Sunday, 9 March 2014

Maharashtra - The Final Word

It's been great fun learning about Maharashtra but, after more than two months focusing on this part of the world, I feel it's finally time to move on. 

During my time researching Maharashtra, I learned about Pancha Ganapati, a festival in honour of the Hindu deity Ganesh.  I also did some research on vegetarianism and levels of meat consumption around the world.  I blogged about the political significance of 'name-changing' (Bombay/Mumbai etc) in India and elsewhere.  I reviewed Khandekar's Yayati, perhaps the greatest Marathi novel ever written, as well as Rohinton's Booker-shortlisted novel, Such a Long Journey.  I learned how to make pakora, Moong dhal and Bombay Vegetable CurryI watched ten Bollywood movies and read numerous books, in my attempt to understand Maharashtra and India.  In a new strand of my blogging repertoire, I explained some of the key words/concepts that I'd come across, whilst learning about Maharashtra.

As always, there were many topics I didn't have time to delve into - so if you'd like to pick up the blogging/research 'baton' on Maharashtra, I would recommend the following extra topics:

The ethics of going on Safari
Jainism
Tea
Statues
Indian demographics - comparing population growth with China
The Parsis
Hindutva ideology
The Indian middle class
India's space programme
Dowry
Corruption
Indian TV
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka the Hare Krishnas)
Indian universities
Car ownership

The Final word on Slums

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
Despite the fact that I sometimes blog about places with terrible human rights' records - I always try to focus on a positive learning journey, which helps me understand the motivations of the society I'm blogging about and gives me an appreciation of their cultural achievements and relationship with the wider world.  In my last blog post, The Final Word - I have a tendency to pick up on slightly more negative aspects of the place I'm blogging about.

For example, whilst blogging about Liberia, my final word was on Press freedom - or the lack of it - with Korea, I blogged about Basketball diplomacy and how sport can't answer all of our political questions. 

Whilst I was researching Maharashtra, something that really struck me was reading about Dharavi, one of India's biggest slums.  I realise that slums aren't specifically an Indian problem and exist all over the world, however I'm interested in finding out more about slums and I'm using Maharashtra and this 'Final word' as a starting point for future research.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
As I understand it, the word 'slum' usually describes an 'unofficial' area of a city that has grown up due to migration (or sometimes immigration), where large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other, without proper services or sanitization.  In English, we also use words like 'shanty town' and 'ghetto' to describe these areas of a city, so I guess I already started my research on slums, when I blogged about the Jewish ghetto of Venice back in February 2011. 

Slum areas are notorious for high levels of crime and outbreaks of disease.  As they're not officially sanctioned, authorities have a tenuous sense of responsibility to the people who live in these areas.  Whilst slums generally come about as a temporary response to a city's rapidly increasing population, many slums, like Dharavi, have been around for more than 100 years and could hardly be considered to be 'temporary'. 

Although we usually associate slums with countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and parts of Africa - there are slums all over the world and in countries that we might not immediately think of.  For example, I was surprised to learn that the percentage of people living in slums in China (about 30% according to the UN's recent 'habitat report'), is more or less the same as in India.  Yemen had the highest percentage of its urban population living in slums in Asia in 2007 (77%) and even a prosperous country, like Saudi Arabia has an urban slum population of around 20%. 

Indian slums like Dharavi and the favelas of Brazil are well-known to the world, but I sense that there are a lot of 'hidden' slums around the world, that aren't so well-known, as they don't grab the newspaper headlines.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
What to do about slums is an interesting question.  After years of official neglect, authorities can suddenly take quite an interest in redeveloping slum areas - especially 19th century slums like Dharavi which now find themselves, in the 21st century, on prime real estate. 

In the interests of 'progress', the authorities tear down the slums and replace them with modern buildings and facilities - whilst this all sounds very nice and progressive, slum-dwellers rarely benefit from the redevelopment of slum areas and are often relocated to a 'newer' slum on the outskirts of the city, far from the expensive real estate of the city centre!   The impact this has on the local community, third or fourth generation slum-dwellers, can be devastating.

When I was in Beijing two years ago, we visited a very traditional area of the city which the government would like to tear down and replace with modern buildings.  Whilst the old buildings have such inconveniences as outdoor/communal toilets and small living spaces, the area has a real sense of community that would be difficult to replicate in the outer suburb that the government would like people to move to.  I can see the dilemma that most people would have - a new apartment with modern conveniences might seem very attractive, even if it takes an hour to get there on the bus from the city centre!

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the work of Akshay Mahajan who is a photo journalist, originally from Pune in Maharashtra.  Akshay has done a series of photos in Dharavi and captures the beauty of the slum, as well as its ugliness.  You can see more of his photos here.  Thanks Akshay for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 
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