Vikram Zutshi

March 5, 2011: The Fire
Hollowed eyes. Glazed looks. Disoriented and displaced in their own neighborhood. Wandering aimlessly. Clutching at anything that felt solid and tangible. Such was the state of the residents of Garib Nagar, a colony of hutments located in Mumbai, India. Only a few hours prior, their entire settlement had been razed to the ground by a devastating fire that swept unabated, eating through the flimsy structures effortlessly.

Garib Nagar was a community of slum dwellers, inhabiting a tract of land in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. Its predominantly Muslim inhabitants were rickshaw drivers, chai-wallas, street vendors, maidservants, casual laborers, construction workers and their ilk; the folks who make a modern Indian metropolis throb and hum.

Two of the inhabitants included Mohammed Azharuddin and  Rubina Ali Qureshi, child actors from Hollywood blockbuster film Slumdog Millionaire. Both were rendered homeless by the fire.

Three Years Later
Today it has been three years since that fateful day. The slums of Garib Nagar have come back with a vengeance and now boast of solid three to four story structures constructed with brick and mortar, in blatant violation of municipal laws. Due to pressure from local politicians, the Indian Railways have relinquished their claim to the land upon which the illegal structures were originally constructed. The 5,000 odd residents of Garib Nagar were initially given the Rupee equivalent of $500.00 each to rehabilitate themselves after the fire, most of which was used as down payment on high interest loans to finance the new structures, leaving many of the residents in debt. However, many of the inhabitants regard the fire as a blessing in disguise because, due to public sympathy, all future demolition drives were banned in the area thus granting legitimate status to the structures.

The number of residents has since grown to 10,000 and local fire authorities warn that the casualties will be much higher in the event of another fire, given that the multi-story brick homes are tightly packed together, offering no escape route and making rescue operations very difficult. A common trend for those who have been in the city long enough to own property is to subdivide it and become landlords to relatively newer migrants, who in turn subdivide further and rent to the next cycle. The extreme congestion causes serious health and safety issues for inhabitants.

The Garib Nagar conundrum is emblematic of the intractable issues that plague India’s vast and growing subaltern population, the so-called ‘informal’ sector, that forms the very backbone of the Indian economy, yet for all practical purposes exists on the fringes of the mainstream. It is made up of hundreds of millions of ‘kiranas’ (mini-stores), agrarian workers, laborers, taxi and rickshaw drivers, street hawkers, trash pickers, tailors, small-time contractors, subsistence criminals, most of whom reside in squalid unventilated tenements with several people squeezed into a single room.

On the flipside, the informal sector is responsible for most of India’s economic growth and a whopping 90 percent of all employment. Nearly all of Bombay city’s waste is recycled in the slums. Computer monitors, keyboards, car and motorcycle tires, oil tins, plastic bottles and even Barbie dolls are all delivered to the sprawling Dharavi complex as waste but re-enter the market as refurbished goods, only to be recycled and processed once again. Dharavi, an epic slum, similar in scale to its counterparts in Karachi, Rio de Janeiro and Lagos, has been called a ‘city within a city’ – a thriving and vibrant township with schools, vocational centers, bazaars, leather and textile workshops and more. These cottage industries export goods all around the world generating an annual turnover estimated to be over half a billion dollars. Social mobility is the aspirational engine that powers these fringe cities and indeed millions of urban poor in the developing world are lifted out of poverty every year.

Interestingly the crime rate in slum colonies is much lower than many of the more upwardly mobile enclaves in the city. An outsider may walk through the squalid labyrinth of narrow alleyways without ever feeling threatened. And moreover there is a real sense of community in this teeming community of a half million souls that has all but disappeared elsewhere in the city. Local politicians do not intervene apart from obligatory pre-election sops, like water spigots and community toilets, which are usually too few and far between.

According to a groundbreaking study, the UN Habitat Report, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities and nearly two billion new urban residents are expected in the next twenty years, nearly all in the developing world. Approximately one-third of the urban population in developing countries – nearly one billion people – live in slums. Furthermore the report found that nearly a quarter billion people in the developing world were lifted out of slum conditions between 2000 and 2010, of which three fourths were in China and India.

The report concludes that the problem lies with bad governance, misappropriation of institutional aid and lack of political will, not the forces of globalization and capitalism as some pundits would have us believe; “An important message of this report is that slums and urban poverty is not just a manifestation of a population explosion and demographic change, or even of the vast impersonal forces of globalization. Slums must be seen as the result of a failure of housing policies, laws and delivery systems, as well as of national and urban policies. The most important factor that limits progress in improving housing and living conditions of low-income groups in informal settlements and slums is the lack of genuine political will to address the issue in a fundamentally structured, sustainable and large-scale manner. Slums must be seen as the result of a failure of housing policies, laws and delivery systems, as well as of national and urban policies’’ (UN-HABITAT)

What Next?
In late 2013, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, approved a sweeping plan to redevelop Dharavi and provide free housing and commercial space to its residents, while allowing developers to construct buildings for sale at market price. The proposal has been nixed by almost seventy five percent of residents who say that individual redevelopment of slum plots would give them a much better deal.

With national elections around the corner, and slum-dwellers comprising a substantial vote bank, just how this will play out is anyone’s guess. In all probability, smaller hutments like Garib Nagar will not be a part of the overall redevelopment plan and will continue to exist in the shadows of the booming city around them, until they are absorbed into the mainstream and replaced with the next wave.

All images ©Vikram Zutshi

Vikram Zutshi is a writer-producer-director based in Los Angeles. After graduating from UCLA, he spent several years in Film / TV production, followed by a stint as Creative Executive at 20th Century Fox and later in Sales/Acquisitions at Rogue Entertainment. He later went solo and produced two feature films before transitioning into Directing. His debut feature, ‘Max Kennedy and the American Dream’, was filmed at various points along the two thousand mile US-Mexico border and has since been widely broadcast. He also travels extensively on photo expeditions to Southeast Asia and Latin America, and is currently prepping his next film, a fiction feature, 'The Byron Project' to be shot in Bombay, London and Los Angeles.