Dharavi - incomplete thoughts

Dharavi. As I sit here in front of my computer, I do not know what to write. The words that I typically find so easy to conjure up, the sentences that, on a normal day, would flow effortlessly from my mind to my fingertips are gone. I'm not sure, as I write about India, if they will ever come back. Perhaps it would be best to start with the mere facts; what I saw with my eyes, not my mind. I saw an area of 432 acres in which 1 Million people live, a young man in a corrugated metal factory making aluminum bricks, countless young children saying "Hi!" to me. I saw old women speaking a confluence on tongues, young boys stitching patterns, and street wiring as complex and chaotic, seemingly, as life itself.

But there was more than that in Dharavi - poverty, desperation, need, friendliness, and perhaps even hope. As we left the slum, these conflicting ideas overwhelmed me. I said to Nandini, a girl from the Cathedral School, "I've never seen poverty like this," and she told me, "Oh, this is nothing." We proceeded to discuss the fact that while Dharavi is a slum, the people still have jobs - Dharavi produced over $660 Million (US) of economic output every year.

But what of that do the people see? It is estimated that in the house of every American, there is at least one object that came from Dharavi, from its plastic industry that melts recycling into pellets to be sold to China, its aluminum industry that creates aluminum bricks, or perhaps its leather industry, which sells leather, eventually, to companies like Gucci and Armani. The truth is that the people of Dharavi, all 1 Million of them, see preciously little of this. Near the beginning of the tour, we visited an aluminum factory where aluminum recycling is melted into aluminum bricks. The man working there was from UP, a northern state of India, and had been working there for several years. He had no protection from the toxic chemicals or the flames. His hands were covered in the silvery essence of the aluminum, and we understood that this man would not live long. For now, he sends perhaps 1000 rupees to his family each month. But when he dies from the toxic chemicals so that I can buy an aluminum bike for a cheap price, his family will be left alone.

I don't know what to make of it. Yes, the people of Dharavi have jobs but they still live in poverty. Speaking to Nandini, I employed a medical analogy to describe Dharavi and why, as I left, I was filled with an enormous sense of guilt. "If you have pneumonia," I said, "things could be worse. You could have brain cancer, but that doesn't mean that pneumonia is good." Yes, the people of Dharavi have jobs, but is that enough? Shouldn't every human be entitled to a job that doesn't kill them and if it does, provides benefit to their family?

Regardless, I know that I am guilty of supporting a system that dehumanizes and murders. Every time I walk into a store, every time I buy something, I am, in some way, strengthening the system that has caused the people of Dharavi to live in a slum. But at the same time, am I not providing a job that though lethal provides a couple thousands rupees each month?

This blog is incomplete because my thoughts are incomplete. I haven't even addressed education or the children or the old women or the friendliness or the hope. I haven't even begun to fully understand Dharavi.

If you would like to discuss any of these issues with me, please feel free to email me at mlloydthomas@andover.edu.