“Human nature is to want something better. Human nature is aspirations. If a man lives in a one-room apartment, he wishes for a two-room apartment. If a two-room apartment, he wishes for a three-room apartment, then a house, then a mansion, and then a palace. That’s how our economy works, and it’s not going to change. Allow people to aspire, to be free; keeping this in mind, we are going to redevelop Dharavi.” --Mukesh Mehta (head consultant of the Dharavi Redevelopment Project)
Upon entering Dharavi, we were greeted by a pastel WELCOME sign hanging down the top of a dingy building. Holes, ruts, and puddles dotted the path, which alternated between shaky stones and soft mud. A massive river of sewage ran through the center of the community in a manmade canyon. Men and boys swarmed the wide street, moving efficiently from one place to the next; some carried massive sacks of trash above their bony heads. There was a sort of familiarity between the people in the slum: almost every time two people passed each other they gently offered a nod or some other form of acknowledgment. Fumes of paint, aluminum, and melting plastic coated the air in a toxic blanket, and the deafening cries of a crushing machine echoed across alleyways encased by hanging wires. A homemade garland of dried leaves and grass hung across the door of a cement factory; inside I could make out the sweating faces of lean men feeding shredded aluminum into the gaping mouth of a gluttonous fire.
This is the commercial center of Dharavi, and arguably of the city as well. With a monetary output of almost $700 million per year, this one-mile plot of land containing over 1 million people is also the economic powerhouse of modern Mumbai. Statistically, every household in America is likely to have at least one item made in Dharavi (See: Harvard Business School case study on redeveloping Dharavi). I witnessed humans recycling plastic and metal, sewing jeans, forming soap, creating leather, and baking bread. These weren’t massive sweatshops with hundreds of workers crowded in appalling conditions; these were small households with five or six people dodging scrap metal flying from homemade machines. These were people manufacturing the raw materials that would climb seamlessly up the corporate ladder of modern India. These were people desperately trying to move up that hierarchy themselves. Despite the terrible working conditions, this was the only alternative to starvation, and the only shot at social mobility.
Do the people living in Dharavi see the problems of a system that places them in this position? Do they see the fruits of their labor being consumed at astonishing rates by people across the world, while the numerous corporations that exploit them reap the benefits? Do they see that, in order to function, this system depends on the oppression of others?
When able, the youth of Dharavi move out of their communities into the high-rises that are materializing around the city. Once they have earned access to a middle-class existence, they leave the suffering of the slum behind and retreat to the safety of walls, hygiene, and capitalism. The children wish to be a part of the shining Bollywood image of success rather than longing to change it. And who wouldn’t?
Is there a way to ensure that the primary concerns of politicians are the people and not reelection? Is it possible to provide universal education? Can we, as a generation, encourage honesty within corporations and advertisement? Can we direct our values away from profit and personal gain and towards the betterment of all? Can we find a world of compassion that minimizes the consequences of materialism?
I’m not sure that we can. I'm not sure if I can.
And I’m not sure if that’s the kind of world I want to live in.