Reflections on Visiting an Indian Slum

I recently visited India for the first time, spending a grand total of 30 hours there.  During that time, however, my experiences ran the gamut.  I spent the day in the Zakhira slum in New Delhi, and then just a few hours later, enjoyed a sumptuous dinner sitting next to former Australia Prime Minister John Howard, his wife Janette, and other luminaries.

(Photo: Nate Gray)

My first impression of India was that the chaos on Indian roads was beyond belief: people walking and riding bikes on what appear to be freeways, motorcycles with three riders, open trucks crammed with people, the constant din of honking everywhere by everyone. On top of that, the people driving me never seemed to know how to get anywhere. It took over an hour to get from the airport to my hotel, a seemingly endless series of turns (including numerous u-turns) and my driver rolling down his window and yelling for directions at nearly every stoplight.  I was surprised when the return trip to the airport, with a different driver, took only 20 minutes and was nearly a straight shot.  I will say, however, that I saw only one cow on the trip.

The Zakhira slum is wedged between two sets of railroad tracks that run in parallel maybe 100 yards apart.  As we cross the first set of tracks to enter the neighborhood, my first impression is how well dressed everyone is.  Not fancy, obviously, but not dressed any worse than I am.  This seems incongruous, given the huge piles of garbage along the railroad tracks, the smoldering fires, and the powerful stench.  My guide and translator Shayak (whom I will write much more about soon), tells me that every few months people from the railroad company come by and take the garbage away using donkeys, which I don’t really understand, but I don’t bother to question.  There is a pile of diarrhea just off the path we are on, although it is the only sign of human excrement I will see on the visit, despite the fact there is no plumbing.  I ask Shayak where people go to the bathroom.  Shayak tells me that there is an area further down the tracks where they “take a dump.”  If we were to go near there, he tells me, I would vomit.

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  1. d.xin says:

    Why isn’t there single page mode? Doesn’t everyone use instapaper/read it later/readability?

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  2. Saptorshee Chakraborty says:

    Welcome to India, but please do not make any quick calculations by just visiting only some selected areas. If you do want to get the real taste you have to look also some other places which will make you feel the real essence of life here.

    Hope you enjoy it and feel the real taste of INCREDIBLE INDIA!

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  3. frankenduf says:

    so then, you have to go through an area of vomit to get to the defecation area?

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  4. Raj Venugopal says:

    30 hours eh? I think looking at India through your eyes and perspective would be interesting, but more time is required. I have travelled to India quite a bit for work recently, after a long hiatus from travelling there for family. After you stare at the chaos for a while and get comfortable with it, you will find countless systems and patterns, even in the apparent anomie of the traffic. There is a logic to the swirling and blending of noise, sound, bodies and colours. A society that is thousands of years old certainly has ecosystems with laws and patterns, even if they are not readily apparent.

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  5. Dan says:

    I have been to India twice and my sense is that the cities have perhaps 10 x the number of people that they were designed for.

    India is Malthusian at the level of the poor I think. My suspicion is that little is genuinely known about the life expectancy, birth and death rates of the teeming, impoverished masses. It just seems that the impoverished masses live outside of any official system and I cannot imagine that when someone is born or dies in the slum, officialdom will ever find out about it.

    How then could any national statistics ever be honestly known? Am I wrong? Does anyone know if demographic data from third world countries has any accuracy?

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    • Raj Venugopal says:

      I thought India a Malthusian proposition for some time, until I got into it deeper. Despite the apparent lack of organization, local communities do indeed maintain detailed family records, demographic information and other methods of population tracking. The notion of teeming, impoverished masses certainly seems accurate, but even the random beggar or streetside child busker is part of a larger, systematic network where their value is part of a larger known equation. Pulling the data together may be difficult in many cases, such as with cadastral and property ID efforts, but usually people on the ground know what the scoop is.

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      • Anna says:

        I was in India for six months last year and happened to be staying in a private home when the census takers came by for the survey. It was indeed thorough.

        Later, when preliminary results were published stories began to leak. Sex-ratio was the big narrative. A Mumbai neighborhood had less than 700 girls for every 1000 boys. The national and international outrage somehow covered over an even more shocking discovery.

        A story in the Times of India told how census analysts were confounded by results they were receiving. In Uttar Pradesh, a state just east of Delhi, they found that 1.5 million girls WHO EXISTED at the time of the previous census or as the result of birth records, were not reported as existing ten years later. One state. 1.5 million girls. No death certificates or other records regarding their disappearances. They were simply gone.

        The story went on to explain that the poor, who do not have access to sonograph machines, cannot practice pre-birth sex selection. They do so afterward.

        Fortunately I jotted a few notes in my journal because, as far as I can tell, the story no longer appears on the TOI website.

        As Raj says, people on the ground know what the scoop is. Taken as a whole the data is massive and seems to reveal conditions that are unthinkable for those doing the analysis.

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      • deepak says:

        Census authorities take migrating population, homeless beggars into account while devising census methodology. These strategies are not uncommon in any developed or first world country(they also have similar problems).

        Anna
        Times of India is known to sensationalize news stories without first thoroughly checking facts. It is highly possible that after publishing the story they came to know about actual facts and had no option but to retract the story.

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  6. Speed says:

    What would an economist say about someone that spends a wad of money and two days travelling to/from someplace new (to him), exotic, entertaining, fascinating, beautiful, educational and both modern and ancient and then stays for only 30 hours?

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  7. Owinok says:

    Interesting views and insights for a truly short trip. Make some time and go back. Did it occur to you that the contrast in property and wealth are as great and so evident as I noted? I recall sitting in one of the old black and yellow Ambassador cabs, a rickshaw to one side and a white neat Rolls Royce with a guy wearing a matching white turban on the third lane. Not to mention the number of those walking on the side. I had no camera but that perhaps would be the picture of the year.

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  8. Eric M. Jones says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Waymon says:

      If people stop thinking of the US as a non-profit organization and actually develop our programs to create a financial return instead of the democrat policy of hobbling the US any time we get too far ahead of the rest of the world. (The secrets of our success are not really secrets at all. The ability to stand in a line is a pretty small thing but anytime the people can’t do it you are sure to find a 3rd world country.) Take DARPA and NASA for instance, both are sitting on some of the best patents that will never be filed. Yet, we complain about the costs of the programs? Look at Greece, Italy and Spain if you would like to see where the Democrats are trying to take the country! European socialism is unsustainable!

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      • Finlay says:

        Or look at Germany and France. Work less hours, comparable GDP per capita, Stable mixed economies, universal health-care and benefits. Debt level well below US. Or look at the UK strong free market principles but with debt levels similar to US, but with the similar social systems to Germany and France. The thing that links the three ‘successful’ mixed economies that I mention to counter your ‘unsuccessful’ trio is that they had fundamentally sound economies which arguably can support the level of public spending and deficit. The three you mention did not have fundamentally strong economies before joining the euro and the euro is what is driving their inability to QE their way out of unfunded and unsustainable public spending like we are doing.

        Democrat policies like universal health-care aren’t what is or will bankrupt America. It’s spending 10% of your GDP on the military. I would associate that spend more readily with the Republicans if we want to use broad brushes.

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      • McGurkus says:

        Finlay,
        I think you need to study up on current European economies. Both the UK and France are both facing dramatic economic challenges (high debt levels, high unemployment) that have stemmed directly from the socialist elements of your “mixed economies” (e.g., job security, low work-hour weeks, universal healthcare). Germany, for the most part, has avoided such difficulties by adopting stronger market practices such as making it easier for employers to hire part-time or temporary employees and to fire existing employees.

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