Living in filth is no lifestyle choice

Sadhvi Sharma reports from Bombay on the reality of the slums that Prince Charles hailed as paragons of community life.

Sadhvi Sharma

Topics Politics

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BOMBAY: Last week Prince Charles came out gushing about Bombay’s slums, idolising the city’s biggest shanty town, Dharavi, as a development model for the world. The future King of England, I thought, has definitely lost it this time.

The prince was addressing a conference organised by his Foundation for the Built Environment, a charity that attempts to involve locals in the redesign of slum areas. Speaking to a gathering of planners, charity workers and government officials in the luxurious environs of St James’s Palace in London, the prince said that Dharavi, which featured in the hit film Slumdog Millionnaire, is an inspiration to wealthier parts of the world. ‘I strongly believe that the West has much to learn from societies and places which, while sometimes poorer in material terms, are infinitely richer in the ways in which they live and organise themselves as communities’, he said.

Charles’s veneration of Dharavi, as if it holds the secret to a unique and spiritually superior lifestyle, not only reflects a complete rejection of development for those impoverished people who still aspire to it – it also reeks of ignorance and a backward romanticisation of poverty. This prince, brought up in the lap of luxury, somehow imagines that quaint, poor Indians are predisposed to living in filth.

According to Charles, the Dharavi slum dwellers’ use of local materials, the district’s walkable neighbourhoods, and its mix of employment and housing, add up to ‘an underlying intuitive grammar of design that is totally absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built around the world to “warehouse” the poor’.

An intuitive grammar of design? Charles is clearly on a fantastic trip. Perhaps someone spiked his lassi on his visit to the Bombay slums. In Dharavi, which is located in the heart of Bombay, over 600,000 people are crammed in to just over 500 acres of space that lacks decent civic amenities. They live there because they do not have any better alternative – like living in those ‘faceless slab blocks’, for example, that the prince so derides.

As one report points out: ‘Dharavi is an extremely dense environment. A recent survey by the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) established that a central area of Dharavi (Chamra Bazaar) contained densities of up to 336,643 people per square kilometre! Assuming a population of 700,000, the population density in Dharavi would be around 314,887 per square kilometre. This is 11 times as dense as Mumbai as a whole (the most densely populated city in the world, with 29,500 people per square kilometre) and more than six times as dense as daytime Manhattan (about 50,000 people per square kilometre).’ (1)

The fact that people live and work in such conditions is not some form of cultural expression, as Prince Charles imagines, but the outcome of impoverishment and a lack of adequate infrastructure. There is nothing laudable about living in flimsy shacks handmade with ‘local’ materials, like asbestos sheets, cardboard, plastic sheets and pieces of cloth. And in the monsoon period, the ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ of Bombay that the prince imagines are so pleasant to stroll along become even more picturesque settings, as men and women have to wade through knee-high, sometimes even waist-high, water. Spilling over from the drains, the water carries a stinking blend of human and animal waste, bringing diseases such as dengue fever, leptospirosis and cholera which claim the lives of many inhabitants of those ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ every year.

For Prince Charles, these ‘traditional’ settings contain the ‘attributes for environmentally and socially sustainable settlements for the world’s increasingly urban population’. So instead of building a proposed 8,500-square feet, five-bathroom environmentally friendly house for his son William, perhaps Charles should send the young prince to Dharavi where he can experience the joys of sharing a queue every morning to use a toilet, or even better, squat on the roadside as many Bombayites still have to do. This would be a very spiritual experience for William, I’m sure, with invaluable lessons in green community living…

What is lauded by Prince Charles and other members of the Western elite as ‘environmentally sustainable living’ is just plain, stark poverty, and this is made to seem acceptable, even desirable, by the likes of the ranting prince. These people’s rejection of development means not only that people in the West are admonished for wanting more, but also that those in the developing world are encouraged to stay poor, to keep to their ‘traditional’ way of life. Trendy terms like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘organic farming’ are just new words for poverty, which dress up backbreaking work as something positive and rewarding.

Giving poverty a cultural hue makes it seem acceptable, and even suggests that people living in conditions that would be unbearable for Westerners have some sort of natural inclination to endure a poor standard of living. Indeed, Charles lauded the ‘built-in resilience’ of ‘such communities’. Poverty, then, is seen as a natural state for some rather than the product of social and political conditions. In this view, the poor can only adapt to, not overcome, their lot.

Dharavi has many rags-to-riches stories to tell, as do many of Bombay’s slums (2). The shanty town contains within its alleys thriving industries and some very busy people: tailors, leather manufacturers, potters, shopkeepers, carpenters, migrants in search of work and more. Ask anybody living there what they want their children to become, and the responses range from doctors and engineers to pilots and journalists.

Some slum dwellers have been moved, under the city’s rehousing programme, to sprawling flats in multi-storey buildings. Others have chosen to live in the slums to save for their children’s education or to send them abroad. Those Dharavi residents who oppose the redevelopment plans for the slum are not fighting for the right to retain their ‘lifestyles’; they are simply demanding a better deal than what’s on offer. They want more space and a safeguard for carrying on their occupations. Their concerns and apprehensions are very real — the ability to work, pay bills, afford maintenance and have a say in their own futures.

The ‘sense of community’ that Charles wants the West to take lessons from is not some curious quality of slum dwellers that holds some profound, spiritual meaning. It is a very real means of survival. There is no green sentimentality attached to the narrow lanes, dingy rooms, and open drains running outside their homes. Living in a slum is not a lifestyle choice, and nobody makes a song and dance about bonding in the toilet queues. People just get on with their lives, and what bonds them all is the aspiration for a better one. The shanty town sure has a lot of lessons for the West — that of ambition, enterprise and sky-high aspirations.

Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.

Previously on spiked

Sadhvi Sharma asked why greens were so down on the inspiring initiative to move thousands of Bombay slum dwellers into gleaming new flats. Rob Harris urged: Let’s ditch the ‘nostalgia for mud’. Rob Lyons thought that in the film Slumdog Millionaire, the characters were portrayed as either victims, spectators or bastards. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

(1) Dharavi: Lakhs of Residents, Billions of Dollars,

(2) Slum gods, Hindustan Times, 17 January 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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