Year 2: Semester 2 Week 8

Hello from Mumbai!


It's spring break, and I'm here in Mumbai, India with my Engineers for Social Impact class.

You might have also heard this city called by its colonial British name, Bombay. We are partnering with a local NGO, called URBZ, to work on small-scale urban development projects in Dharavi, one of the major communities in Mumbai and the world's third-largest slum. We left for the airport 15 minutes after I finished my last exam, so that was a little crazy. One nice thing about living in Abu Dhabi is that the flight to Mumbai is just about 3 hours, so it's pretty easy to travel there.

Abu Dhabi is closer to Mumbai than some people might think

We're here for less than a week, but the goal is NOT to simply come in, complete a project, and then leave, but more to learn about the community, assess the needs of the community members, brainstorm/test ideas as necessary, and continue developing our projects and reports over the rest of the semester after we leave Dharavi. I apologize if any of the information I share here is inaccurate: I've only been here for a few days, as a foreigner, so I'm doing my best.

We're working in groups of 3-4 students, and each group is mentored by an URBZ staff member. The URBZ staff members help us with translation, technical knowledge, and transportation, and we use their office, which is on the edge of Dharavi, as a work space. They have a lot of connections to community leaders and local businesses, which is really helpful when setting up meetings for our research. Some of us are continuing projects that previous NYUAD groups have started, and others are starting new projects as suggested by our mentors. My group is generally focusing on applications of small-scale solar power in Dharavi, and how the costs of using solar would compare to using the municipal electrical grid for things like pumping water, heating water, cooking, various manufacturing industries, etc.

Entering Dharavi for the first time (note the beautiful blue mosque)

My group has mainly been visiting small electrical shops and solar panel dealerships, looking into how much people spend on electricity in the community and what they use it for, and specifically examining a site in Dharavi where we think it might be useful to install a solar powered water pump to provide running water to a public toilet complex (right now people just come to the toilet carrying small buckets of water with them). We can't order all the equipment in the time that we're here, or get authorization from the government, so it's unlikely that the project will be implemented anytime soon, but from the logistical/engineering side we are planning which components would be used, doing the calculations for the power requirements, and gathering data for a cost analysis report. Even if I'm a bit doubtful that anything we do will make an impact right now, I'm learning a lot from the experience and understanding more about what can be done, what has been done, what should not be done, and what needs to be done to alleviate conditions in urban slums. This was definitely a good follow-up to my Wealth and Inequality class in Accra back in January.

Visiting small electronics shops
Some interesting things about Dharavi:

I was interested to learn that, despite it being called a slum, not everyone in Dharavi is poor. Property values in Mumbai are really high, and there's a system by which you earn the rights to government land if you've been informally living on it for long enough. Thus, a lot of people have earned rights to valuable land, they run successful businesses there, and they're very involved in the community, so there's no motivation to leave.

The Slum Rehabilitation Authority is a government agency that has tried to "improve" conditions by giving free apartments in other areas of the city as an incentive to get the slum-dwellers to leave. It turns out that some people moved to the apartments, but then realized the cost of maintaining the apartment was too high and they didn't like being cut off from the community, so they just rented out the apartment for some side profit and moved back into the slum. There are many examples of this kind of thing, where "interventions" to improve conditions are not as straightforward as one might think.

In general, I get the feeling that people are interested in improving the community as long as it's financially feasible on their part, but they tend to be pretty skeptical of outside agencies and governments because they recognize that people have been trying to "fix" things for years and changes tend to be ineffective and disruptive to their lives. I get the impression that there are a lot of semi-illegal activities that go on here, not so much in terms of violent crime, but more because the government tends to regulate in ways that limit the community's economy, getting proper permission and licensing is a slow and inefficient process, and things aren't always uniformly enforced, so it's often easier to "act now and ask forgiveness later" with regard to government regulation. That being said, URBZ has a pretty good relationship with the community; it does a lot of community-based construction projects, and there are a lot of NGOs working here, some more effectively/ responsibly than others.

