Today, my third day in Mumbai was both disconcerting and troubling.
I travel for many reasons; adventure, to take myself out of my comfort zone, the thrill of new experiences, to widen my perspective, to learn, to see the world in all its awesome variety.
I know I lead a privileged life. I also know that 99% of that privileged life resulted from my accidental birth – in Canada, into a stable home life with parents who loved and cared for me, who instilled in me a set of values and beliefs, who ensured I was educated, fed, sheltered and given every opportunity they could afford.
I know all this intellectually; occasionally I need to feel it emotionally, viscerally – up close and personal. Today, I am assaulted with the alternative – to be born poor in India.
We are staying in the Taj Majal Hotel in Mumbai, one of the most expensive in the subcontinent. It is, by any measure, luxurious. I have flown here from North America for the sole purpose of experiencing a bit of India’s history, its culture, its mores, to experience vicariously its life as best I can. I am in the warm bubble of a totally organized tour, no fuss, no muss, no risk. It is a privilege I take lightly.
We start our tour with a visit to Mahatma Ghandi’s Mumbai home, understated for a man of such stature in India and indeed around the world. His room says it all; simple, humble, with few possessions. His picture is on all India’s paper money; to North Americans, he looks remarkably like Sir Ben Kingsley.
Here is where the disconcerting part begins. We next tour a slum, Dharavi, our student guide calls it a “township’. He grew up there, he’s finished an accounting degree and is trying to make enough money to take an MBA – a successful start by any country’s measure.
He describes his home as the most productive few square miles in Mumbai. About a million people are jammed into his ‘township’ making it one of the most densely populated pieces of land on earth. Water service is intermittent from outlets paced around public areas; as are the few public toilets. Sewage seems to work but it could at best be called rudimentary. Dharavi was used as a location for the Academy award winner Slum Dog Millionaire.
Dharavi has been around since the 1880‘s – beyond surviving, residents are living, working, eating, sleeping and, above all, seeking to push their children a rung or two higher up the opportunity ladder – as all parents around the world are.
It is a shocking place for a North American. One of us describes it as the Indian version of Charles Dicken’s London – except this is 2015 and the population of Vancouver is jammed in this one township alone. If it were just living space it would be overcrowded but it is also a workplace for most of the residents.
Work is recycling and it is ugly, dirty, cacophonous, dangerous, noxious and debasing. Scavengers bring anything worth recycling to this depot, selling a days hard work for pennies.
Aluminum scraps are sorted, heated by coal fires to liquification point and poured into ingots. Cardboard boxes are dismantled and refashioned into smaller useable bits. Leather is treated, shipped for tanning, returned and fashioned into finished goods.
Every job is piece work. Denizens work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. All this occurs in, around, under and over the places people live work, eat sleep and wash themselves. the street becomes a kitchen, dining area and living room. Electricity is abundant, everything else is scarce and expensive. The noise is deafening, the smells noxious, it’s a guided tour by a resident who is trying to climb out of Dante’s inferno.
The incentive is simple – send money home to loved ones and family, boost opportunities for children by sending them off in their uniforms to private schools hoping education will open the door to their way out and, of course, the slim chance for each worker to make it out themselves.
Our guide estimates a few billion dollars – yes billion – of value is created here every year. It is raw economics – Ayn Rand without the glossy promotional bits. There is little trickling down.
Yet I am stuck, what can one person, no what can I, do in the face of such a gap?
We are told not to be too quick to judge, we are advised that the hard work and willingness to persevere is to be lauded, we are told that conditions are improving. I am reminded that Dicken’s London is long gone – monumental change does happen.
Somehow it doesn’t seem to calm my sense of injustice, the gap between poverty and privilege is too wide. I’m not sure Ghandi would stand still for this in his beloved India. Neither should the rest of India, nor the rest of the world.