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Mumbai slum dwellers' cricket dreams

‘Most homes have televisions,’ points out Santosh, a guide from Reality Tours, as we squeeze down a narrow lane in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums. He turns to me and smiles: ‘So nobody works when Mumbai play cricket.’

Even in cricket-mad India, this is hard to believe. Dharavi is a thriving centre of industry and raw entrepreneurial spirit, a sprawling temple to a sort of distilled capitalism – but it’s also a place for dreamers. You don’t leave your village to come and live in slum conditions unless you’re chasing something.

People move to Dharavi from all over India to find work, to send money back home and to build a better future for themselves. They start families and seek better education for their children, who seem mainly to dream of cricket and of the ‘Little Master’ Sachin Tendulkar, India and Mumbai’s talisman and the man who has scored more runs in Tests and one-day internationals than anybody else.

We make our way onto a rooftop. To the south lies the Wankhede stadium, the site of India’s Cricket World Cup victory a few months ago. It’s only seven miles away but from this vantage point it seems to inhabit another world – well apart from Dharavi, the city’s core.

A 1.75 km2 plot of land in the shape of a heart, the slums are home to a million people and an estimated 15,000 businesses with an annual turnover somewhere in the region of US$665 million. But this massive wealth creation translates to an average daily wage of just 150Rs(£2), and every rupee is hard-earned. ‘A lot of people think that slum dwellers sit around doing nothing all day,’ says Santosh, ‘but you will not see a single beggar here.’ The estimated employment rate in the slums is 85 per cent.

Much of that work is recycling. Cooking-oil containers and paint tins are cleaned and returned to pristine condition; bales of cardboard are reworked into boxes; plastics of every sort are transformed into pellets ready to be sold back to factories, and piles of aluminium are melted down into ingots. The West could learn much from the ingenuity of Dharavi’s recyclers, although their workplaces are extravagantly dangerous.


Cardboard recycling. Photo by Tom Parker via Reality Tours.


Manufacturing. Photo by Tom Parker via Reality Tours.


Recycling oil cans. Photo by Andreas Grosse-Halbuer via Reality Tours.


Pottery. Photo by Andreas Grosse-Halbuer via Reality Tours.

These are other hardships, too. Homes are tiny and electricity and water is erratic, but the most visceral sign of poverty is the lack of sanitation. What little open space exists is marked by hills of rubbish; children play cricket as their friends defecate openly nearby. It’s estimated there is one toilet for every 1,440 people, and even these are extremely unlikely to be in a usable state. The nearby Sion Hospital admits 10,000 patients each year for diarrhea and treats 30,000 more through their Outdoor Patient Department.

A few days later I make the planetary leap to the Wankhede stadium to see Mumbai Indians take on Kings XI Punjab in the Indian Premier League. The city’s upper and middle classes are gathered to worship. When Tendulkar makes his way onto the grass, overweight businessmen scream and rattle the cages that separate them from the cricketers. Tendulkar is their god as well as the children’s, and he is at least part-myth. All the best heroes are.

Tendulkar carries a heavy burden because he has come to represent not only cricketing success, but also global Indian success. India is a country on the move, and nowhere is that more apparent than Mumbai. The people who move to Dharavi become part of that growth, and in the slums the real spectacle is not poverty; it is communities struggling to make their big society work despite ineffective and corrupt government interventions.

For many years the government has been attempting to move people out of the slums. Newly built high-rises dot the periphery, but many do not want to leave. As Indian journalist Suketu Mehta wrote in his extended love letter to Mumbai, Maximum City:

‘We tend to think of a slum as an excrescence, a community of people living in perpetual misery. What we forget is that out of inhospitable surroundings, the people have formed a community, and they are as attached to its spatial geography, the social networks they have built for themselves, the village they have re-created in the midst of the city, as a Parisian might be to his quartier.’

Back at the stadium, Tendulkar is looking nervous. The crowd grows anxious, and I imagine the thousands huddled around their television screens in Dharavi. They have come to expect transcendence, but the beginning is unremarkable. Then, Tendulkar suddenly twists his body effortlessly and sends the ball rising high towards the starlit heavens, over the boundary, into another billion dreams.

