All My Stuff
So I visited a slum yesterday. And not just any slum. Dharavi. If slums were cities, it would be slightly smaller than Dallas, Texas. Actually, no. Scratch that. If slums were cities, Dharavi would have a population slightly smaller than Dallas. If slums were campuses, Dharavi would be the size of Phillips Academy. And I thought a 40-person dorm was big.
One million people in an area of.67 square miles. It’s crowded. It’s smelly. And it’s monsoon season here in Mumbai, so it’s obviously going to be rainy. I knew what I was getting into when I applied for this trip, and I had been mentally preparing myself to go into the slum for weeks. I thought I was ready. And with regards to the heat, smell, and weather factors, I was.
The thing that stands out most clearly for me is not the lack of visible sky when I was in between buildings, or the smell of raw sewage floating in a disturbingly green river, or the pouring rain. All those things were less than ideal, of course. But what really stopped my heart for a moment was a statistic that our tour guide told us. Every house in America probably has at least one item made in Dharavi. The stuff in my house. The stuff in your house. It’s made in “factories” that double as homes by people who work 15 hours a day for a mere $3. Call me selfish, or self-centered, but the thing that made me feel the worst about Dharavi was the fact that people just like me are inadvertently part of this cycle.
Find a piece of plastic. Look at it. Hard, shiny, durable. It’s fantastic. Yesterday I stood on the roof of a building, and that’s all I could see on rooftops. Plastic workers collect as much as they can find, store it on the roof, melt it, dye it, and form it into little pellets that go into giant 50 pound sacks. Those pellets are then shipped to factories all across India and made into items that ship all around the world. “Made in India” has taken on a whole new meaning, even if it’s not representative of every single case.
I’m not sure what to think. People in Dharavi are hard-working and resilient and impressively sane, but they also live in 100 square-foot houses with their whole families and defecate on gigantic trash heaps 10 feet away from the public bathrooms that serve over 1000 people. They love their children, but also cannot feed them properly. On one hand, I feel like they might find some sense of fulfillment, or at least be happy. On the other, I can’t help thinking that their way of living, with the long days and the horrible conditions, isn’t really living at all. It’s upsetting to say the least. And confusing.
I can’t help but think back to the plastic workers. What are they trying to do? Feed their families? Send money back to their villages? What do they get—$3 dollars a day and lung problems from inhaling the fumes all day? I don’t think anything will be the same anymore. Now, all I can see whenever I look at any item are the gaunt faces of factory workers all over the world who might make my stuff. And I know I’m probably exaggerating and only imagining the negative. But after yesterday, I’m not sure if I can stop, and I’m not sure if I can.