For millions of children in India, daily life is simply a struggle to survive. Amidst the growing prosperity of the country, there is a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots. As in other nations with great wealth disparities, much of Indiaâ€™s elite embraces its greatly increasing income and emerging superpower status while choosing to pretend that they do not see how the other half lives.
Hundreds of millions are shut off from the boom, living completely outside the affluence it brings.
Eighty percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and only 33% have access to sanitation. Some are merely left out of this shimmering new India while others are actively dislodged by it.
Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are all home to massive, sprawling slums in which a large portion of its citizens live. These slums are severely lacking in essential services such as decent housing, sanitation and access to clean, safe water. Their citizens are pushed to the very margins of society, existing in the smallest sliver of space possible. Living on the periphery, they are often a source of embarrassment to those who wish to present only the glowing face of Indian success.
In the middle of Mumbai sits a place called Dharavi, widely known as the largest slum in Asia. The land on which Dharavi sits was once swamp, later filled in to become a sort of human dumping ground for the poor of nearby Mumbai. As the city sprawled outward, however, in its inexorable and immense growth it grew to encompass Dharavi. Surrounding luxury high-rise buildings look down over its teeming 550 acres. Although exact population figures are difficult to ascertain it is estimated that close to a million people live in Dharavi.
One of the official indicators of a slum, along with lack of water and sanitation, overcrowding and non-durable housing structures, is the percentage of residents living in illegal housing. Children living in such poor conditions are more likely to die from pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles or HIV/AIDS than those living in a non-slum area, and are more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses and other infectious diseases. The illegal status often deprives residents of public services; in Dharavi, for example, there is only one toilet for every 1,500 residents. Not only is most of the housing here illegal but so is 90% of the commercial activity. Half of Mumbaiâ€™s sixteen million citizens live in such an urban slum.
To me, this place dispels the myth that poverty is due to laziness, that the poor somehow deserve their lot in life because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise lacking in some important character trait that the successful possess.
Dharavi is a resounding rebuttal to that belief. Industry and entrepreneurship abound. Very few people are idle. Entire cottage industries thrive here: weaving, food, clothing manufacturing, pottery. Small business owners work hard at production, and all around me is the buzz of things happening. Born into the right mix of circumstances â€“ as the vast majority of â€œself-madeâ€ successes are â€“ the industry-makers here would no doubt be thriving business people with comfortable bank accounts. Instead by pure chance they were born into a world with far less access to education and far fewer opportunities to climb onto the next rung of economic prosperity, no matter how smart or hard-working they are.
Due to its location on one of Mumbaiâ€™s most prime pieces of real estate, Dharavi itself is in danger. The city has unveiled â€œVision Mumbai,â€ their plan to create a world-class city by 2013. This plan calls for eyesores full of citizens who donâ€™t pay taxes, such as Dharavi, to be eliminated and new, expensive condominiums erected in their places. Residents will be forcibly evicted into government-built housing nearby. Perhaps then, living in massive gray concrete bunkers and dependent on the government in a way they arenâ€™t now, the residents will be living in a true slum.