Peddie in Mumbai and South India: Dharavi

A group of 15 Peddie students and their faculty chaperones are spending a portion of spring break in Mumbai and South India. Below are reflections on their recent visit to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, which is home to almost one million people and a hive of industry and community, but also a place of great challenges.


When asked to pick one emotion that summed up today, I struggled with one word that could fully capture it. As the girl who loves the environment on campus, our visit at Dharavi was an amazing experience. Walking into the tour with a lot of nervous apprehension about what the day would entail, I was pleasantly surprised by the amazing people we saw. Our tour guide, Jinna, explained to us exactly what a slum was, and how the slum is extremely high-functioning in the industry of recycling. We saw men working to collect and recycle plastics, aluminum, and other scrap metals. Dharavi is one square mile with a population of one million people, and has surprises around every corner. This community produces puff pastries, aluminum blocks (that are later turned into motorbike and car engines), and even leather handbags. After long walks through narrow passageways, we took a trip to the school in the slum. Our visit to the school included Johnnie and I teaching the eighth grade class how to "crank that soulja boy", a dance we used to do when we were kids. They laughed, and danced, and filled our hearts with their smiles. 


As we walked through the alleyways that barely fit us, lots of interesting observations and conversations arose. Mainly, we learned about how the "slum" developed and how the government and locals alike attempt to tackle this highly sensitive and tricky situation.

First of all, it is important to avoid using "poverty" to describe the slums, especially after seeing how highly paradoxical the conditions in Dharavi were. Even though there might be open sewage, hanging electrical lines, or dark alleyways, life there has no sign of destitution or desperation (contrary to my previous perception). It was a highly industrious, well-oiled economical machine that simultaneously housed Mumbai's largest leather, recycling, and pottery industries. It thus occupied a very significant place in Mumbai locals' lives. 

There is also a very strong sense of community here, with councilar representation (however effective that is, according to our guide) and various social support services (schools, clinics). The slums developed because people came to the city to seek work and housing, but the lack of any urban planning led to the development of Dharavi as it is today. Therefore, the usual narrative of "poor people deserve these conditions because of their lazy nature" does not apply to Dharavi. 

The natural question is, given the poor physical conditions, how to "fix" the slums. To the government's credit, they have made multiple efforts to clean up the slums, whether through privatization means (asking a company to do it), or actually carrying out the program by itself. The general plan has been to offer the residents apartments elsewhere in exchange for their land in the slum. However, both attempts failed, according to our guide, due to the government's inability to understand the economic needs and and the psychology of the people living here. The Dharavi residents are proud, industrious workers who see their land and business as what they worked hard to earn. Therefore, the idea of outsiders coming in, looking down on them and delegitimizing their lives and businesses is highly offensive and unpractical. 


What Peter discusses hints at the ideological foundation of the Social Contract, or a people's deference of their political and economic sway to the leaders of their government. In the case of urban poverty in India, the failed attempts of municipal leadership to regulate overcrowding have lead to a weakening of this agreement. Dharavi's rise as one of the largest slums in the world is largely impacted by this. This is especially jarring when looked at through the lense of a home or business owner within Dharavi. 

The development of Mumbai slums have their roots in the rapid expansion of industry of the early 1900s, which drew countless workers from rural areas to the city center. Lax housing regulation left Mumbai unfit to account for mass sheltering, but left room for the massive non-commercial land acquistion that today constitutes the Dharavi slum. Decline in sanitation and health means as the slum expanded stirred the government to action, but the result was inefficient government controlled apartment alternatives that paled in comparison to one's own land ownings within Dharavi. 

Dharavi's commercial and economic success, specifically as it pertains to its magnificent recycling industry, reflects decreasing dependence on inefficient government methods to provide economic and housing security. This inefficiency has kept many people tied to the Dharavi slum, creating a "city within a city" in many ways completely independent from Mumbai itself. The development of internal comradery and an independent industry-based economy have caused a weakening of the people's social contract with their municipal government. By divesting their political power from an inefficient urbanization machine, the people of the Dharavi slum have efficiently exercised their democracy in a way we could never truly learn about behind the gates of Peddie. The result is a thriving and fascinating community, muddled by poverty, but hopeful for a prosperous future.