Slums can inspire, but what of it? Review of ‘Poor Little Rich Slum’- 9 Aug, 2012
Who can put down a book that showcases a series of tear-jerking, heart-warming success stories? Not me! And in that sense, Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi are spot on with their book Poor Little Rich Slum on Dharavi in Mumbai.
However, as a writer and an urban planner, I viewed the book through my critical lens and I must confess I’m not too impressed.
Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in agreement with the idea that informal settlements like Dharavi are the energy centers of our cities. Certainly, the innovation and zesty approach to life’s seemingly insurmountable problems that we urban practitioners see among slum dwellers makes most of ashamed of the often-whiny note we strike in our relatively comfortable middle class lives.
As an attempt to place India’s slums in a positive frame of reference among middle class readers, this is a great book. And perhaps the starting point we need. It is no mean effort to say in simple words what many experienced and intelligent people fail to see. And every effort, small or big, is needed to turn conventional thinking about slums on its head!
What NGOs, social entrepreneurs and slum dwellers already know is what the world out there needs to recognize. Not because its general knowledge, but because when the educated middle class accepts and understands their interdependence on slums is when sufficient pressure will be built on the system to take a reality check. As long as we are willing to pay exorbitant sums to buy swanky apartments on land that is carved out of evicting poor slum dwellers, the battle is one lost before it even began. So speaks the socialist in me, at any rate!
Somewhere towards the very end, after many stories of success, the book makes its main point, according to me. That redevelopment the way governments (pressurized by developers) see it, is not a future that is fair to slum dwellers. Not only does it take away what is meaningful, replacing it with lip service in the name of housing and infrastructure; it also means taking away homes and livelihood from many renters who are part of the vital life force of slums. Somehow improvement in the modern world seems to be synonymous with leaching away character and homogenizing everything into cookie cuter homes and people with horribly predictable lives. Clearly that’s not the way life is and certainly not life in the slums, the vibrancy of which the book brings out admirably.
What don’t I like? The book reads very much like a self-improvement book. It has, hidden in it very subtly, but unmistakably, a preachy tone. The slightly philosophical twist at the end of each tale was a nice touch, but in many instances, the words didn’t quite fit. “That’s what humans beings must do, with the fabric of life” at the end of a case on someone who runs a ladies’ tailoring business is nothing short of cheesy.
Poor Little Rich Slum is an attempt to simplify an incredible complex issue and package it cleverly for readers who have no exposure to the subject. It is intended to be an inspirational book, but fails to give a well-rounded picture. Yes, we need to create awareness, but I don’t agree we should do this by oversimplifying the story, by only talking about the success stories while neglecting to carry even a single not-so-happy experience? As I read the book, with experience of working in other slum areas in other cities in India, I wonder about how Dharavi has come to be the Mother Slum. Glorified in its tattered robes, the ultimate symbol of messy urbanism, the pin-up hero for those of us who want to give the poor a space, a voice.
Despite my minor reservations, what the book is doing is making me want to visit Dharavi. Now! I grew up in Mumbai and have visited and even spent entire days in slums and chawls tagging along with Manda, who was my nanny. I called her Mavshi and we would go to meet many of her relatives who lived in chawls and slums and mill housing. It was fun. I felt completely at home. But Dharavi was not one of these. It has come home to me, through this book and from other people’s narrations that Dharavi is special. Having worked in slums in Delhi, methinks it would be interesting to experience the Mother Slum!
Small steps, big changes: We need to harness the passion and talent of youth positively- July 30, 2012
Four days in Goa, with family, life centered around tradition, rituals, family bonding and the sheer experience of taking in Goa with its unique flavors, sights, sounds and feel. Coming back home is a brutal return to reality and the unpleasant aspects of life. I knew the power grid failure had happened (it was in the news), but I came back to actually meet people who have spent two days in the heat and darkness. I knew Team Anna was kicking some butt out there, but I’m reading the media coverage and wondering where all this bile and vitriol is taking us.
