Mumbai as a stark reflection of reality

Mumbai as a stark reflection of reality

Hell of Happiness. Reporting from the slums of Mumbai

– I see no reason to complain,” grins slum-dweller Vishnu Kapoor. – I am not hungry, I have enough to eat every day, I am clothed, and I have even saved up for a cell phone (he shows me a cheap Chinese push-button). My wife loves me, and my children consider me a role model. No debts at all – for what bank would go crazy to give me a loan? I’m a vegetarian, I don’t drink or smoke. Of course I want a better life – and who doesn’t? But I understand that you have to work hard for that, nothing will fall from the sky. I do not steal, justifying my poverty, I try to earn good money. In a couple of years I plan to move into stone housing.

Sleeping under a train.

Sleeping under a train.

I’ve never seen so many smiles as I do in a Mumbai slum. People just light up. The huts are very clean, all washed and swept. Residents of the slums necessarily wash (no smell of unwashed body), right on the move brushing their teeth, the girls are dressed in fine washed dresses and saris. Of course, the camera does not get them excited – they may swear or throw a stone. “After the success of Slumdog Millionaire, tourist groups started coming here every day,” says my attendant, disgruntled. – Rich people come in, walk around and look at us like animals in a zoo, taking pictures without permission-excuse me, it’s not a safari in Africa. They invite me into a room in the slum, and give me a treat: some boiled rice and a piece of flatbread with sauce – I try it, so as not to offend the owners. The landlord explains the structure of local families – men earn money, and women take care of household chores and children. “If a man doesn’t work, then he’s not a man,” the elderly head of the family sums up sternly. – We don’t keep lazy people here.”

Hell of Happiness. Reporting from the slums of Mumbai

Mumbai has a special slum called Dhobi Ghat, a shelter for 700 families who do the laundry for the entire city, mostly by hand. Most of the laundresses are “untouchables” from the lower castes. But there, too, I met some very satisfied citizens. “What are my plans? – 12-year-old Raj wondered. – ‘To continue my father’s business, of course. I’m already helping him dry the laundry.” The father hugs the boy and turns to me, “When I was little, I knew what I would do and that I would have a job I loved. It’s cool, of course, to sit in air-conditioned offices, but then who’s going to provide people with clean sheets?”

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Hell of Happiness. Reporting from the slums of Mumbai

. after fifteen or twenty years, the skin comes off my hands.

Hell of Happiness. Reporting from the slums of Mumbai

In the evening, swarms of mosquitoes flock to the slums – wise Indians protect themselves from them by rubbing orange or lemon peels on their skin. Many houses are located right by the sea (if a storm happens, they will wash away) or around the railroad: the rumble of the train does not disturb sleep, children play next to the rails. We have a popular opinion: they say Russia has the worst life. Whoever says this knows nothing about bad life. Of course, one should always look up to the best, not the worst. But it’s in the slums of Mumbai that you realize that you can be happy without wealth.

Hell of Happiness. Reporting from the slums of Mumbai

Many people in Russia have difficulties – loans, problems at work, and problems at home. At least for one day forget about them. Give your loved one a big kiss. Hug your parents. Play with their children. And you’ll understand – your life is not as bad as it now seems.

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Slums are an inherent feature of a major city in a developing country. What now horrifies sensitive Western viewers in reports from Sao Paulo or Mumbai was taken for granted by their great-grandfathers, who saw with their own eyes the bidonvilles of London and Paris, and sometimes lived in them. Looking at the slums of today’s Indian megacities, Moscow can hardly be called a city of contrasts.

The former states of the “second world” are a rare exception: they still retain the standards laid down in socialist times. In Third World countries, especially in India, the phenomenon of slums can be seen in all its glory. Many of the Bidonvilles have “Nagar” – “city” in Hindi – in their name, and are really a city within a city, with its own laws, customs, and economic structure.

Mumbai: a slum without millionaires

Almost every tour bus on a sightseeing tour of Mumbai stops at an overpass in the center of the city. From there, tourists are shown the huge bidonville below the overpass, where brightly colored fabrics are dried right on the streets. This is one of the oldest slum areas, Dharavi. It was founded back in 1880, when India was a British colony. At that time Bombay (as Mumbai was then called) was in the midst of industrial development, and peasants flocked to the city in droves to work in the factories. They settled on an island densely overgrown with mangroves. Even after India’s independence, the rapidly expanding Bombay surrounded Dharavi on all sides and restricted its growth.

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It is now a veritable mixture of religions, ethnicities and cultures. Estimates of its population range from 300,000 to a million, including natives of all the states and territories of India. This vast mass huddles on 217 hectares. About a third of the population of Dharavi are Muslims, six percent are Christians, and the rest are mostly Hindus. They all have their own shanty places of worship: mosques, Hindu temples, and Christian churches. The main occupations of Dharavi residents are leatherworking and dressing, pottery, textile production, moonshine and retail trade, and recycling – garbage from all over the metropolis is brought into the slums.

Dharavi has its own economic system. By and large, the old colonial model is still there, when there were no guarantees for workers and no trade unions. A few rich people exploit the huge masses of the population who work for a pittance. It is impossible to determine the exact turnover of goods: according to various sources, it ranges from $500 million to a billion dollars a year. Bidonville has five thousand factories and 15,000 artisans. Dharavi is tightly integrated into the structure of the world economy: the goods from here are sold in prestigious stores in London, New York and Paris. Of course, none of the connoisseurs who buy expensive handmade, do not suspect that it is made by the hands of a slum dweller. The per capita income is between $500 and two thousand dollars a year, but most Dharavi dwellers have never seen such money. The exceptions are the few local rich and middle-class people willing to put up with life in a slum for a rent of $5 to $10 a month.

