Inside India #42: Slumdogs and skyscrapers – what Danny Boyle got wrong about Mumbai’s slums

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In Danny Boyle’s Oscar-Winning hit, Slumdog Millionaire, we are confronted with a vision of life in Mumbai’s slums that has been accused by some critics of “aestheticizing poverty in India”. While this may not be entirely the case, Boyle’s depiction of a Mumbai slum and those who dwell there is more a concoction of western wishful thinking than reality. The truth is that such slums starkly represent the inequality evident in not just India, but many nations, but also act as a reminder that no matter how terrible their circumstances human beings usually find a way to adapt, survive and, in their own way, thrive.

Credit: Nishandtd85 CC 3.0

Today Mumbai is one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The past two decades have seen an enormous influx of riches – and migrants. Mumbai’s architectural map now boasts vast shopping malls, fashionable new suburbs replete with coffee shop chains, boutique hotels and megaplex cinemas, and some of the tallest skyscrapers on the subcontinent. Indeed, the world’s richest private home is in Mumbai – it belongs to one of India’s wealthiest men, a 27 storey tower worth $2billion and boasting three helipads (because, of course, one helipad just wouldn’t cut it in India’s city of dreams). Property prices in the city are among the highest in the world. 

And yet … Mumbai has the largest slum population of any urban centre in the world. More than half of the city’s population lives in slums that often lack access to clean water, electricity, and public transportation. Foremost among Mumbai’s insalubrious enclaves is Dharavi.

Founded in 1883, during the colonial era, Dharavi grew rapidly, with a significant growth spurt during Partition when incoming refugees from the newly-created Pakistan flocked to the city. Today Dharavi houses a population of 700,000-1 million (no one is entirely sure) in an area of just over two square kilometres, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world. And yet, with a literacy rate of 69%, Dharavi is also the most educated slum in India.

Many of Dharavi’s inhabitants are second-generation migrants who have lived here for decades. They work as potters, tanners, weavers, and soap makers, and in a thousand micro-businesses whose offices are located beneath living spaces and in tiny bedrooms.The slum’s economy produces around $1 billion a year. In addition to artisan workers, Dharavi benefits from a massive recycling industry reported to employ approximately 250,000 individuals. Dharavi exports goods around the world, leather products, jewellery, accessories, and textiles. Markets for Dharavi’s goods include stores in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. 

Yet for many, the abiding image of Dharavi is as a sort of twilight zone, where houses are constructed from whatever materials are available to hand – corrugated tin, plywood, pukkah bricks, asbestos and cardboard sheets; where black smoke from the potters’ kilns creates a constant artificial cloudbank; where hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers, street vendors, ragpickers, tinkers, tailors, black marketeers and miniature moguls operate beyond the reach of the municipal authorities; and where the sound of hammering from the metalworkers’ smithies is a constant background noise. In some ways, Dharavi is Mumbai compressed into a smaller-scale version of itself. Thousands of little one-room dwellings sprout aerials for TV connections; posters of the latest Bollywood releases are plastered on every paint-peeled wall; old men discuss the elections while smoking beedis and defecating into open sewers; women gossip as they fill buckets from communal spigots. There are even beggars here. 

As India continues to modernise, plans to redevelop the slum are regularly mooted, though little has changed on the ground. In the meantime, the slum dwellers carry on, in their own way ennobled by their life of hardship. 

And one more thing worthy of consideration. It is outsiders looking in who label them slum dwellers. To the residents of Dharavi, their environment is simply home.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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