In the slums of Mumbai one thing is immediately evident: the Indian understanding of “slum” and the American one are radically different. Unlike the hyperghettos of the United States—spaces that are depopulated, run down, and crime-ridden—Mumbai’s slums are often safe and bustling hives of activity.
They are densely packed and individual families tend to build vertically, adding lofts to accommodate family members or make extra money from rent. Running through the slums are very busy lanes that accommodate motorized, pedestrian, and animal traffic in a delicate, dangerous, and cacophonous dance. These streets are entirely lined with retail establishments: food sellers, tailors, shoe repairmen, chemists, optometrists, and hawkers of second-hand automotive parts or cell phones. In Mumbai’s Dharavi (often said to be the largest slum in Asia) there is a large section with industrial workshops as well, which recycle what ragpickers bring in, process leather, make pottery, or do embroidery. The biggest problem in iconic slums like Dharavi is an absence of services and infrastructure, most notably, indoor toilets.
The virtues of these slums are many.