Slumming It!

The word slum is more likely than not to evoke images of the very famous movie, Slumdog Millionaire and Oscar winning musician, Rahman’s music. The story of the protagonist, Jamal Malik has perhaps best brought back a word we had long forgotten into our stream of consciousness. From being an object of shock for much of the western world, it has become the current flavour of the season. But how do we Indians understand our slums? What is our consciousness of these places?


Have you ever wondered where your maid goes once she is finished with the chores of cooking and cleaning for you? Where is your driver headed for once he has parked your sedan in the comfy confines of your garage? Where the local guard is headed towards once his night shift is over? Chances are, if these people are not living in accommodation provided by their employers, they are slum dwellers.


As Indians, slums are no novelty to us. More likely than not they exist in our city and we cross them each day on our way to school, college or work. Even more likely is the fact that we wrinkle our noses in disgust and look away as people go about their tasks and curse the government. After all, it is the government who should have made sure that the slums don’t come up.


Perhaps if you would go back a step, try to understand what defines this entity known as a slum. A slum is an unorganised cluster of dwellings that usually come up in a public area owing to its inhabitants settling there. Most inhabitants of slums are people not originally from the area; rather they have come from villages and towns looking for employment. Slums commonly also tend to come up in areas where industrial development is taking place and labour force is required for construction. Official definitions explain the housing to substandard and tenure to be characterised by insecurity.


Most of these people do not earn enough to be able to afford regular, legal housing, even the low cost ones and are thus compelled to live in slums.


Let us have a look at some of the most common myths surrounding slums:


We as citizens do not have anything to do with them


It is your maidservants and drivers, guards and washermen who live in these slums. Think about how much domestic support you really get in a day. Add to that, the people who help out with the jobs of cleaning, cooking etc. at your place of study or work. Think of their consolidated numbers in any city, especially in a metropolis. Now try to understand how slums are necessary for their existence. Whether legal or not, an eyesore or not, they are home to several thousand people in any city. These people are a key cog in the functioning of the city’s wheels.


Slum dwellers are illiterate and dirty people


Contrary to common perception, all slum dwellers have not always been this poor. Often people are pushed to the fringes of society by debts and expenses, relocation policies and forced eviction from their rightful properties. All these things and more push people who are the lower to middle income bracket to a life on the margins. Some of them have received a considerable level of formal education as well.


Slums tend to have structure fin place and its dwellers more often than not have their sets of customs and traditions. You would also be surprised to see how brightly the flame of learning burns in slum dwellers. They, of all the people, know how a good education can be a passport to a better world.


Razing down slums and evicting these people will solve the slum problem


No, it most certainly will not. As long the construction companies need labourers, companies need guards, households need domestic help, the residents of any slum are not going to leave the city and go back where they came from. They are here due to the simply law of demand and supply. As has been seen in the past, razing down one slum merely means causing it to rise up in another part of the city.


Slumdog Millionaire is not the only thing capitalising on the novelty of slums, slum tourism is another concept that has recently caught on in South East Asia. Mumbai’s Dharavi has attracted many people curious to see the inside workings of a slum of this magnitude. While this may cause outrage among some people, others merely view it as a sign of our capitalist times. Whatever sells!


The problem of slums is not easy to address and shall not be redressed overnight. An understanding of the nature and origins of slums would help in drafting any solution. As already proven, simple elimination of the slums is most likely to just shift them elsewhere. Where possible, the government and citizens can explore the options of legalising the slums and giving the dwellers rights and access to basic facilities. By bringing these people back into the net from the margins of the society, we would be taking steady steps towards India’s vision of holistic growth.


For each of us, it isn’t that hard to figure out how to help. Perhaps just reading Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram could be a starting point of inspiration for some of us. To provide medical facilities, to teach the children, to educate the womenfolk about healthcare, all these are just a few of the things that most of us our capable of. So the next time you look at disgust at your neighbourhood slum, think again.


Shruti Saxena

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