Over the christmas holiday I went on a trip to Mumbai with my dad and my brother. We went with a sport for development charity called Magic Bus and while in Mumbai I got first hand experience of life in some of Mumbai’s slums. 60% of Mumbai’s population (approximately 11 million people) lives in slums or on the street.1
The first slum we visited was called the Bombay Port Trust, which is home to nearly 100,000 families.2 The slum is not recognised by the municipal government and does not receive any services. The residents have to get their facilities and services via the black market, which makes them expensive. As a result most of the residents of the slum cannot afford the most basic services. Almost every resident I saw had a barrel and I was told that this is to collect rainwater since they cannot afford enough water to drink. The average water consumption of the poor in Mumbai is just over 1/4 of the WHO mandated minimum.3 Many residents could not afford electricity and we were told that fires that destroy huge portions of the slum are common because of the use of kerosine stoves and candles and because of the poor material that the houses are built out of. We were told that there are no toilets in the Bombay Port Trust, and people are forced to defecate outside or in the sea. In Mumbai as a whole, half the population doesn’t have access to a toilet4, and less than 2% of slum households have access to a sewer.5 There is no garbage disposal system so most rubbish just ends up sitting on the edge of the community. There were even piles of garbage by the houses, with kids playing in them and dogs rummaging through them in the hope of finding food. As a result of this and metal dust from the ships, the community and its water supply is extremely polluted and water borne diseases are rife.
Most children we spoke to were shorter than they should have been for their age - we were told that they are stunted from malnutrition - and many of the people we saw looked seriously malnourished. In India as a whole, 44-48% of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition,6 51% are stunted7 and 20% are wasted,8 and in Mumbai 47% of slum children are stunted from malnutrition, with 16% wasted and 50% anemic.9 In addition, between almost 80% of the Indian population is malnourished in terms of an inadequate consumption of calories.10
The houses in the community are in a series of alleyways, just a meter or two wide. Some parts of the alleys were so narrow that we had to squeeze through, or so low that we had to duck so we didn’t hit our heads. They were mostly dark, because of the houses stacked on one another, and the ground was covered in puddles of water, mud, garbage and other filth, with the result that the alleyways smelt like garbage and feces. These alleyways are the only paths through the slum so they were constantly crowded with people walking through, women doing their washing and children running through and playing.
Walking through these dank and dark alleyways we could see people’s houses, both inside and out. Even though we were in the wealthiest part of the community, because it was directly adjacent to the docks, the houses were mostly made of scrap metal, cardboard, and distressed concrete. Most of the houses didn’t have doors so we could see into them, although old women stood guard by most of the entrances. From what I could see the houses were mostly the same inside: one tiny concrete room with an entire family (if not multiple families) crammed in with all of their stuff. I couldn’t see any beds and people’s clothes and what little other stuff they had was stored on the floor. Our guide told us that deeper into the community, where the residents do not have easy access to the dockyard to find scrap to sell, families take shifts sleeping because there is not enough room for everyone to lie down.
Despite all this poverty, people were trying to make a living for themselves. Along the main alleyway, there are some makeshift shops, pharmacies, and even a hospital, all made out of scrap in the same way that the houses are. In one thin alleyway some kids had even got their hands on two old arcade machines and had made a games area. In the short time I spent in the main alleyway and walking into the slum I saw a few rickshaw drivers, strenuously wheeling large 2-wheeled carts heavily packed with various products. In addition, I later learned that about 20% of the children work in leather factories, garages or stealing scrap metal, and that many of them die from their work.11 However, there are few employment opportunities, and the opportunities that do exist pay very poorly, so many people cannot afford enough food or water and are forced to resort to crime to survive.
The second slum we visited is called Colaba. It has some government services and has access to the part of the port where the fishing boats come in and so it is better off than the Bombay Port Trust. However, it is still extremely poor. The alleyways are just as narrow, dark, and filthy and the houses are only slightly less dilapidated.
