Though India as a whole is well known internationally for its large slum populations, no city better embodies this urban trend than Mumbai. Over half of Mumbai's 20.7 million people live in slums. In Mumbai we saw more poverty and substandard living conditions of any city we have visited. Our time in Mumbai was the last week of 2014.
Several definitions exist for what is classified as a slum, but one Indian government committee defines slums as "a compact settlement of at least 20 households with a collection of poorly built tenements, mostly of temporary nature, crowded together usually with inadequate sanitary and drinking water facilities in unhygienic conditions."
Many slum residents are migrants from rural areas in search of economic opportunity in the cities. Even though living conditions are insanely difficult, many slums have found economic niche. Dhobi Ghat, for example, is a slum community that has developed an identity and an industry around laundry service. At the ghat, there are rows of concrete wash pens, each with their own flogging stone. (We never totally understood how whacking clothes causes them to be clean, but we leave that to the experts.) The residents there handle the laundry of the city’s well-to-do, hospitals, and hotels. We stopped by one afternoon to look at this incredible operation in action, looking from the top of a nearby bridge. For more close up photography, there’s some great photos here.
Intermingling and Life Near the Tracks
Mumbai is not unique among the cities I've visited for having slums or large poor communities, though I’ll admit that they were among the direst living conditions I've ever seen. What stood out to me more, however, was the way that slum communities and wealthy communities were so tightly intermingled all across the city. In other cities I've visited, like say Beijing, Mexico City, and even our dear Boston, poorer communities are separated from the richer areas of town. For better and for worse, it allows well to do residents to live a more comfortable life with cleaner streets. Yet in Mumbai, communities of all socioeconomic classes are mixed together. It is common to see a Michelin star restaurant on the same block as a run down building (or four) and the new luxury apartment building could very well be across the street from shacks of a slum.
There is, however, something much more human about the intense intermingling you see in Mumbai. Poverty is harder to ignore, which is good because it can be easy to forget when it is out of site. In Mumbai it feels more raw and affronting, and we were glad to have had that experience. The photos below were taken at the train station in Bandra, one of the richest areas in the city.
More than any other country we've visited on this trip, India has livestock walking around everywhere, even in major urban areas.
We also took some video of both riding the famously crowded trains in Mumbai and a little of the life around them on the tracks.
We took the India state railway system between most of the cities we visited in India. In and near every city there were camps of people living next to the rail tracks, living some of life on the tracks like in the video above. As passengers going by and watching life at the edge of the tracks, we felt like we got the tiniest of glimpses into their difficult lives. We also felt an extra knot in our stomach once we realized that the bathrooms on Indian railway trains empty directly onto the tracks.
Poverty and Charity
Street begging is an inevitable consequence of such intense poverty, though yet again the scale and intensity we experienced in Mumbai was new to both of us. From the moment we left the airport, children in the street and women in the road were constantly coming up to us with outstretched hands, sometimes touching our arms or rapping a car window for attention. They were incredibly insistent on maintaining our attention and made it very hard to be left alone. It is hard to internally balance the belief that we should not ignore the poor, that they have a right to advocate for themselves and to be seen, while also maintaining the desire to not be pestered or harassed on the street. We both decided before our trip that we wouldn’t give in these situations, as a very large number of street beggars (especially children) are actually controlled by criminal gangs who exploit them for profit.
Having a plan for how we would manage street begging did not take the sting out of it, however, and each encounter of pushing a very desperate person away left us feeling cruel and greedy for not giving. Before coming to Mumbai, both of us read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an award winning nonfiction book telling the tale of families in one of Mumbai's slums. Besides giving us a window to see a portion of the life that these people live, it also illuminated for us rampant corruption in some charity enterprises for the poor. It would have been appropriate for us to have spent some time investigating a trustworthy charitable organization to give to instead but we didn't - being "busy" was one excuse but also we also had a real concern that with India's endemic levels of corruption, knowing which organizations were actually worthwhile would be nearly impossible.
As an aside, we highly recommend Behind the Beautiful Forevers to any reader of this blog.
We have more to say about the children we encounter as travelers and will talk about it more in the next post.
The poverty and slums we saw in Mumbai were a sobering and important experience of our trip. Intellectually, we knew about the plights these people faced, but the small window we had to see it made it more vibrant and real for us. As I prepare to apply to medical school, the experience of seeing poverty in India as well as the reading I am doing about global health has affected some of my views on medical access and may affect the path of my medical education and career. I think we will carry what we saw in Mumbai for a long time.