Understanding Mumbai (when the honeymoon ends)

Understanding Mumbai (when the honeymoon ends)
Lauren in Mumbai, July 2016

Lauren in Mumbai, July 2016

India is ‘an assault on the senses.’ It is a place where to ask ‘why’ is unwise, silly, and utterly useless, because things simply are as they are, existing and functioning in karmic harmony, according to an unseen, beautiful cosmic law. Life and death, manifest and un-manifest, tender growth and merciless decay – all dance unpretentiously right in front of your eyes. India demands that you are present and humble at all times, a Witness (Saksi) to its brilliant ‘Lila’ (Sanskrit for ‘Divine Play’

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The very first task that ATMA asked me to complete was a personality test. I did so. I received ‘The Idealist.’ I’ve been accused of being an idealist for as long as I can remember and have always considered the label of ‘idealist’ to be somewhat of an insult and not something to particularly nurture. However, this has started to change during my time in India.

A few days ago I was travelling back to the office after having visited Dharavi – one of the largest slums in the world (housing approximately 1 million people within 535 acres). Dharavi boasts ‘infrastructure,’ ‘community,’ and an active ‘informal economy’ all of which it undeniably inherits. One of my colleagues stated how impressed he was with Dharavi in the taxi journey back (what a first world privilege it is to be able to afford to pay somebody to take you where you need/want to be). I felt ashamed to admit it at the time, but I wasn’t at all impressed. This place violated everything I knew to be right.  Dharavi is the most densely populated place on planet Earth.

Within this space, individuals work tirelessly with no health and safety standards, amidst pollution so thick that you can hardly breath and with rats the size of small cats scampering around the tired bare feet of individuals who labour for 14 hours each and everyday. Most people in the slum survive on less than $2 a day. The government turns on the water to Dharavi for 3 hours a day. 1 toilet is available for every 1,450 people. Fundamental human rights do not exist here. Dharavi exists because the Indian government allows it to. The government profits from the ‘informal economy’ circulating within Dharavi, it also receives regular bribes from desperate families seeking to keep their homes within the slum if they have occupied this space post 1993. Out of sight, out of mind.

The government has seemingly assumed little to no moral responsibility for some of the most vulnerable people in this world. Having a background in both International Law and Human Rights, I spent the entire taxi ride home trying to figure out why the international community has not done more in holding India accountable for not adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to which it is signatory to. I was desperately trying to devise a viable plan in my own mind as to what could be done in an attempt to deliver education, sanitation and shelter to each and every person in those 535 acres.

India is an assault on the senses, but why is it not okay to ask ‘why?Nothing can change and nothing can get better without asking ‘why’ and I don’t want to live in a world where nobody can be bothered to ask ‘why’ or where to be an idealist connotes a sense of vagueness or implies that you are off with the fairies.  I’m inspired by individuals who think in a non-linear pattern, who challenge the norm and who deeply respect the right to be human and yesterday I met with two people who are doing just that.

Pratik and Vinita of Design Jatra are both architects who are working on a local scale to provide sustainable, ethical and resourceful housing to the village district of Palghar, Maharashtra. The organisation regenerates the natural resources that they borrow from our earth to facilitate their vision of self-sufficient, non-reliant on government and educated Indians.  In addition to this incredible concept, the organisation is working on a project pertaining to organic farming. Design Jatra has successfully obtained 56 different varieties of rice and is in the process of assessing which species are more suited to the environmental factors at play in Palghar.

This rice has the capacity to be re-cultivated unlike the seeds most villagers have no choice in purchasing from the Government. In mud above my knees, below monsoonal downpour that my raincoat stood no chance against, I helped these people re-plant rice seedlings from one rice patty to another – with hopes that one day this village might become fully self-sufficient and that more people like Pratik and Vinita might start to ask ‘why?” Why should people be forced to purchase cement for their housing which mandates excessive amounts of water to curate when the slums of Dharavi only has access to this natural resource for 3 hours a day? Why should farmers be forced to purchase genetically modified rice seedlings that cannot be replanted to regenerate next years crop just because the government wants to commodify off of a starving population? As Vandana Shiva stated; “If they control seed, they control food. They know it. It’s strategic. Its more powerful than bombs. Its more powerful than guns. This is the best way to control the populations of the world.”

I’m starting to appreciate the Lila of India. This country is asking more and more of me everyday – she is impatiently demanding that I am increasingly more present and I’m trying the best I can to be more tolerant and humble towards her.