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Mumbai slums better than expected

In episode two of Our Guy In India, truck mechanic and Isle of Man TT racer Guy Martin visits the biggest slum in Mumbai, Dharavi. He is surprised to find how nice it is.

Most of what we see of Dharavi in the programme appears well looked-after: clean and tidy and with lots of decoration. There is also a lot of commerce. The people are well dressed; the children well fed. There are refrigerators and large televisions. The walls and floors are decorated with “right fancy tiling”. Some residents are more middle-class than might be expected: Guy meets a man who works as a backing dancer, choreographer and dance teacher.

The narrator explains that Dharavi generates £300 million in trade per year, though I am not sure how this is measured. He goes on to say that 85% of residents have a job; that anyone can set up a business; only 3% of Indians pay income tax; and many slum businesses are (unsurprisingly) unregistered.

We see one business that grinds spices, another making tread plates for stairs, another selling phone calls (though mobile phones are more common). Guy visits the Children’s Education Society’s Banyan Tree English School, which the sign says is a computer education center authorised to teach a course called MS-CIT. Also available here are free medical checks and treatment for children under 12.

It’s not all good. Some areas are so densely built-up that it is dark at street level in the daytime, though we see inside a house here and it is not unpleasant. And there is no running water or sanitation, though people are managing somehow. I also suspect the programme does not show the worst of it. What I do see is life getting better for poor people in India.

The programme is currently viewable online, at least in the UK, though I do not know for how much longer.

7 comments to Mumbai slums better than expected

  • Edward MJ

    There is a section in Dominic Frisby’s excellent book “Life After the State” which covers a slum in Mumbai (the same one?), with many similar surprising statistics. Worth checking out. I believe he’s been profiled on Samizdata before: http://www.samizdata.net/2014/02/the-bleeding-heart-of-dominic-frisby/

  • Mr Ed

    Is the term ‘slum’ used to describe somewhere where people live without either title to property and/or government ‘permission’? i.e. is the term slum a pejorative term used to describe an area where people are unable to ‘lawfully’ reside due to some issue over land ownership or bureaucratic fiat?

    It would seem to me that installing sewers and stuff would require (i) some form of permission and (ii) a willingness to invest knowing that the investment would not be seized or penalised in some way.

    If so, the simple ‘cure’ is to resolve the property/permission issues.

  • I’ve been to Dharavi. I went there in 2012. Most of the observations here are accurate – particularly that there is a lot of economic activity going on. One point that I noticed was that the local Indian network my phone was connected to was using a newer and faster variant of 3G data than I was getting on my regular network at home in London at the same time. (4G was not available in either place at the time – it’s now definitely available in London and probably in Dharavi as well).

  • llamas

    Fascinating. Reminds me of an observation I have made here in the past, that many places where ‘nice’ people’ don’t like going to (my example was 8 Mile Road in Detroit) are generally hotbeds of vibrant, active and progressive commercial activity, and gloriously free-market at that. It’s commerce at its rawest and simplest level, often crude and unregulated, but surprisingly-effective. Maybe we should think of ways to encourage it.

    Is that the same Guy Martin whose video of a lap of the TT course is tearing up the Youtubes? Silly question – I guess it must be. Glad to see where such a fascinating, yet unassuming, guy is branching out.



  • Paul Marks

    India is very big and very complex.

    However the “Permit Raj” (only partly reversed in recent years) means that it is difficult for a business to grow – because it is not considered lawful in the first place.

    Also people may loose their homes without any legal process – as they do not legally own them in the first place.

    Also the Indian government (actually the last Indian government – but the present one has not reversed the promises) has promised lots of benefits and public services that can not possibly be afforded.

    Still it is good to see an article on India – most attention is on China these days.

    The latest rumours on China is that it is a bubble – and may burst as early as the next few weeks.

    However, I know nothing about China (I have not got the slightest idea whether it is a bubble or not) – whenever I try and think about it all I see is mist. My mental vision is totally useless in relation to China.

    India is not nearly so much of a problem for me to think about.

  • nemesis

    I recall Kevin McCloud doing a similar programme several years ago about slums in India (and Nigeria I think) and being impressed how organised they were. A quick google came up with this;

  • flatdarkmars

    Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities also covers this territory, profiling squatter settlements in Brazil, India, Kenya, and Turkey. The author’s conventionally statist assumptions creep in at the edges, rendering his policy recommendations incoherent, but the sections describing the four communities speak for themselves.