On our first full day in Mumbai, Jehuda, Harleen Singh and I visit the extraordinary work being done by two alumni, Sundar Burra ’71 and Devika Mahadevan ’00. I have time at the moment for only the briefest sketch of this day.
We first visit a site of the NGO that Devika runs, called Mumbai Mobile Creches. This organization serves the children of migrant workers who are employed and live on the construction sites in Mumbai. MMC provides educational, health and social welfare services to thousands of children who would otherwise have no access at all to these services. We visit a site in South Bombay where three high rises are being built side-by-side, with apartments already pre-sold at over a million dollars apiece. The workers, meanwhile, live on-site in improvised shanties, with minimal sanitary facilities. Devika’s organization provides an oasis for children from infants through age fourteen.
Sundar Burra then takes us to the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi, where more than half a million people live on around 500 acres. His organization, SPARC
, helps mobilize and organize residents of Dharavi and other slums to secure better access to services and to help shape the governmental policies that affect their community.
What strikes us most in Dharavi is the extraordinary energy and industry of the informal economy there. Most of Dharavi’s residents work within the slum itself, many on recycling projects that painstakingly transform the discarded materials of the city into reusable products. We see the process by which residents start with plastic trash, then crush it, wash it, and form it into small clean, sorted piles that are eventually sold to companies that make new plastic products.
But this informal economy is threatened by a potential plan for the redevelopment of Dharavi which would construct forty-story high-rise buildings where these recycling and other informal economy operations would be impossible. It’s a complex and important story about the challenges of addressing urban issues on a massive scale, and Sundar and SPARC have been in the middle of it, always urging the policymakers to listen carefully to the voices of the residents themselves.
In the evening, we continue the conversation at Sundar’s flat, in the company of other Brandeis alumni, academics, and NGO leaders. Among other things, we discuss ideas for providing more opportunities for Brandeis students to become involved in the work being done to address urban poverty in Mumbai.
A fuller account of this remarkable day will have to wait until we have more time to describe it.