Tackling an old taboo

Damanjodi is a mining town nestled in the verdant hills of Orissa, in the east of India. The skyline is dominated by a sprawling network of mines and refineries owned and run by NALCO, Asia’s largest aluminium producer. Men come here from all over the country, creating a migrant workforce with money to spend and time on their hands. In their wake, women come too, seeking work of a different kind. Over 500 women are engaged in prostitution in Damanjodi and surrounding towns. Their poverty drives them to sex work out of desperation and in the terrible knowledge that the risk of contracting HIV goes with the territory.

The slums in the centre of town are clean, orderly and vibrant with colour. Ambica Das, an energetic woman in an orange sari, is hosting a women’s meeting. The meetings are an open forum, and today they discuss finding a boarding school for a recently orphaned girl. They do not, they cannot, discuss their main purpose openly. Ambica is employed by a targeted intervention programme funded by the Orissa State AIDS Control Society and run by Ekta, a local NGO. Although not all of the women present are sex workers, many are. Ambica’s job is to distribute condoms and encourage safe sex, but in reality she does much more – from arranging refuges to suggesting alternative means of earning a living. In a world without social workers and where the police can cause as much trouble as the customers, she is often the only friend the women can turn to.

Indian red light district by Ben Garrison


Privately, Ambica visits the women who are most at risk each week. Over time she has earned their trust. The stories she tells me are as harrowing as they are commonplace – a girl of 15, the daughter of a prostitute, recently came to her after starting sex work herself. Her mother had not known of their shared profession until the girl fell pregnant. They do not know who the father is. Her mother disowned her, and the girl, just a child herself, faces raising her baby alone with no other means of income except returning to prostitution. Other women come to her after contracting HIV from unprotected sex. Despite Ambica’s best efforts to promote condom use, the offer of a little extra money is often enough to persuade them to go without. By Western standards, it really is a little extra money. Women receive 200 to 500 Rs. (US$4-11) for sex, but encounters can start from as little as 50Rs. ($1). To put that in context, a month’s wage for a woman working as a maid is 300 to 400 Rs. ($6-9).

Many of the women are widows or divorcees, and caste is no bar to sex work. Raising money for dowry, either for themselves or for their daughters, is another common reason for entering sex work and marriage represents one of the few realistic escape routes. The irony of women needing to appear chaste for their future husbands while being forced into sex work to afford their marriage is not lost on Ambica.

The risk of HIV looms over them. Over 18,000 people live with HIV in Orissa. Eighty-eight per cent of new infections are a result of sexual contact and a further 7 per cent are a result of mother-to-child transmission(1). The Indian health department runs integrated counselling and testing centres (ICT). Ambica says that referring people is one of the hardest parts of her job. ‘It’s an embarrassing situation,’ she says. ‘People are scared to be referred to ICT and take offence if they think that we are accusing them of being HIV positive.’

Mumbai red light district by Jon Hurd


Despite the hardships that Ambica encounters on a daily basis, the good news is that targeted interventions work. In Orissa, the HIV infection rate for sex workers remains below 1 per cent. By comparison, in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh nearly 10 per cent of sex workers have HIV (2). In much of the country, and much of the world, stigma and an institutional squeamishness about dealing directly with prostitutes puts lives at risk. According to UNAIDS, globally fewer than one in five sex workers receive adequate HIV prevention services and less than 1 per cent of HIV funding is spent on sex work (3).

Targeted interventions work because people like Ambica treat sex workers as human beings. A UNAIDS case study concluded that ‘one of the clearest public health lessons emerging from the HIV pandemic is that protecting the human rights of sex workers is one of the best ways to protect the rest of society from HIV (4).

