The 2008 Box Office success Slumdog Millionaire was a British drama following the rags to riches story of Jamal Malik, an 18-year old from the Dharavi slums of Mumbai in India. Arrested on the final question of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the viewer is then shown how a street kid came to be one question away from this incredible prize.
Whilst the story itself is fictitious, many of the scenes depicted in the movie are based on an actual location – the largest slum in Asia and the oldest in India. Originally a small fishing village, the industrialisation of India and agricultural mechanisation has led to the population swelling to in excess of 1 million people today.
But what is a slum exactly?
Well the United Nations defines one as a location with “a clear manifestation of a poorly planned and managed urban sector and, in particular, a malfunctioning housing sector”. A slum is characterised by 5 key traits:
- Inadequate access to safe water;
- Inadequate access to sanitation and infrastructure;
- Poor structural quality of housing;
- Overcrowding; and
- Insecure residential status.
Why is the environmental sustainability of slums important?
The UN estimates that approximately 1 billion people around the world already live in slums today. By 2050 this could be as high as 3 billion. Excluding this group from sustainability considerations dooms any plans to failure.
What are the environmental problems with slums?
These urban areas are incredibly densely populated and the people living in them are often very poor. These people therefore will often use resources in a manner that focuses on survival and not on impact, which is fundamentally unsustainable. The major negative impacts from slums are:
- Air Pollution caused by the local burning of biomass, coal and kerosene for domestic and industrial energy; and
- Water Pollution caused by poor sanitation infrastructure leading to run-off of human and industrial waste into rivers, lakes and oceans.
However, slums have also been praised for their ability to shed new light on urban environmental sustainability. Prince Charles, on visiting Dharavi, said:
“The district’s use of local materials, its walkable neighbourhoods, and mix of employment and housing add up to an underlying intuitive grammar of design that is totally absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built around the world to ‘warehouse’ the poor”.
The Prince argued that only by adapting local urban design, would the world be able to deal with the projected increase in urban populations in a sustainable way.
In order to deliver on this view of slums as environmentally sustainable components of future urban populations, governments and slum dwellers themselves need to focus on three main areas:
- Waste water treatment;
- Renewable energy; and
- Rainwater capture.
Obviously, one could add lots of other improvements not least education, however these three areas will directly address the air and water pollution challenges.
When talking about the upgrading of slums however, we must respond to the danger that properties are not then occupied by more affluent groups instead of those originally intended. The Kenyan Slum Upgrading Project is one such example where bribes and income opportunities have to some extent hijacked the development.
Perhaps as a final point, it is worth pointing out that almost all slum dwellers live there by choice. Conditions and opportunities are often better than those they left behind in the rural hinterlands. Therefore, these people are committed to their neighbourhoods and should be receptive to well-planned, local upgrade projects that properly engage the slum dwellers themselves.