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 Jibrin Ibrahim, Centre for Democracy and Development (Nigeria)

The majority of people in the contemporary world, including in Africa, have moved from the rural to the urban areas. These people live precarious lives trying to make a living from the informal economy. The proletariat Karl Marx assured us would make the revolution are nowhere to be found. What we have in the rapidly expanding mega cities are the precariat whose livelihood, and indeed lives, are at risk from irregular and insufficient income. Their lives are traumatic as they suffer from the toxicity of the water, air and soil around them.

Of course, for a conference in Mumbai on the urban poor, the center of activity and analysis could only be Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia made famous by the film “Slumdog Millionaire.” Yes, indeed, the people of Dharavi live under terrible conditions, in tiny shacks, defecating in and wading through the toxic mud around them. The 600,000 inhabitants of the area are yet to act in their own glamorous film. They toil and sweat as they pursue their precarious profession of processing and living on the income they make from recycling the enormous waste produced by the 25 million people that live in central Mumbai.

In a sense, they are a five-star ghetto because they are able to participate in the economy of the city as subalterns, but nonetheless as active economic agents. As Jockin Arputham, the leader of the Dharavi Slum Dweller’s Federation told us, they contribute $1 billion to the national economy each year. Their future is however uncertain today.

Their 525 hectares of land is the only undeveloped land left in central Mumbai. The value of their land is today $1,200 per square foot, and the state and developers are determined to throw them out and take over the land. What is impressive about India, however, is the power of its civil society. The Slum Dwellers Federation and the NGOs that support them have stopped the government from chasing out the people and taking over the place. They have used the power of popular mobilization to stop the takeover bid. The precariat is defined by its precariat.

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