We sure are a bunch of disgruntled citizens and we need an outlet for our frustrations. Anna’s bunch are as good a cause to support as any! And hence the turnout at Jantar Mantar. Yet, when Kejriwal denounces the BJP and the Congress in equal (ahem ahem) measure, what does that mean politically? I am at a loss to understand where this is going? I wish I knew. Not that my opinion would matter, but I would sleep easier!
Personally, I feel corruption is one among several large issues that need to be addressed. Yet, it is an issue that really hurts us bad. I realized this when interacting with a group of final year architecture students last week. I am their advisor for a research project on the role of architects in serving low-income populations. I floated the topic with a set of ideas in mind, hoping to steer them towards finding innovative means of engagement between professionals and low-income families. As it often happens, they had processed the scenario in their own unique way. And they appeared most perplexed by the ugliness and inevitability of corruption. They felt that, whichever way they looked, it was corruption in the system of approvals, of urban planning and governance, that created imbalances in the supply of and access to housing. They wondered if this was ever going to improve and were rather disheartened about the topic of research. They said they felt like they were banging their heads against an unbreakable wall.
Of course, I encouraged them to express this, but also to set the subject of corruption aside and see how interventions could be effective within the bounds of the current ‘system’. However, their reactions gave me an interesting peak into the world of the youth. Young, educated Indians (especially those with a creative bent of mind) clearly, are not happy living with the system. They demand change, they are idealistic enough to believe change can happen, yet they are frustrated by the fact that no one (not even Team Anna) truly believes that change can happen or has a clear picture of what the change could look like. Worse, they are frustrated that the big picture remains fuzzy and uninspiring. They understand that small innovations appear to be the only way forward right now, but are unable to see how the small improvements will add up to make significant impact.
Is there some way we could harness this latent energy and frustration, this burning desire for change in a positive way? I do believe activism is a vital ingredient because ultimately political will is key, but there are other missing elements as well. I’m thinking it’s important to document and disseminate information on positive action across various fields, interventions that have changed people’s lives for the better, so that gifted and driven young people can be shown some hope and encouraged to pursue what they believe in and not waste their talents doing what anyone else can.
India needs innovation and partnerships to provide safe, affordable housing for the poor- May 14, 2012
About 1.6 billion people worldwide lack safe and affordable housing, as per a new multimedia publication titled ‘The Big Idea: Global Spread of Affordable Housing’ published by Ashoka Full Economic Citizenship and NextBillion. What is frightening is that this number is set to triple by 2020! That is only 8 years away!
As a professional working in this field, I see the urgency to evolve solutions that can be scaled quickly and effectively to take in a variety of geographical and sociocultural contexts. I also see this is not a government-led job. Private corporations need to come forward with innovative ideas and partnerships and the government must play a key role in unlocking inner city land, providing incentives and creating supporting policy to sustain such efforts.
Today, the poor are considered nobody’s problem. Demolition of low-income squatter settlements by police force is about the only response local governments have towards the poor, with hardly any efforts to provide much-needed housing. Why is it so hard to see that the economy of a city depends heavily on low-income people, for they are the workforce, the life blood. If slums are unclean and ugly and need to be demolished to preserve the quality of life of a neighborhood or city (and this is the argument most used to dislocate slums), then surely the powers that be must see that a city that does not have the so-called ugly slums is more desirable and attractive and therefore on the path to rapid economic growth? How come the connection between quality of life and low-income settlements is easily made when it is in favor of the rich, but easily discarded when it is used to make a case to provide facilities for the poor?
I recently wrote an article on the JNNURM, reviewing the scheme that is concluding this year. I studied deeply the recommendations made by the Isher Ahluwalia Committee and the most heartening thing I found was the premise that that cities must provide basic services and decent housing to every citizen regardless of income and class. How is this to be made possible is another story. It is a complex issue and one that our poorly staffed and financially weak municipalities would be hard put to resolve.
I look forward to reading the book mentioned above, which profiles e3ssays, videos and photographs from innovators in this field from across the world. In a nation capable of innovation in so many areas, one can hope safe and affordable housing will become a subject of focus for some brilliant minds!