Poverty is the greatest risk factor. Arguably the best way to protect sex workers from contracting HIV would be to give them alternatives to becoming sex workers in the first place. However, for those women who do end up in this riskiest of professions, Ambica’s work shows that taking the time to build a connection can have an impact that goes beyond keeping them free from HIV. ‘Earlier the women were ignorant,’ she tells me, ‘but now they are learning. At first it was difficult for them to interact, to talk about their issues, but now they approach us. They know about the importance of condoms and they are open with me about their problems. They want to be healthy.’

1 District AIDS Prevention & Control Unit, Koraput
2 http://www.avert.org/india-hiv-aids-statistics.htm
3 http://data.unaids.org/pub/Report/2010/20100917_mdg6_report_en.pdf
4 http://data.unaids.org/publications/IRC-pub05/jc438-femsexwork_en.pdf

Photo (top) by Ben Garrison under a CC Licence

Photo (bottom) by Jon Hurd under a CC Licence


MDGs: The view from Orissa

Forestry officer Ajit Bharthuar is midway through outlining his clean energy proposals to a plenary meeting on ‘Ensuring Environmental Sustainability’, the seventh Millennium Development Goal (MDG), when his microphone falls silent.

The lights simultaneously cut out; for a moment the only sound is the monsoon rain lashing against the tarpaulin above our heads. Ajit Bharthuar is undaunted. Clearly accustomed to this sort of hindrance, he raises his voice and forges on through the darkness until the light returns.

We’re a long way from New York City. The forestry officer is addressing the MDGs summit in Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Orissa, one of India’s poorest regions.

The UN Human Development Report recently identified it as 1 of the 8 Indian states where more people live in poverty than in the 26 sub-Saharan African countries combined, a startling fact which places it very much on the front line of the struggle to achieve the MDGs by 2015.

The prognosis is not good. Take the fourth Goal, which seeks to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two thirds between 1990 and 2015. Since 1991, infant mortality in Orissa has fallen just 33 per cent, from 124 deaths per thousand live births to 83.

This is some way short of the progress made in India as a whole, where the rate fell from 116 to 69. More pertinently, both figures are a long way from the rate of 39 deaths per thousand live births that India would need to reach its target.

The figures for education are similarly depressing. At present, the literacy rate in Orissa stands at 54 per cent, well below India’s national rate of 65 per cent. But even this statistic disguises geographical and gender disparities. In a rural village in Orissa’s Koraput district, only one in ten girls will learn to read and write.

Education in Orissa made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Photo credit: EKTA.

Clearly there is no way that the ambitious targets set in 2000 can be met at the current rate of progress. Shairose Mawji, chief of UNICEF’s field office in Orissa, argues for a renewed emphasis on the targeting of support.

She said: ‘An equity-based approach is needed. We know that even though we support many of the government’s programmes, the gap between the rich and the poor is actually widening. The only way we can address that is to refocus and ensure that targeted interventions really reach those who are most marginalized.’

There are some small rays of hope. Nobody I spoke to at the summit placed too much blame on Orissa’s state government, and indeed Dr Ambika Prasad Nanda, the UNDP’s programme officer in the region, praised them for providing stability against a backdrop of Maoist violence.

‘In the last one and a half decades we have seen a lot of progressive policies, in India and in the state of Orissa,’ he said. ‘The government in Orissa has delivered political stability, and for any development initiative, political stability is the cornerstone from which the community gets organized and gains confidence.’

Orissa’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik accepted that progress had been slow. However, he argued that poverty levels are at least heading in the right direction, with the proportion of the population living below the poverty line falling from 47.15 per cent in 1997 to 39.90 per cent in 2005.

‘Orissa has been striving to achieve a sustainable and inclusive economic growth, to accelerate the overall development of its people and a faster reduction of poverty,’ he said. ‘My government is committed to sustained efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.’

The state governor, Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare, was more circumspect: ‘We will not achieve the goals, let us not deceive ourselves. But we must try to get close.’

At 81, the former Supreme Court advocate has seen many politicians’ promises come and go. He has lost none of his passion or eloquence though, and he left me in no doubt of his message to the world leaders gathered in New York: ‘If you can achieve the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger in Orissa, you can achieve it anywhere in the world.’