Searchlight participants who attended “The Future of the Urban Poor” convening in Mumbai in April 2011 offer thoughts on their experience in Asia’s biggest slum in comparison to poor communities in their home regions.

By Tanja Hichert, Hichert & Associates and SA Node of the Millennium Project (South Africa)

Where to even begin in trying to answer the question of what Dharavi signifies about the future of the urban poor? I came away from visiting Dharavi – a most overwhelming experience– with many more questions than answers, and a sense that the complexity governing it cannot be understood, albeit not easily. So suffice to say, I am still thinking and mulling and questioning, and will probably carry on doing so for the time being.

Some thoughts, in the form of statements, are percolating; however, I want to share them for what they are worth:

  • I am not a cultural determinist, but I suspect the Indians in general, and perhaps the Dharavi inhabitants in particular, are very industrious. This is a unique competitive advantage that the urban poor in other places do not necessarily possess. How would one go about ‘cultivating’ industriousness, entrepreneurship, and an enterprising spirit?
  • I do not have much faith in governance, in the traditional sense, that is. I cannot see elected officials, administrators, planners or policymakers making the right decisions, and tough trade-offs, in order to do what needs to be done to improve poor peoples’ lives. If there is a gap in traditional governance, what sort of governance might work, or make a difference for the better?
  • There may not have been blatant crime and violence in Dharavi (like the sort of crime and violence we have in Kibera or Khayalitsha), but I suspect some residents are better off than others because of exploitative, unlawful and illicit activities. Crime in whatever form should not be justified or condoned, but taking the “moral high ground” may be intolerably difficult.
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