Here we visited the house of a fish packer who lives with his wife and 3 kids. He starts work at 4 a.m. and his work is highly irregular - he told us that he only gets work every second day. His job is to separate fish from the ice water and salt that it is stored in and to do this he has to stand waist-deep in freezing water for up to 6 hours. He is the sole wage earner in his household and the family survives on an average income of Rs. 27 ($2.66 adjusted for purchasing power parity) per person per day. By comparison, 836 million Indians (77% of the population) live on less than Rs. 20 ($2 PPP) a day.12 This puts his family in the richest 25% of Indian society. However, they are still very poor.
To get to their house we had to walk through a part of the alleyway that is pitch black and only just wide enough to squeeze through sideways and I had to duck numerous times to avoid hitting my head. Their house was at the back of the alley and they took us into a tiny concrete room that had almost nothing in it. The room was about 1m wide x 3m long x 2m high, and was barely big enough to fit all of us. The room was so narrow that when I sat against the wall I couldn’t stretch my legs out fully because of the other wall, and so short that if I stood up my head nearly hit the ceiling fan. They explained that they had an identically sized room on a higher level where they sleep (two rooms is a luxury for a slum house) but that they had to squeeze tight together to all lie down.
They explained that they have to buy water, which is not expensive, but that there is not enough water for the entire community so they have to get to the water-sellers early. However, water is more expensive if they get to the water sellers early. In effect, they have to choose between being unsure whether they will get any water or having to pay more for water they know they will get. They explained that they can afford to send their kids to school, but that after they had bought the necessities they had no income left for anything else. However, they said that they are happy with life in Mumbai, largely because life was much harder in the village that they came from.
For all that I saw on this visit, I only saw the very edge of urban poverty, the tip of the iceberg. I only walked through the least impoverished part of the Bombay Port Trust and I only went inside houses in one of the better off slums in Mumbai. The family whose house I visited is comparatively well-off, even though they live in cramped conditions in squalid alleyways. In my opinion it is truly horrible that a family living in 2 makeshift rooms, which are so small that I couldn’t stand up fully or stretch my legs out while sitting down, in a series of dark and filthy alleyways that I had to squeeze through, can be considered well-off. Yet, this family is in the richest 25% of Indian society and has a median income by global standards. Most slum-dwellers cannot afford the “luxuries” that this family can, such as education, adequate food and water, and a second tiny room. It is hard to imagine the lives of most Indians, with 55% living in absolute poverty, deprived of 3 or more basic necessities,13 80% of children severely deprived of basic necessities, and 57% of children living in absolute poverty.14
More than a billion people around the world live in slums15, and these are the conditions that they live in: cramped rooms, narrow and filthy alleyways, surrounded by garbage, with no toilets or sewers, minimal access to water, and with many of the children stunted from malnutrition. And people in rural areas are often even worse off. The simple truth is that the majority of the world’s population lives in Dickensian squalor, with 56% of the world’s children in “developing” countries, over a billion children, severely deprived of the basic necessities of a healthy life.16
The Bombay Port Trust
1 One India News, 60 percent Mumbai residents are homeless: Survey, August 4 2010, http://news.oneindia.in/2010/08/04/60-percent-mumbai-residents-are-homeless-survey.html
2 Magic Bus India, Community Project Background, http://www.magicbusindia.org/sites/default/files/Community%20Projects(1).pdf
3 World Food Program and M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, September 2010, p. 17
4 Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, Verso 2007, p. 140
5 WFP and MSS Foundation, Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, p. 7
6 World Bank, Health Nutrition Population Statistics (HNP Stats): Nutrition; India
7 One World South Asia, Most of world’s stunted children live in India, says Lancet, 28 January 2008, http://southasia.oneworld.net/Article/most-of-world2019s-stunted-children-live-in-india-says-lancet
8 WB, HNP Stats: Nutrition; India
9 WFP and MSS Foundation, Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, p. 50
10 National Sample Survey Organisation, Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation Government of India, Nutritional Intake in India, 2004-2005: NSS 61st Round July 2004-June 2005, May 2007 p. 43
11 Magic Bus India, Community Project Background
12 National Commission for Enterprises in the Informal Sector, Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector, August 2007, p. 1 and 6
13 Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), Country Briefing: India, Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) At a Glance July 2010, http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Country-Brief-India.pdf
14 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Child Poverty in the Developing World, October 2003, p. 35
15 United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), Cited in Davis, Planet of Slums, p. 23
16 UNICEF, Child Poverty in the Developing World, p. 10