THE BLOG
09/11/2012 09:12 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

India: A Nation Rising From the Slums of Mumbai

Imagine yourself climbing up a narrow, creaky ladder in a dark warehouse. The stacks of empty plastic containers and old metal tins surround you as you make your ascent up into darkness. As you reach the second floor, you are greeted by more recycled materials and dusty floors that groan at every step you take. You now begin up the next ladder, clinging to the handrail for dear life. Just up ahead, the sun's rays burst through the ceiling and beam down on your sweaty forehead. As you get closer to the opening, the smells of smoke, gasoline, spices, and fumes enter your nose. Climbing out of the ladder and adjusting your eyes to the blinding afternoon sun, you can now see the thousands of tin roofs, like the one on which you stand, all around you. You are not just anywhere. You are in one of the largest slums in all of India -- Dharavi.

India: We hear it referred to as the next rising "global economy" in the media all the time. With a population of over 1.2 billion people, India is literally growing by the second. It's only natural for a country with the second-largest population in the world to be an economic powerhouse, isn't it?

While India's economy is surging ahead, the wealth it has created has not been enough to lift the poorest of the poor out of poverty. More than 32 percent of India's population live on less than $1.25 a day and more than 68 percent live on less than $2 a day, making up one-third of the total number of the world's people living in poverty. With the rate of poverty so great in India, it is no wonder that the number of Indians living in slums has more than doubled in the past two decades, now exceeding the entire population of Great Britain.

In Mumbai, a cosmopolitan city where the world's richest and poorest coexist, over nine million people live in slums. The city of Mumbai epitomizes the deep contrast in wealth throughout the entire nation on India; on one street stands a Rolls Royce dealership, but around the corner, children run around in tattered rags begging for food and money. In the heart of Mumbai, one million people call Dharavi home -- a slum about the size of New York City's Central Park.

I recently visited the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, where I got to experience the hustle and bustle of a working community in person. If you've ever seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you may recall the Dharavi slum, which was used in many of the shots of the film. However, the film, which revolved around the lives of several children growing up in the slums of Mumbai, failed to show the thriving industrial sector that makes up this unique community.

Beyond the shanties and narrow alleyways lie thousands of men and women making textiles, recycling waste, and working to better their lives. Walk down one corridor and you'll pass by a giant warehouse full of empty oil tins being pounded back into shape, which will eventually be sold again. Pass by another warehouse, and old plastic bottles, equipment, and toys are being melted down into tiny beads to be reused again. Go a little further, and you'll see leather shops producing bags and wallets that will be sold in Mumbai's most expensive shops.

The Gateway of India, located not too far away on the waterfront of South Mumbai, served as an entry point for British royalty, goods, and political leaders back when India was colonized by Great Britain. Today, Dharavi serves as the Gateway of India for recycled goods coming from all over the nation. A staggering 80 percent of Mumbai's waste is recycled in Dharavi alone! Barbie dolls, cardboard boxes, computer monitors, and motorcycle tires all come to Dharavi as waste, but leave as refurbished goods put back on the market -- only to be recycled and circulated through Dharavi over and over again.

Although Dharavi may just sound like India's garbage dump and largest recycling plant, it is more than that. Dharavi is also a living community with markets, houses, education centers, and small textile businesses -- it is a city within a city. To my surprise, the people of Dharavi did not despair their socioeconomic status, but rather embraced it. Living in Dharavi gives its citizens a sense of community and comfort -- invaluable assets in the competitive Indian atmosphere just beyond the walls of Dharavi. Dharavi truly embodies the values of community that were once so ubiquitous in India, but are now becoming scarce; tenants and shopkeepers all keep close watch on each other's businesses and make sure that everyone is safe. Within the walls of Dharavi is not just a slum, but also a model community where everyone is working together to lift him or herself out of poverty.

Living in a time when it is absolutely vital to make conscious decisions about how we deal with our waste, it is amazing to think that what we throw away is a potential source of income for those living halfway around the world. It's been said that "One man's trash is another man's treasure;" for those living in the slums of Dharavi, this is all too true. In a country that is home to some of the wealthiest tycoons on the planet, it is those living in working slums, like Dharavi, who are the backbone of the nation's economic prosperity. Rising out of the vast poverty in the slums of Mumbai is a new upper class that has prospered from the success of their businesses in slums like Dharavi. Now more than ever, the impoverished people of India are crowding into urban areas and literally building themselves and their nation up from the slums.

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