Love that the Atlantic, a 154-year-old publication, has figured out a way to not only survive but even thrive in the changing media landscape, mostly by strongly embracing a non-paywall-driven digital presence that is quite robust.
I didn’t realize that former Variety colleague Gabe Snyder is now editing the TheAtlanticWire, which has become a most interesting meta site for commentary and news about commentary and news. That said, much credit to him for continuing to shape that particular slice of the Atlantic’s operations.
In the labyrinthine slum known as Dharavi are 60,000 structures, many of them shanties, and as many as one million people living and working on a triangle of land barely two-thirds the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Dharavi is one of the world’s most infamous slums, a cliché of Indian misery. It is also a churning hive of workshops with an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million to more than $1 billion.
“This is a parallel economy,” said Mr. Mobin, whose family is involved in several businesses in Dharavi. “In most developed countries, there is only one economy. But in India, there are two.”
India is a rising economic power, even as huge portions of its economy operate in the shadows. Its “formal” economy consists of businesses that pay taxes, adhere to labor regulations and burnish the country’s global image. India’s “informal” economy is everything else: the hundreds of millions of shopkeepers, farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers, street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, repairmen, middlemen, black marketeers and more.
This divide exists in other developing countries, but it is a chasm in India: experts estimate that the informal sector is responsible for the overwhelming majority of India’s annual economic growth and as much as 90 percent of all employment. The informal economy exists largely outside government oversight and, in the case of slums like Dharavi, without government help or encouragement.
For years, India’s government has tried with mixed success to increase industrial output by developing special economic zones to lure major manufacturers. Dharavi, by contrast, could be called a self-created special economic zone for the poor. It is a visual eyesore, a symbol of raw inequality that epitomizes the failure of policy makers to accommodate the millions of rural migrants searching for opportunity in Indian cities. It also underscores the determination of those migrants to come anyway.
“Economic opportunity in India still lies, to a large extent, in urban areas,” said Eswar Prasad, a leading economist. “The problem is that government hasn’t provided easy channels to be employed in the formal sector. So the informal sector is where the activity lies.”
Unlike China, India does not have colossal manufacturing districts because India has chosen not to follow the East Asian development model of building a modern economy by starting with low-skill manufacturing. If China’s authoritarian leaders have deliberately steered the country’s surplus rural work force into urban factories, Indian leaders have done little to promote job opportunities in cities for rural migrants. In fact, right-wing political parties in Mumbai have led sometimes-violent campaigns against migrants.
Yet India’s rural migrants, desperate to escape poverty, flock to the cities anyway. Dharavi is an industrial gnat compared with China’s manufacturing heartland — and the working conditions in the slum are almost certainly worse than those in major Chinese factories — but Dharavi does seem to share China’s can-do spirit. Almost everything imaginable is made in Dharavi, much of it for sale in India, yet much of it exported around the world.
Today, Dharavi is as much a case study in industrial evolution as a slum. Before the 1980s, Dharavi had tanneries that dumped their effluent into the surrounding marshlands. Laborers came from southern India, especially the state of Tamil Nadu, many of them Muslims or lower-caste Hindus, fleeing drought, starvation or caste discrimination. Once Tamil Nadu’s economy strengthened, migrants began arriving from poverty-stricken states in central India.
Today, more than eight million people live in Mumbai’s slums, according to some estimates, a huge figure that accounts for more than half the city’s population. Many people live in slums because they cannot afford to live anywhere else, and government efforts to build affordable housing have been woefully inadequate. But many newer slums are also microversions of Dharavi’s informal economy. Some newer migrants even come to Dharavi to learn new skills, as if Dharavi were a slum franchising operation.
Dharavi still exists on the margins. Few businesses pay taxes. Few residents have formal title to their land. Political parties court the slum for votes and have slowly delivered things taken for granted elsewhere: some toilets, water spigots.
But the main political response to Dharavi’s unorthodox success has been to try to raze it. India’s political class discovered Dharavi in the 1980s, when any migrant who jabbed four posts into an empty patch of dirt could claim a homestead. Land was scarce, and some people began dumping stones or refuse to fill the marshes at the edge of the Arabian Sea.
Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s prime minister, saw the teeming slum and earmarked one billion rupees, or about $20 million, for a program to build affordable, hygienic housing for Dharavi’s poor. Local officials siphoned off some of the money for other municipal projects while also building some tenements that today are badly decayed. The proliferation of shanties continued.
Three decades later, the basic impulse set in motion by Mr. Gandhi — that Dharavi should be redeveloped and somehow standardized — still prevails. But the incentives have changed. Dharavi’s land is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Private developers do not see a slum but a piece of property convenient to the airport, surrounded by train stations and adjacent to a sleek office park.
A sweeping plan approved in 2006 would provide free apartments and commercial space to many Dharavi residents while allowing private investors to develop additional space for sale at market rates. Many Dharavi civic and business leaders endorsed the plan, even as critics denounced the proposal as a giveaway to rich developers.
For now, the project remains largely stalled, embroiled in bureaucratic infighting, even as a different, existential debate is under way about the potential risks of redeveloping Dharavi and shredding the informal networks that bind it together.
Education is hope in Dharavi. On a recent afternoon outside St. Anthony’s, a parochial school in the slum, Hindu mothers in saris waited for their children beside Muslim mothers in burqas. The parents were not concerned about the crucifix on the wall; they wanted their children to learn English, the language considered to be a ticket out of the slums in India.
Once, many parents in Dharavi sent their children to work, not to school, and child labor remains a problem in some workshops. Dharavi’s children have always endured a stigma. When parents tried to send their sons and daughters outside the slum for schooling, the Dharavi students often received a bitter greeting.
“Sometimes, the teacher would not accept our children, or would treat them with contempt,” said Mohammad Hashim, 64. “Sometimes, they would say, ‘Why are you Dharavi children over here?’ ”
Mr. Hashim responded by opening his own school, tailored for Muslim children, offering a state-approved secular education. He initially offered the curriculum in Urdu but not a single parent enrolled a child. He switched to English, and now his classrooms are overflowing with Muslim students.
Discrimination is still common toward Dharavi. Residents complain that they are routinely rejected for credit cards if they list a Dharavi address. Private banks are reluctant to make loans to businessmen in Dharavi or to open branches. Part of this stigma is as much about social structure as about living in the slum itself.
“They all belong to the untouchables caste,” said Mr. Korde, the longtime social activist, “or are Muslims.”
But money talks in Mumbai, and Dharavi now has money, even millionaires, mixed in with its misery and poverty. Mohammad Mustaqueem, 57, arrived as a 13-year-old boy. He slept outside, in one of the narrow alleyways, and remembers being showered with garbage as people tossed it out in the morning. Today, Mr. Mustaqueem has 300 employees in 12 different garment workshops in Dharavi, with an annual turnover of about $2.5 million a year. He owns property in Dharavi worth $20 million.
So it looks like I’ll be on the trail for five weeks solid, give or take. Details on this TK next week, but the purpose is to integrate your ideas and questions about policy and candidates in to the reporting process. I’d love your thoughts.
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