The Academy Award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire depicts the story of Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old orphan who lives in Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia. Jamal surprises everyone by answering every question correctly on the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’
Founded in 1882, Dharavi is home to nearly one million people. The population density is more than ten times the rest of Mumbai, but it is probably the most efficient square meter usage in the world in terms of productivity. For many years, Dharavi was subject to multi-billion-dollar redevelopment and gentrification plans aimed at transforming the area into a residential and business hub at the heart of the Indian financial capital.
Last year in October, I had the chance to visit this slum.
My dear friend Karen Doff decided to do something more meaningful with her life, moved to India, and for the past 13 years, she has been caring for girls aged between seven and 26 in an orphanage called Sharanam Center for Girls. Karen acts as a parent, coach, mentor, role model, and teacher. She runs the center, which is part of the Aasha Foundation that manages 25 nurseries and orphanages around Mumbai. I spent an evening with her in Dharavi — and was hugely impacted by what I saw.
A thriving community, full of energy and hope
The slum is a hub for small-scale industries, with approximately 5,000 small businesses specializing in things like pottery, leatherworking, embroidery, and waste recycling, some of them more than a century old. Dharavi is a billion-dollar economy with over 15,000 in-house single-room factories for production, according to some estimates.
What strikes me the most is that people living here are truly happy, hardworking, hopeful, and full of energy. There is a strong sense of community, something which we have lost in big cities where we don’t know our neighbors. Here, multiple generations from all religions, castes, and creed live together in harmony.
All the children on the streets playing with simple, handmade wooden toys. The smiles in their eyes and the questions that they ask are different from what I have experienced with children in other parts of the world including my own.
Even the youngest children speak English fluently in the orphanage, they understand the world, worry about global warming, plastic waste, and other global issues. I shared my story about Everest and we spoke about melting glaciers, waste issues, and what we can do about it. I was truly amazed by their burning questions and curiosity.
There are also community centers in Dharavi that operate as nurseries for babies and a place where disabled children can visit and spend their time productively. When I was there, the children were full of love and energy, very engaged and passionately making lamp decorations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Major hurdles to transformation
However, Dharavi faces major challenges such as access to clean water, air pollution, lack of sewage, and drainage systems.
Most of the trash and plastic waste are encroachments of multinational companies who aggressively promote single-use packaging. This business model, which is not sustainable and should end, aims to penetrate the lowest levels of income, however, creates excessive waste at the same time.
Homes are clean but there is a lot of trash as soon as you step out — municipal services are inadequate and there isn’t an established culture of keeping the streets clean. Hopefully, schools and public education programs can help build a new culture to turn things around for Dharavi, both socially and economically.
There are many small businesses in this hive of economic activity, spanning 200 hectares of land. Reinforcement programs can support small businesses to build brands and thrive, which will greatly contribute to the booming economy.
I visited shops that fix old motors, and many shops sell second-hand air conditioners. Nothing dies here; the life cycles of products are much longer than they are in the Western world. Take a 100-year-old Singer sewing machine, for example. Craftsmen here can easily repair the broken parts to make it work. These skill sets do not exist anywhere else in the world and can transform materials that others would disregard, into valuable assets.
Redevelopment plans for Dharavi have been on hold for many years, mainly because of the struggle to relocate the vast numbers of locals. It is also feared that the transformation could eventually destroy the social fabric with the construction of luxury apartments and shopping malls, which is an issue China has gone through. I hope Dharavi will be a different case when it is redeveloped and manages to keep its community spirit alive. This will be a real challenge.
Complaining is not an option
My Dharavi visit was brief though I came back with many life lessons… As a parent, my responsibility lies in showing my children what Karen has created and devoted her life to doing.
We should rethink wealth and material possessions as a source of happiness. The gratitude I have seen in the eyes of the people there does not exist in our society today. We spend our lives searching for a purpose and we constantly complain about everything.
In Dharavi, I didn’t hear a single complaint from anyone living in conditions that most would see as dreadful and inhumane. All I saw was happiness, contentedness, and great people with self-confidence, curiosity, and a love of life.
Nowadays, the world-famous slum is again making headlines with its intense effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Originally seen as a virus hotspot, Dharavi is now seeing fewer daily cases thanks to the coordinated actions of local authority teams. I’m sure the positive mood remains the same during the pandemic.
I believe that the passionate Dharavi people can be a driving source for growth in the Indian economy in the aftermath of the pandemic. Just like his staggering real-life experience enabled Jamal Malik to cross all hurdles of answering the questions to become a millionaire; no obstacles, even the coronavirus, will stop today’s young generation from pursuing their dreams.
One thing is clear, Dharavi girls will soon rule the world!…