Delhi is more cosmopolitan than Mumbai


Sheela Patel

To person

Sheela Patel was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1952. In 1984 she founded SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resources Centers). Today, SPARC is one of the largest Indian non-governmental organizations and deals with the issues of housing and infrastructure for the urban poor, for equality and social justice. SPARC works with two community-based organizations, the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan. Together they are active in around 70 Indian cities and have networks in 20 countries around the world.

The "slum expert" Sheela Patel on growth and justice in Mumbai

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bpb: Around six million people live in slums in the central urban area of ​​Mumbai. More than 300,000 people live in Dharavi alone, one of the largest slums in the city. What do the slum dwellers need most?

Patel: It is estimated that between 450,000 and 600,000 people live in Dharavi. An exact number is not known as the government has not yet carried out a baseline survey of this urban area, which is a township. Slum dwellers, whether in Dharavi or elsewhere, need secure ownership rights, access to the most important utilities and public transport.

bpb: Slums are mostly seen as a disaster. They advocate a different perspective: should slums be seen as a solution?

Patel: It's easy to see slums as a disaster if you don't live in a slum yourself. For poor people, slums are a means of self-help. This is how they find accommodation, as the state does not take on this responsibility. Initially, slums are always seen as a temporary solution; people hope for a better alternative, but if it does not happen then they develop a sense of permanence. Slums become a disaster if they are seen as a permanent solution to the housing problem, because they increase the inequality between city dwellers and no form of self-help can change a lack of access to water and sanitary facilities.

bpb: Even so, rural people continue to flock to India's megacities - Mumbai, Kakutta and Delhi. What are people still hoping for?

Patel: People in Europe and the developed world should keep in mind that migration to North America, Australia and the numerous colonies at that time was the way out of impoverishment in European cities for migrants from rural areas. Migration is inevitable as agriculture, shaped by globalization and efficiency, has changed the way people work and live. People always strive to change and improve their living conditions. They believe that this is more likely to happen in cities than in the countryside.

bpb: In 2015 more than 21 million people will live in Mumbai and more than 18 million in Delhi. Are there limits to growth?

Patel: I don't think anyone can say anything about the limits of growth. In the past we have seen cities shrink again when they are no longer able to take in people. This has been the case with many cities in the north and is also seen as the beginning of their collapse. So we live in a strangely paradoxical world where we are obsessed with growth but do not want the poor to participate. It is also clear that due to the inadequate infrastructure across the country, cities like the ones you mentioned have merged with neighboring small towns and become metropolitan areas.

bpb: The social differences in Indian megacities are enormous. Your organization SPARC fights for equality and social justice. At the same time, India is now one of the countries with the fastest economic growth. Will the city of the future be fairer or will the social gap widen even further?

Patel: The new global economic order has clearly resulted in dire inequality and ostentatious consumption. Many say that trying by civil society organizations [like SPARC] to defend justice is tantamount to fighting windmills. WE believe that in the current phase of Indian economic growth there are still numerous advocates of a just system, both in the state and in civil society. As long as this is the case, in the face of the aggressive market at the forefront of development, we can ask the state to create a political system that creates certain conditions for basic justice and the framework for the protection of human rights. If we fail, then violence will prevail, because poor city dwellers who see the demonstrative consumption of others will also demand this for themselves. We have seen this well enough in cities in the north and south.

bpb: Ms. Patel, you live in an Indian megacity - in Mumbai. What do you like best about your city?

Patel: There is still a cosmopolitan spirit that keeps the city healthy, despite multiple attempts by political parties to spoil it. Mumbai is a city where the slums are not hidden. Everyone sees them, slum dwellers and people from the middle class live next door to each other in this city. Mumbai is largely safe for women. For example, I can usually take a taxi or public transport at night, although there have been some recent incidents here that have shocked us all. It is particularly worth mentioning that in the past, when the floods in Bombay occurred, the people affected, rich and poor, stood together and helped each other - in contrast to the pictures we saw of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where only the poor population suffered from the disaster. This city is very active and has a long tradition of working together that we are all very proud of.

The interview was conducted by Sonja Ernst
Translation from English: Mia Rimac