Sonu and I were both immediately struck by the differences in Mumbai. Everything seems more modern and cleaner, more vibrant and cosmopolitan, in India’s financial capital. This is all in contrast to the formality, tradition and overwhelming historical significance of Delhi, India’s center of government. There are cranes and new construction everywhere here, and no shortage of 40 and 50-storey buildings. The variety of architecture ranges from Gothic and Victorian influence of the British, to art deco and modern. And there is a dramatic new cable suspension bridge that reminded Sonu and I of when we drove over the new San Francisco Bay Bridge extension together last year. We saw all of that, but we also saw the pockets of slums at every glance, often directly adjacent to luxury highrises. And that was both sobering and intriguing.
A full 50 percent of Mumbai’s 20 million people live in slums, defined as communities of substandard housing where there are no indoor toilets, or there are communal facilities, at best. You see large swaths of the city blanketed with plywood and cardboard and corrugated steel, and the omnipresent blue tarps. And the slums extend well outside of the city, with one million people a day commuting in and out by train, at times riding on the roof, or clinging to doors or windows.
And we saw the extreme have/have not comparison when our guide pointed-out the gated mansion of a Bollywood star, and then the home of the richest man in India, the head of giant Reliance Industries. His 27-storey ultramodern tower is said to be the most expensive residence in the world, costing more than $1 billion to build. It’s home to a family of five, and has multiple heliports and a staff of 600. And within the concrete and steel structure he keeps two cows, in order to ensure fresh milk.
Unlike so many of our ‘homeless’ in the U.S., slum dwellers are not necessarily unemployed; residents include hotel workers, waiters, taxi drivers, police officers, teachers and tour guides. And I was most interest in the enterprise that occurs within the slums. There are a number of ‘Dhobi Ghats’ throughout the city, ‘Dhobi’ being the caste of laundrymen, and ‘Ghat’ being a bathing or washing place. They operate as open air laundries, serving the hotels and apparel manufacturers, among others. We didn’t visit Dharavi, said to be the largest slum in all of Asia, with nearly 500 acres and one million people. But the guidebook says that ‘industry’ within that community includes leatherwork, textiles, pottery and recycling. So it’s at least encouraging to know that – depite their very hard lives – many of these people have purpose and dignity, and the ability to put food on their tables. They may even have hopes of becoming the next ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.