Shah’s profile deftly dodges the dog-eat-dog details of Dharavi capitalism, but even when the authors descend to that level, they find nothing but more inspiration. An underground plastic recycling operation spewing noxious black smoke is evidence that Dharavi’s shrewd business sharks aren’t deterred by the pesky labor and environmental regulations of the world’s largest democracy. And neither should you be! “All’s fair in love, war and business,” the authors declare. If even the impoverished urban migrants to Dharavi get “sucked into the can-do culture of this special economic zone,” what excuse do middle-class Indians have? Get off your duff! Start working!

With the slum dwellers safely recast from pitiable panhandlers to enviable entrepreneurs, the slum itself is transformed from a shameful zone of exploitation with no place in a modern nation into a model for export. “Dharavi should be celebrated and replicated,” the authors conclude. Apparently the main problem with India—and, by extension, the world—is that it doesn’t have enough inspiring, scrappy slums.

Thanks to the newfound international fad for admiring the urban poor, slum tourism (a.k.a. “poorism”) is big these days in Mumbai. And so, on a trip to the Indian finance and entertainment capital last year, I went to see Dharavi for myself. I booked a slum tour with Be The Local, an entrepreneurial startup of Dharavi natives who, for ten dollars a head, sell insider tours of their neighborhood to people from all over the world. (Unsurprisingly, the company is one of the local business success stories profiled by the authors of Poor Little Rich Slum. The tour left them wondering aloud, “Is less really more?”)

Slum tourism (a.k.a. “poorism”) is big these days in Mumbai.

I met my Be The Local sherpa in a downtown railway station. Dressed in a form-fitting blue T-shirt and jeans and sporting hip, lozenge-shaped specs, the twenty-one-year-old cut the figure of a young man on his way up. We rode to where the rail lines split and the stench begins. Crossing the elevated walkway over the tracks from the middle-class neighborhood on the west to the unplanned Dharavi slum on the east, my guide adamantly explained that he and his neighbors are hard workers. “People think we’re just sitting around smoking cigarettes,” he told me. Unlike slums in America, which to his mind are plagued by unemployment born of laziness, Dharavi’s residents, he assured me over and over again, are industrious. Indeed they are. The slum children we saw certainly weren’t letting excuses like exposure to carcinogenic chemicals keep them from working overtime. And, true to my guide’s guarantee, we didn’t encounter a single beggar.

On the tour, we took in a luggage factory where a notably gloveless man was positioning rectangular pieces of heavy-duty fabric beneath an enormous metal press that descended every twenty seconds, transforming the rectangle into a curved, streamlined side of some future suitcase. Then we observed a recycling plant where workers melted plastic down into pellets of uniform size and color. Then on to a garment sweatshop where men sewed star shapes into fabric with metallic-colored thread at lightning speed. And finally, to a smoky, sweltering, subterranean bakery that turned out tray after tray of flaky pastries. When we encountered a lone drunkard passed out on his back in the packed-mud street, my guide quickly assured me, “Out of a hundred, maybe only one.”

Slipping into a residential alley, dark and barely shoulder-wide with ladders extending down to the street from the upper-floor residences, I caught a glimpse of a gleaming white high-rise looming up behind a fence. It was the premier slum residence, my guide explained, the building where the wealthy few who have risen to the top of the pyramid in Dharavi’s various cottage industries reside with their servants and air conditioners and flush toilets.

When I asked my guide if he wanted to live there one day, he looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Everybody wants to live in that building,” he said.

Ending poverty was once an international goal. Now it is a personal one. And yes, some succeed. But even when individuals make it out of the slums, the slums themselves endure. Even if the pundits get their way and eliminating condescension becomes more important than eliminating poverty, it seems there will always be one acceptable way to look down on a slum: from the penthouse suite.

Daniel Brook’s latest book is A History of Future Cities.

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