Daniel Sewell: Inequality in India – Changing my concept of struggle

During our visit to Mumbai, our group had the opportunity to visit Dharavi – the largest slum in Asia. With a population of over 1 million in a space not much larger than 2.1 square kilometres, the sheer density, let alone the restricted electricity access, poor sanitation, and limited opportunity for education, would make Dharavi sound like hell for most.

I myself thought Dharavi was unbelievable, so far from what even the poorest individual in New Zealand would ever experience that the possibility of such underdevelopment seemed unimaginable.

How could anyone ever be content in a place so impoverished? Especially in Mumbai, home to some of the richest individuals in the world, not to mention, the world’s most expensive private estate (Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia), second only to Buckingham Palace, established only a few hundred meters from Dharavi itself. A disgusting display of capitalism I thought.

Yet, in a post panel discussion with three of Dharavi’s current/former residents, spirits remained surprisingly high. Not one person spoke of Dharavi unfondly. In fact, I’d never seen a smile as big as the one from elderly lady sitting furthest from me. Sure, when asked, the pervading issues of slum life (sanitation etc.) were recognised, however these individuals were overall quite positive of their way of life.

Still, I remember thinking, surely even the mention of Mukesh Ambani will make their blood boil, how could they ever be happy with his capitalistic nature and outlandish expenditure?

Well to say that they weren’t bothered is a borderline understatement. Two of the three expressed similar sentiments surrounding how his money should be spent on schools, hospitals etc. yet neither appeared to be overly passionate or enraged by the topic. And the elderly lady had no idea who Mukesh Ambani even was!

What I learnt in that moment was three things:

  1. One’s wealth has no correlation to their long-term happiness
  2. When an individual’s life is so deeply affected by poverty, focusing the mind on things that make one angry, sad, or depressed add absolutely no value
  3. We in the West are very quick to prescribe what we believe to be the natural or “correct” reaction or emotion to feel in a given situation despite having little to no experience with, for example, living in extreme poverty

Overall, something that I believe we must teach and practice in New Zealand and the West is community. Community, family, love, and friendship are the things that bring true happiness. Dharavi is a living testament to that. The western mindset to pursue wealth and power is misguided – perhaps even the reason for our uniquely western epidemics of depression, suicide, and mental illness. However, this is a topic for another blog post.

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