One of the wells, though not often used anymore now that the municipal water supply is more accessible
Sanitation is a challenge in Dharavi. The reality is that there is trash everywhere, I've seen giant rats, there are mosquitoes, and there are some open sewers and not enough public toilets to go around, so it's definitely not a particularly healthy place to live. Drinking water pipes pretty much go right along near sewers, and the electrical system is a pretty informal-looking network of wires going every possible direction. However, people are resourceful and generally make it work, Some areas are better than others. Everywhere is so full of life.

It's a very multilingual community. English is widely spoken with varying levels of proficiency, but Hindi is the most common colloquial language, and many of the Dharavi people have immigrated from villages where they speak another local language: Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, and more. Many people migrate to Dharavi temporarily for work, send their salary back to support their families, then return to their home villages during the monsoon season. It's an interesting comparison to study the process of migrant labor here vs. migrant labor in the U.A.E.

The main industries in Dharavi include clothing manufacturing, pottery, plastic recycling, and making baked goods. There used to be an active tannery (leather production from animals other than cows, which are considered sacred), but that has been banned due to environmental hazards, so now they produce the leather elsewhere but sell it in Dharavi.
Women sewing denim textiles

Were your jeans made in India?
As a result of the economic activities, traffic, and the population density, the air quality here isn't great. In the pottery area called Kumbharwada, the kilns produce thick black smoke all around the areas where people live. One of the NYUAD groups is working on a project to build a chimney or other air filtering device to mitigate this, but pottery is a tradition that has been going on for thousands of years, and it's a difficult task to modify the process in any way, especially when economic survival sometimes takes precedence over health. In the plastic recycling industry, scrap plastic is melted down and reused, and this process produces toxic fumes as well. I could barely breathe when walking through these two neighborhoods, even when covering my mouth/nose with my dupatta scarf, so it's a little bit scary that people adapt and work/live here for years.

Some pottery
On that note, the population density here is unlike anything I've ever experienced before. I thought that I understood population density after living in Shanghai, but for the most part Shanghai has the infrastructure to accommodate that kind of population-- in Mumbai, you feel the crowding a lot more. In Dharavi, about 1 million people live in an area of about 2 square kilometers. The buildings are typically between 2 and 4 stories, connected by narrow alleyways that in some places are only wide enough for one person to walk.

Organized chaos
Religion is a central part of Dharavi, and there are distinct Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods plus Christians, Sikhs, and others. From my understanding, religious festivals are energetically celebrated in Dharavi and are a major part of community life.
Interesting thing spotted: painting of Jesus and Mary in sort of Indian-style attire
In general, it has been interesting to compare my experience in Mumbai to my previous trip to India, Last year, I went to Tamil Nadu, and the cities I visited there were much smaller. By comparison, Mumbai is so much more crowded/noisy, more modern in terms of architecture (more skyscrapers), fewer cows (still some cows though), more diverse in terms of languages, religions, and clothing styles, but similar otherwise. The rich history and culture is so interesting.
Mumbai skyscrapers
Gotta love the crazy traffic + constant chorus of car horns

Livestock meets modern life
I love that in India I have an excuse to wear kurtis every day... these long cotton shirts are so comfortable, modest, colourful, and great for withstanding hot weather.

Shopping for kurthis
The food is definitely a highlight here. I've tried most of it before, because I can get authentic Indian food pretty easily in Abu Dhabi, but my goodness there is nothing in the world like South Asian spices. Eating rice, daal, and sambhar from metal plates with just our hands, plus so much masala dosa, pani puri(!!), every type of puri whose names I can't remember, pav bhaji, idli, paneer, plus jalebi and other sweets for desserts. One of the evenings after finishing work, we did a "street food tour" and it was heaven. They started us off with the vegetarian street food like the pani puri, then we went to the Muslim neighborhood for some kebabs and chicken sandwiches and my goodness I was so full by the end. Here's a little visual sample of the typical meals:

Masala dosa is life.

The ocean water around Mumbai is mostly too polluted for swimming, but people still come to the beach to spend time with their families.

On a different note, may Stephen Hawking rest in peace. I was so sad to hear of his passing; I've read a few of his books and the world was so fortunate to have such a brilliant mind. Even here in Mumbai, there was a billboard commemorating his life:

Remembering Stephen Hawking
Anyway, that's all I have time to write for now. I'm excited for the remaining few days here and I hope to learn as much as I can for the future.

Goodnight from Mumbai, 


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