How much is a Billion dollars?

We were sitting at the site coordination office of SPARC, at Dharavi. SPARC is a Mumbai based non-profit working towards rehabilitation of Mumbai’s slum dwellers through local community organizations. The office is in the ground floor of a recently constructed housing complex, which previously used be a slum, now converted with help from the state government and local community organizations.

As we get into the office, an old man walks in. He had walking sticks, was almost shirtless and had bandages tied to his legs. He approaches the coordinator sitting there and hands him some documents, and starts conversing in Tamil. The coordinator, quite a young guy, could not understand a word. So, I became the interpreter.

Turns out Ramalingam, who is probably more than 60, hails from Thirukovil in Southern Tamil Nadu. He came to Mumbai 40 years ago with his family and since then has been begging in the streets of Mumbai. The little hut where he and his family currently live is scheduled to be demolished by the municipality in the next couple of days. However, he has been allotted a house, in one of the newly constructed apartment complexes to rehabilitate slum dwellers at Vashi naka. He had the keys for his new apartment. He was there at the office, because he was told by his neighbors that SPARC would also pay him some money for the shifting, given that Vashi naka is quite far from where he lives right now. However, he had to return empty handed, SPARC had no resources under that program, to pay for his shifting. Well, at least he got the house.

Later than afternoon, we went in-roads into Dharavi to see some more projects. I still could not understand why someone like Ramalingam, would leave his nice town or village to come to a city like Mumbai and live in the worst conditions possible. Was it extreme poverty or the lure of the big city? I heard that 60-70% of families living in Dharavi are people who migrated from Southern Tamil Nadu! Interestingly, Dharavi is also swarming with economic activity. A recent Time Magazine article estimates that the slum generates a GDP of $1 billion a year. And yet, people living in the worst possible conditions.

That afternoon reinforced my belief that creating rural livelihoods is an important step in preventing such large scale migration. Probably one day, Ramalingam’s children would want to come back to their little town.

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