Slum dogs

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readSep 24, 2018

Source : Google photo of Johnny Miller’s photo of Dharavi slum in Mumbai

Synopsis : The vast slums accommodate the poor and the destitute in many countries where they try to make a living to survive. They come from the hinterland where life is hard as farmer so they seek an alternative in cities where they find odd jobs. This inequality exists between the rich and the poor in most countries. This blogs focuses on reasons and the ways to bridge the gap.

Someone said that all men are born equal and have the same rights and aspirations as any other. Others say with a smirk that yes but some are more equal than others. Nowhere this is more evident than in the picture above taken by Johnny Miller of Mumbai slum called Dharavi that coexists with the posh development just across the dividing line.

Dharavi is the largest slum in India that houses hundreds of thousands of poor people in the financial capital city of India also known as Bollywood that is home to the largest film industry in the world. As you land in Mumbai ( previously known as Bombay) you will fly over the slum just before you touch down because the slum starts just from the perimeter of the airport and extends to the distant horizon.

It is vast and is densely packed where not even a ten square foot patch is vacant. It was featured in the movie The slum dog millionaire ( watch the movie hit song here )

Link :

that raised great indignation in India because of the word slum dog but the movie showed the stark reality of the slum dwellers when a kid jumped into the toilet pit and was covered with human feces so that no one would dare touch him. ( Watch the full movie here )

Dharavi is like a stinky reminder that the poverty exists side by side with the rich people in the richest city in India and festers like an open wound in otherwise an economically growing nation with the highest rate of GDP growth in the world. People who come to Mumbai with the hope of making a living find it extremely difficult to find shelter although some get odd jobs so they end up in the slums that are practically bursting at seams as they can’t expand any more so can’t take new residents.

There are plans to level the Dharavi slum entirely and build low-cost apartments in a very planned way that will include parks, schools, health care facilities and sewer lines etc. to make it a model town where the poor people will live in comfort and security but it only remains a pipe dream so far. Where will these slum dwellers go while their only living space is bulldozed to make way for the new model town? How can anyone even think of moving such a large number of people unless there is an alternative site built for them to move to?

In every country you will find this stark inequality that exists side by side with the affluent. You will see the poor and homeless people sleeping in the corners of subway platforms in New York or in the Central Park on cardboards and covering themselves with plastic sheets or rags while just across the streets rise tall skyscrapers where millionaires have their pent houses looking down on the park.

You will see this in Cape town and Johannesburg in South Africa where the white people live in fancy suburbs but just across the dividing streets you will see the slums stretching away covering vast areas.

Source : Google photo of stark inequality ( Photo taken by Johnny Miller)

Source : Google photo of inequality in South Africa ( Photo taken by Johnny Miller)

When we were visiting South India , we saw a signboard of an office that says Slum Eradication Office in Chennai. There the local government is keen to show a clean city with modern facilities so comes down hard on slum dwellers who occupy valuable land so they are asked to move on to other parts. I am not sure if the poor are given alternative sites to put up their shanties but we did not see any slums in Chennai .

Can any government just move the poor people and not provide them with alternatives ? In the Philippines there are some two million slum dwellers in Manila alone although some people may dispute this figure. What matters is that a very large number of very poor people live in Manila in slums where they survive or try to on very poor wages they earn as menial workers in the city.

Dharavi in Mumbai is also like that but with a difference. There they have opened up shops and even small manufacturing shops where they recycle waste plastic and metal cans into plastic wares and metal wares that they sell . One fellow was asked how much money he made from garbage, he answered that on the average he made about 30000 Rupees a month working only part-time. This is more than the salary of a bank manager.

So the slum dwellers are not totally destitute because they manage to earn a living somehow but cannot move away to better housing somewhere that is out of their financial reach. Their proximity to the rich neighborhoods gives them the opportunity to get temporary jobs of washing clothes and doing other odd jobs for the rich.

Those who are more enterprising make money out of garbage and call it a part-time job. What they do with their other time is anyone’s guess . The crime thrives in the slums in any country because it is quite profitable. You can intimidate the people with threats of violence to gain some advantage easily but I was told that a sort of social justice prevails even in the densely packed slum of Dharavi where the policemen do not dare to show their faces.

The failed poor housing projects in New York or Detroit where the government has built huge ugly monolithic tenements are a testament to the waste of money to house the poor. It has failed because the tenements are shoddily built and not maintained so you will see the broken window panes covered with plastic sheet, broken elevators and stairs strewn with garbage. Crime festers there and people are afraid to live there but have no other choice.

