How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.
Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?
Kahlil Gibran The Prophet
My days in Mumbai are numbered. Strictly speaking, all the days of our lives are numbered. I will soon be saying goodbye to the city that has epitomized to me all that is wrong with India. I know there are people who swear by the city. I think that they are in a minority. But then, one might say that even minorities in Mumbai are pretty large numbers.
Numbers. That is reason number one for my discomfort with the city. Metropolitan Mumbai has about 12 million to call its own. There are European countries with fewer people than Mumbai. Indeed, about 60 percent of Mumbai’s population lives in an estimated 37,000 slums. That is, 7.5 million people live in Mumbai slums, about one and a half times the population of Finland. Finland, a country that I have a very soft corner for, has around 5 million people living in about 384,000 square kilometers. Mumbai’s 7.5 million people are not as fortunate; Slum dwellers occupy only 14 percent of the residential land in Mumbai, which I estimate amounts to about 140 sq. km. Imagine that: a piece of land about 12 kilometer square and then pack one and a half times the population of Finland into it.
I find it absolutely unbelievable. There are more people living in slums in Mumbai than there are people in Finland. A rough calculation leads me to figure that the population density of Mumbai slums is about
500 30,000 times that of Finland. And the income of a Finn is perhaps about 100 times that of a Mumbai slum dweller.
Mumbai is an astonishing metropolitan city where the so-called first, second, and third world co-exist. I call it The Triple Point of the World at Zero Degrees Humanity. You see affluence co-exist on top of the most degrading poverty. I wish I could erase from my memory all the awful sights of very little children — some as small as toddlers — begging on the streets and on local train stations. It is said that living in California makes you soft because living is so easy there. I guess I had grown soft with my over two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area. I hope that the year and a half in Mumbai has not hardened me. I want to retain the humanity that makes me flinch at the sight of suffering.
I feel for the unfortunates in Mumbai. I don’t mean to imply that I alone feel that empathy nor that my empathy is worth particularly much. I have a visceral hatred for the system that creates so much misery so thoughtlessly. I wish those who created, sustained, and continue to control this sorry place did not have the intelligence of scum and the ethical and moral sensitivity of cold tar.
About 10 days ago, they bulldozed 3,000 hutments and reclaimed 8 acres of slum-land, leaving 12,000 people homeless. In the last two months, 120 acres have been reclaimed after 67,000 dwellings were destroyed. [Source: BBC News] I suppose that means about a quarter of a million people who had homes — however modest — do not have a home now. The powers that be have stated that they will remove the slums from 375 acres of government land. In all, I expect that will make about a million people homeless in Mumbai.
A million additional homeless people in Mumbai. About the same number as the total population of Helsinki, Finland.
I grant you that enchroachment is a problem and needs to be dealt with. But why is it that the powers have to wake up so late in the day. Could they not have prevented the problem years ago? How do they justify turning people out of their homes after they have lived there for years, built up their lives around their abjectly modest dwellings, bred children, found employment and built human associations?
There is a lot of breast-beating and wailing and moaning when a natural disaster like the tsunami leaves people homeless. But why the absolute silence when a million people are similarly uprooted by government decree? Losing one’s home to a bulldozer is no different from losing one’s home to a wave, is there?
Why do I feel so strongly about this? Perhaps it is because I am myself a “homeless” person since I don’t have a permanent home and every now and then when I move, I get a feeling of rootlessness and insecurity. But it is more than that. I see this problem as merely a symptom of a larger problem that pervades India. That is the problem of over-crowding arising out of over-population.
A person living in a Mumbai slum finds, at the margin, that living in a crowded slum is preferable to living elsewhere in India. So, unless people systematically err in deciding where they live, for the people living in Mumbai slums, the pain of living elsewhere must be at least as much because there are no barriers to migration in India in the long term. The implication is that the dire situation in Mumbai slums is a good indication of how desperate the situation is around the country. It is that realization that makes me despair about the situation in India.
The existence of slums is a sympton of a deeper problem. Merely addressing the symptom can never solve the problem. One can clear the slums every so often and maybe even build decent low cost housing. But there are more people where the present slum dwellers came from. No sooner than you have moved the present millions of people into decent housing, the slums will reappear as soon as the land is cleared. Indeed, building decent housing for slum dwellers would encourage more to migrate to Mumbai and only worsen an already intolerable situation.
The fact is that slums are just an effect of the unsustainably large population of India and unless we wake up to that problem, we will continue to treat people worse than animals. I think that the powers that be need to live in over-crowded slums for a bit to really appreciate what the population problem is all about.