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India's urban squalor
Monday, 04 June 2012 20:40

The movement of people from rural to urban areas (urbanization) and from low-productivity agriculture to the manufacturing and services sectors is, in theory, an important part of the economic development process. 

But as Katherine Boo describes so vividly in her excellent book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", life in an urban slum in Mumbai can be full of squalor and deprivations. 

I strongly recommend that you read this very human story set amidst the poverty and prosperity of rapidly changing India.  For the moment, here are a number of extracts which give us some insights into life in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi.

"Annawadi sat 200 hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late.  Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs."

"The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport.  The work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities.  In an area with little unclaimed space,  a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.  Other poor people considered the spot too wet to be habitable, but the Tamils set to work, hacking down the brush that habored snakes, digging up dirt in drier places and packing it in mud."

"Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks.  Rather, the Annawdians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around, the same moment as the small slum's founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization."

"The municipality sent water through six Annwadi faucets for ninety minutes in the morninga nd ninety minutes at night."

"True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs.  (The rest, like 85 per cent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.)  True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner.  A few ate grass at the sewage lake's edge ...  They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a sense of their upward mobility."

"Here, in the thriving western suburbs of the Indian financial capital, three thousand people had packed into, or on top of, 335 huts.  It was a continual coming-and-going of migrants from all over India -- Hindus mainly, from all manner of castes and subcastes.  His neighbors represented beliefs and cultures so various that Abdul, one of the slum's three dozen Muslims, could not begin to understand them.  He simply recognized Annawadi as a place booby-trapped with contentions, new and ancient, over which he was determined not to trip.  For Annawadi was also magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich people's garbage."  

"To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.  Abdul sometimes bought pieces of metal tht scavengers had stolen.  He ran a business, such as it was, without a license.  Simply living in Annawadi was illegal, since the airport authority wanted squatters like himself off its land."

"The open lot was quiet ... A kind of beach-front for a vast pool of sewage that marked the slum's eastern border, the place was bedlam most nights: people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap, lining up outside a little brothel, or sleeping of the effects of the grave-digging liquor dispensed from a hut two doors down from Abdul's own."

"Now, among the feral pigs, water buffalo, and the usual belly-down splay of alcoholics, there seemed to be just one watchful presence: a small, unspookable boy from Nepal.  He was sitting, arms around knees, in a spangly blue haze by the sewage lake -- the reflected neon signage of a luxury hotel across the water."

"As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education.  Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition."

"In the last five years, more than one hundred schools had opened around the airport -- some excellent and expensive; some fraudulent; some, like Manju's, taught by unqualified teenagers.  But all were understood to be better than the free schools like Marol Municipal, where Asha was a contract teacher.  Nearly 60 per cent of the state's public school teachers hadn't finished college, and many of the permanent teachers had paid large under-the-table sums to school officials to secure their positions." 


Boo, Katherine.  "Behind the Beautiful Forevers".  Scribe 2012


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