Time after time, ambitious projects are put forward to reconstruct Dharavi and turn it into a luxury neighborhood with cozy houses, schools, parks and roads for 57,000 families. The cost of the project is estimated at $2.5 billion. All these plans face resistance from locals: housing is promised only to those who settled in Dharavi before 2000, plus many fear losing business.

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To call the sanitation situation “unfavorable” is to flatter it greatly. There is one toilet in Bidonville for every 1,440 people. People prefer to urinate in the local Mahim Creek, which is already so polluted that it is a constant breeding ground for disease. Cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid, leprosy, amoebic dysentery and polio rage year after year in Dharavi. There is no exact data: doctors are simply afraid to go there.

For especially brave foreigners, some tour operators offer tours to Dharavi. The official purpose is to draw attention to the dire situation of the inhabitants of Mumbai’s slums, but in reality, tourists take these tours mainly as an opportunity to tickle their nerves and have a look at the “real Asia”.

New Delhi: a city in the capital’s dump

The slums of Delhi, unlike Mumbai, do not take tourists. It is believed that almost a quarter of the population of the Indian capital lives in the local bidonvilles. The growing capital of India, a state that claims regional leadership, is pushing the slum dwellers farther and farther to the outskirts.


The most famous is Bhalswa, where 22,000 people live. It’s a huge slum city built out of waste – basically, people live in what other people have dumped in the landfill. Houses are built from cardboard boxes, pieces of slate, and broken bricks. The city is populated by former residents of nearby villages and migrants from Bengal who came to the capital in search of a better life. Day after day, they scour the dumps for plastic, milk cartons, shabby jute mats and mattresses, glass bottles, copper wire, anything they can sell and get a little money for. Together with adults, children dig through piles of garbage.

In the middle of Bhalswa is a huge pond of dirty water where streams from the landfill flow. The water is a toxic and deadly liquid. When the rainy season comes, the water floods the houses. Clouds of mosquitoes, carriers of dengue fever, hang in the air. There are few public toilets – only six complexes of ten stalls for 22,000 people. There is a shortage of water, and the water that sometimes comes out of the tap resembles strong tea in color. They tried to solve the problem of the lack of water by drilling wells, but many of them are clogged and do not function, and the rest are drilled to a shallow depth, and the water often does not have time to filter enough. Plans for new water lines have recently been announced, but there are no plans for sewers and roads.

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Bangalore: the underside of high tech

The very name of the city of Bangalore is associated with Indian high-tech. It is a city of programmers and ambitious managers, the capital of the state of Karnataka and the fifth largest urban agglomeration in India.

But there is another Bangalore, a city of slums. According to World Bank statistics, there are 862 slums there out of the 2,000 existing in Karnataka. A fifth of Bangalore’s inhabitants live in bidonvilles. If not the largest, then the most famous is definitely the Rajendra Nagar agglomeration. It is a city of four major districts. A total of 13,000 families live there. The houses are built mainly of galvanized corrugated sheets. The average family size is six people and the average room size is five and a half square meters. Everyone usually sleeps on the same bed.

In summer, when the temperature rises above forty degrees Celsius, it is difficult to breathe in the heated iron houses. Every year during the monsoon season, water floods the streets of the slum city, seeps into the houses, rises several feet. The bed is placed so that the water does not reach the bed. Instead of a sewer system, there is an ordinary ditch in the street where excrement and slop are poured. Statistics show that 42 percent of all slum dwellers in Bangalore have moved there from other parts of India and 43 percent have lived in the slums for more than 10 years. One-third of families lack access to basic amenities, and two-thirds experience water supply interruptions – they illegally cut taps into pipes to get water for free, many taking it from the nearest filthy river.

Rajendra Nagar.

It should not be thought that city and state authorities are not trying to solve the problem. Bangalore has launched an ambitious program to move 300 families each year into new buildings built especially for them. But many refuse, both because utilities are expensive and because they are afraid. The fact is that because of the small amount of land in the city center, houses for former slum dwellers are built under overpasses. Collapses, though rare, but occur, sometimes cars fall from above, not to mention the constant noise overhead. Under these conditions, the government relies on private investors, and with the money they lend, they have managed to give many slum dwellers jobs–the Rajendra Nagar economy mainly specializes in sewing textiles, making costume jewelry, and hawker trade. There is even a school with qualified teachers and a medical clinic.

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This, of course, is not a complete list. Basanti in Kolkatta, Indiramma Nagar in Hyderabad, Mehbullahpur in Luknow, Saroj Nagar in Nagpur, Parivartan in Ahmedabad, Satnami Nagar in Bhopal, Nochikuppam in Chennai – there are thousands and thousands of these throughout India. All use child labor and have high crime rates. That’s not to say that the government and society aren’t trying to rectify the situation somehow. But there are too many problems to be solved, and the social issue takes a back seat.

The population in slums tends to grow at an explosive rate – it has doubled in the last 25 years in India. Rural migrants maintain high fertility rates, and access, however poor, to urban medicine allows more children to survive – as a result, slum dwellers are the leaders in population growth rate, outpacing both the city and the village.

Unable to solve the issue of slums, the Indian government tries to sweeten the bitter pill by making movies about amazing lucky people who win millions of rupees in a TV game. And the most grateful viewers are precisely the inhabitants of bidonvilles – the illusion that they are one step away from unprecedented wealth helps them forget the reality of slum cities.

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