The question to ask here is why in a seemingly fast developing country like India or South Africa, there are such inequalities and what can the government do about meeting the aspirations of the very poor ? The development of any country that is not inclusive means little unless the poor are uplifted from their miserable life.

I have heard that the Government of India is promising to house everybody by 2022 but it remains to be seen if such a bold statement is backed up by the progress on the ground. The scale of the problem is staggering to say the least. It will cost billions of dollars to build even very modest homes for the poor because the land cost alone is very high near any big metropolis . The cost of the development of the land, building roads, sewer lines, water lines and bringing electricity etc. that a functional township requires is very high and the rate of return is very low so the businessmen in the private sector are not interested.

They develop fancy suburbs for the rich middle class but not for the poor so the task of taking care of the poor falls on the government that has to find money to do so through taxation or other means. It is proven that the poor also contribute to the development of the country by paying taxes and by being self-reliant. They do not seek government jobs or in the private sector because most of them are self-employed.

I now want to see what China has done to uplift the poor . As we all know , China has now become the manufactory of the world because of the emphasis on being self-reliant and making exported goods their main source of income. They have succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination thus creating jobs for the millions there.

I think the job creation is the key that provides people decent wages to live on but they also built huge housing facilities for the factory workers in every city so you will not see the kind of slums that exist elsewhere in the world. No one really wants to live in a slum and be called a slum dog. Life is precarious there and crime festers like an open sore. Poor people have the same aspirations as anyone else and want to live in a clean apartment with water, electricity and healthy living environment. The children would love to play in a park where everyone can breathe fresh air.

China has lifted some 350 million poor people out of their poverty and continues to improve the lives of the rest making it a good example of what a determined government can do and achieve. Other countries can learn from China and apply these lessons at home. The figure of 350 million can be disputed by some but the fact remains that the poor are living in better conditions now than ever before.

The inequality in any society in any country will always exist due to the socio economic stratification that favors one stratum over the others so the poor people will not just disappear in populous countries but significant improvement of their lives can be made if the government is determined like in China.

The other part of this uplift comes from land reform that many countries have tried but only a few like Cuba have succeeded. If the poor people are given their own land to cultivate then they become self-sufficient and even sell their excess produce to make money. They will not leave the countryside to move to slums of cities if they are given the chance to cultivate their own land so the land reform is a must.

In many countries, the prime agricultural lands are owned by the rich people who then make use of sharecroppers to cultivate it and make profits. The rich cannot dirty their hands to they depend on the sharecroppers to do it for them but the poor farmers remain poor as they have no incentive to work hard for the rich landlords. The land lords who always show up at the harvest time to collect their more than fair share of the farm income are apathetic to the plight of the farmers and often eject them if they fail to give them a good income.

The sharecroppers are no fools so they too devise ways not to pay back their land lords the agreed upon share by saying that the crops have not done well or there was no rainfall and the insects ate the rest etc. But this changes when they become the owners of their land.

The good example is the state of agriculture in the old Soviet Union where the collective farms were the practice where the state managed the agriculture through directives but the farm workers had no incentive to work hard to make the land productive. There was wastage, inefficiency in production and storage , in distribution and in generating income for the poor. This changed dramatically when the old system was replaced by the new Soviet Russia where the farms are now being cultivated by the farmers and are making good use of the land. No one wants to go back to those collective farms.

But it took Cuba a revolution to chase out all the rich land owners and redistribute the land to the poor farmers that irked the Americans who had been exploiting Cuban riches and were now deprived of it so they made trade embargo that continues even today.

However, Cuba has survived and has become self-sufficient in food , has generated employment for the farm workers who do not flock to cities to create slums like they do in other countries. They also have the highest literacy rate in the world, the best healthcare system in the world and have become a progressive country not depending on IMF hand outs so a country like Cuba can only go up and not down.

China also had a revolution in which millions perished in wars, millions died of famine due to wars that they eventually won and started on the path of development that has not stopped in spite of threats and sanctions.

The vast majority of poor people come from the countryside in any country. They move to cities because they can’t make a decent living in the rural areas. The inequality that is seen in the slums of Dharavi or in Manila continues because these poor people can’t go back to their rural homes where the life is hard and very difficult so they seek jobs in cities to survive.

I believe that as the countries develop agriculturally, industrially and the infrastructure, they create more and more jobs for the poor so a day may come when the poor people of this world will be uplifted to become the middle class because we have seen this happening in China and India, the two most populous countries in the world. This will reduce the inequality to a great extent although may not eliminate it altogether.

What do the poor of this world have to do to survive in the meantime ? They move to slums where they have a fighting chance to live and be self-employed.

Never mind if they are called the slum dogs.

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