Thursday, 11 June 2009

Slumdog Indians?

Ojas Mehta
The following is the unedited version of the article published for the international youth magazine "Voices". For the published article, follow the link here

The next time you crave for your favorite cheeseburger, imagine this: Nearly half the people in the world live on less than $2 per day, and one billion people live on $1 a day, according to reports by UN-Habitat and the World Bank. Slumdog Millionaire has shown audiences around the world a snapshot of what life is like for one in every six people on this planet.

A slum is an area where people live without one or more of life's necessities, characterized by inadequate income, shortage of sufficient food and safe water; and often problems of inadequate housing, even indebtedness. Inadequate public services like piped water, sanitation, drainage, roads, inadequate basic services such schools, health-care, emergency services and public transport. Inadequate protection including laws regarding civil and political rights, occupational health and safety, environmental health, protection from violence and crime, from discrimination and exploitation, without a voice within bureaucratic structures, and no support for developing their own initiatives. It is the vicious cycle of population growth, opportunities in the cities and poverty with low incomes that that forces the rural to relocate to cities causes slums to grow rapidly

India's slums have been in the international spotlight recently since the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the rags-to-riches tale of poor boy rising from the slums of Mumbai.

India is a fascinating mix of amazing facts and contradictions. Despite the many benefits that India’s privileged classes have secured after a decade of impressive economic growth, the lives of the poor and marginalized continue to stagnate in malnutrition and apathy. Urban poverty in India is huge; some 81 million people live in urban areas on incomes that are below the poverty line.

“Abject, rampant poverty is still a reality for a large chunk of our population. Too many of our citizens are illiterate, too many are without primary healthcare, and too many live in slums, where living conditions are pathetic. We must not desensitize ourselves to such grave an injustice.” -Ajachi Chakrabarti, student, India

Nevertheless, these very slum dogs who live in extreme misery and apathy still uphold their dignity, and are unwilling to give in without a fight. Dharavi boasts of a wide array of vibrant, diverse small-scale industries. People here live with the exhilaration of living each moment as their last, their incessant quest to live to fight another day, a joy we affluent might never be able to experience. Some Indians find the word Slumdog to be insulting; in Indian culture, dog - kutte in Hindi - has been a derogatory appellation for centuries. The desolate image depicted of the slums has enraged local slum-dwellers, resulting in protests, burning of effigies, boycotts and even a court case, led by several slum activists, Bollywood actors and members of the international press.

“Slumdog Millionaire willfully discourages the average tourist to India, for whom the graphic, stark images of misery will easily overwhelm any painstakingly made holiday brochure. It is almost as if the director has “sold” India to have his mega-blockbuster. Most of the scenes highlight our plight - they are the scenes that are sold the world over – the image of a poor and crippled India. They never talk about the battle the people are waging every day. They strip us of all our dignity, and show us in shame and disgrace.” –Dr. Saby John K, Professor of Biology, India

“The Movie is a desperate attempt to reinforce the image that the west has about India – about it being a third world country, underdeveloped, and possibly with no scope of improvement. Certainly, this might be viewed as an attempt to stifle India’s recent growth as a major global power, in the wake of an international economic slowdown. Slumdog’s Oscar victory is only a marketing gimmick run by people that do not truly understand India and still have the same century old ideas about our great nation” –Anand Ramachandran, Student, India

Countless Indians are compelled to live in slums, not because they are impoverished, but because city planners have failed to build low-cost alternatives. Housing projects would provide residents properly constructed homes, basic infrastructure like sewage, electricity and running water.

Efforts to reduce urban poverty in India are increasingly driven by the urban poor themselves, supported by local NGOs. The method developed by the Indian NGO SPARC comprises of

a. Developing pilot projects with low-income groups and community organizations, alternative ways of building/improving homes, running credit schemes, setting up public toilets and organising community-determined resettlement, as also

b. Engaging national officials and international agents in a dialogue with communities about how these projects can be expanded.

The makers of Slumdog Millionaire have recently announced they are to donate £500,000 to a charity that will help children living in the slums of Mumbai. Director Danny Boyle said, “Having benefited so much from the hospitality of the people of Mumbai it is only right that some of the success of the movie be ploughed back into the city in areas where it is needed most and where it can make a real difference to some lives.” The children in Slumdog Millionaire are moving from the real-life slums in Mumbai into new homes. The authorities in India have decided to reward the stars for “bringing laurels” to the country.

I wonder what we could do for the millions of other children who live in poverty. I believe that everyone in the world, no matter what race or no matter where they live, should have food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads. I believe youth participation is the key to many of today’s problems; the passion of youth, when transformed into actions, would be essential to tackle many pressing issues. Youths are urged to work hard instead of waiting for the government to do everything for them in the fight against poverty

While stepping down as United Nations secretary-general after a 10-year long tenure, Kofi Annan told the assembly of youth: "I know you will not resign yourselves to a world where others die of hunger, remain illiterate and lack human dignity. Slums represent the worst of urban poverty and inequality; yet the world has the resources, expertise and power to eradicate poverty by 2015. That is where you, the young leaders, come in. Your voice and your organization, activity and energy can hold leaders to those pledges that they have made. Together, we can overcome the apathy and lack of political will, and move ahead in our effort to help the world’s slum dwellers to attain lives of dignity, prosperity and peace.”

The India of Mother Teresa still exists - People living in the streets, a woman crawling from a cardboard box, men bathing at a fire hydrant, men relieving themselves by the roadside. On the other hand, we have the world’s largest middle class; and the “Rich” Indians too. We have an exploding education sector, a booming computer segment, a fountain of medical professionals, some most exciting modern English literature; and a Bollywood to rival Hollywood. In any case, our nation cannot be trivialized as “slumdogs”, certainly not by a foreign moviemaker.