Taking the Dogs out of the Slum

Slumdog Millionaire has been running since September at the cinema across the street from my apartment in Cambridge. I enjoyed the film when I finally saw it in December, despite the cliched invocation of Bollywood in the concluding song and Danny Boyle’s populism — the last scene of Trainspotting, where Renton “chooses life” by robbing his heroin addict mates from Glasgow, was more my style. But melodrama has its uses. Watching Jamal and Latika dance on the platforms of Victoria Terminus in the film’s finale reminded me of the protective grandeur of India’s greatest railway station, in which a few weeks before 56 people had been shot by gunmen in the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

While its cast was mostly local, Slumdog Millionaire only opened in India in late January, many months after it had become a sleeper hit in the U.S. It is a measure of the globalisation of urban India that even before the film was released, there were already protests over the apparently disparaging name of the film, and its popularity prompted Amitabh Bacchan to complain of the Western fetish for cinematic realism, while more recently, Salman Rushdie has claimed the film is not realistic or magical plausible enough.

This weekend, on the eve of the Oscars for which Slumdog Millionaire won eight awards, I was delighted to see an op-ed in the New York Times called Taking the Slum Out of Slumdog, written by an old friend and mentor. Rahul Srivastava* is a freelance novelist and ethnographer in Goa who co-wrote the piece with his collaborator, digital urbanist Matias Echanove (the original version, Taking the Slum out of Dharavi, is on their blog Airoots).

In Mumbai it is a commonplace that more than 60% of the urban population live in so-called “slums”. While the term itself is apocryphal, it has been traced to the old Irish “s lom” for a “bare bleak room”, an “impoverished place” or “barren life”. Historically, the term “slum” has always referred to both to the concrete dwellings in which the urban poor live, as well as a less tangible, but no less real, moral panic about this built environment. Until the development of germ theory and public health policies, Victorian sanitary reformers believed that overcrowding, lack of sinks, sewers, and taps corrupted both the morals and health of the urban poor.

Shocked at the growth of large squatter settlements in the first shock cities of the industrial revolution, early urban journalists and reformers such as Friedrich Engels and Jacob Riis brought the slang of the predominantly Irish immigrant slum dwellers into the popular imagination. Fear of the unwashed urban masses was inscribed into the descriptions of their housing, and this imaginative displacement was suddenly applicable everywhere that slums proliferated. Perceived as a disease on the body politic, the great reformers flipped the terms of contagion in the public mind and press for political change. From blaming the victims — the slum dwellers themselves — they identified the disease agents in the invisible hand of corrupt municipal bosses and builders who dispensed patronage to the slumlords and extorted rent from the poor.

This discourse of reform travelled throughout the British Empire in the wake of industrialisation in the colonies, first as moral reform and then as material improvement. Slums were breeding grounds for the social unrest and epidemic diseases spawned by the early factory system. Danny Boyle is a product of these connections, as a working-class Irish Catholic from Manchester, the factory city whose mills were fed by the cotton from colonial India. It was from Glasgow — the scene of Boyle’s Trainspotting — that colonial sanitary reformers modelled the Bombay Improvement Trust, established in the wake of the plague epidemic in 1896 and charged with the task of demolishing slums and building sanitary housing for the slumdogs of colonial Bombay. The moral lessons of the sanitarians gave way to material improvements by reformers who sought better housing, clean water, flushing toilets and open spaces for the urban masses.

Behind the moral language, the actual physical environment of urban slums represent a very wide spectrum of building practices and housing typologies, as my colleagues in CRIT have shown in this study of Housing Typologies in Mumbai published in 2007. The slum as place defies the slum as category. The hiatus between this abstract slum of morality and ideology, and the real diversity of housing practices in the real built environment, is the cognitive gap that many critics, designers and ethnographers have recently sought to address.

In their article where they seek to take the slum out of Slumdog, Rahul and Matias acknowledge that the generic term “slum” masks a much more complex economic and ecological reality, and focus on the centuries-old settlement of Dharavi in Mumbai. Popularly known as “Asia’s largest slum”, it has been the subject of some of Mumbai’s best journalism in works such as Jeremy Seabrook’s Life and Labour in an Indian Slum and Kalpana Sharma’s Rediscovering Dharavi. Slumdog Millionaire was extensively shot in Dharavi, to reference the archetypical slum environment of crowded and unpaved lanes, jerry-built shacks and tenements, and water containers, hoses and taps next to every home.

While Rahul and  to “take the slum out” of films like Slumdog and places like Dharavi, they seem to feel it is enough to switch the moral registers while leaving the material artefact untouched. They claim, incredibly, that “Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into oppressiveness. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries”. The problem with critique is that it aestheticises slum conditions to serve up a cultural critique of urban planning and technology.

The statement that “No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi” is absurd when you consider that the economy of the place is entirely based around its proximity to major transport arteries and municipal boundaries. Dharavi is a triangular settlement with hard boundaries fixed by the western and central railway lines on either side, and the Mithi River and Mahim Bay on top. From here, two causeways and railway bridges lead out of the island city of Mumbai into its immediate suburbs. Dharavi’s identity is tied directly to this infrastructure and geography of transportation, which produced its central position in the urban economy.

While there is much to agree with in Rahul and Mathias’s op-ed, the argument about the resourcefulness of the poor and the marginality of the state in Dharavi is a very serviceable critique. While both are committed activists, the logic of their argument is too easily seized upon by less committed anthropologists and development practitioners as a culturalist rationale for non-intervention in the urban environment.

The role of the state in providing urban services, or its capacity to effect any positive change in the life of the poor is another matter entirely. But the idea that it has no role in Dharavi denies the poor a stake in their own political agency. Nor is this a constructive critique of the predatory ecology of urban land on which the construction industry and urban power hangs in Mumbai. Taking the state out of the slums renders invisible the entire urban regime which works to maintain the centrality of the industries and services of Dharavi, but push its people and their needs and aspirations to the peripheries. While serving as a sweatshop for multinational industries and a transport hub for Greater Mumbai, the residents of Dharavi literally live on the “other side of the tracks” of both Central and Western Railways and sleep next to the great sink for suburban effluvia and waste, the Mahim Creek.

Is it any cause for celebration that “in Dharavi… people have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state – including the setting up of a highly functional waste recycling industry that serves the whole city”? Were the citizens of Dharavi any less resourceful, they would sink in garbage, or be eaten by dogs.

* For the record, Rahul and I together helped start  PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research) in Mumbai as its first Directors 2000-2003.

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