Toilets vs. TVs—Now a moot point

I wrote a post recently that speculated about why the 600,000-plus poor residents in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, India, might choose having TVs over having toilets. As some have correctly noted, the obvious reason is that toilets require connection to a sewer system, which the poor can’t provision themselves. But then where do poor people ...

602105_070424_dharavi_05.jpg
602105_070424_dharavi_05.jpg

I wrote a post recently that speculated about why the 600,000-plus poor residents in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, India, might choose having TVs over having toilets. As some have correctly noted, the obvious reason is that toilets require connection to a sewer system, which the poor can't provision themselves. But then where do poor people in Dharavi get electrical power for the televisions that are apparently so common in the sprawling slum? Often, it's from "goons"—India's equivalent of local ward bosses. But shouldn't it be possible for the poor to procure sanitation as well as electricity?

Consider Orangi, the famous slum in Karachi, Pakistan. In the 1980s, NGOs helped the community there create its own sewer system with 72,000 latrines and 1.3 million feet of sewer lines. Although primary sewer lines must still come from the government, the success of the project has enabled the community to establish partnerships with government agencies and bring residents closer to a complete system.

Such a project may or may not be replicable in Dharavi, but the whole question of toilets may soon become irrelevant. The government is planning to demolish Dharavi so that Mumbai will no longer be "Slumbai." Many of the residents are being offered free relocation to brand-new, high-rise apartments with kitchens and bathrooms. The residents aren't budging, though. The National Geographic article reports that "many Dharavi locals were unmoved by the idea of a personal loo."

I wrote a post recently that speculated about why the 600,000-plus poor residents in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, India, might choose having TVs over having toilets. As some have correctly noted, the obvious reason is that toilets require connection to a sewer system, which the poor can’t provision themselves. But then where do poor people in Dharavi get electrical power for the televisions that are apparently so common in the sprawling slum? Often, it’s from “goons“—India’s equivalent of local ward bosses. But shouldn’t it be possible for the poor to procure sanitation as well as electricity?

Consider Orangi, the famous slum in Karachi, Pakistan. In the 1980s, NGOs helped the community there create its own sewer system with 72,000 latrines and 1.3 million feet of sewer lines. Although primary sewer lines must still come from the government, the success of the project has enabled the community to establish partnerships with government agencies and bring residents closer to a complete system.

Such a project may or may not be replicable in Dharavi, but the whole question of toilets may soon become irrelevant. The government is planning to demolish Dharavi so that Mumbai will no longer be “Slumbai.” Many of the residents are being offered free relocation to brand-new, high-rise apartments with kitchens and bathrooms. The residents aren’t budging, though. The National Geographic article reports that “many Dharavi locals were unmoved by the idea of a personal loo.”

Residents are justifiably skeptical about whether they will indeed get new, decent housing. Distrust of the government isn’t the whole story, though, as the article makes clear:

What need do I have of my own toilet?” asks Nagamma Shilpiri. … Certainly, Shilpiri is embarrassed by the lack of privacy when she squats in the early morning haze beside Mahim Creek. But the idea of a personal flush toilet offends her. To use all that water for so few people seems a stupid, even sinful, waste.

But even that doesn’t fully explain why Dharavi residents would choose filth over flats, either. It’s about business and community. In the slum, with its more than 4,500 industries, people’s homes are also their businesses, where residents do everything from make soap to recycle plastic. Moreover, the narrow, grimy lanes—in which people work, bathe, cook, and gossip—are where life happens. Turning a “horizontal slum” into a “vertical slum” of high-rise apartment buildings would uproot dense social networks, destroying people’s businesses and eroding the vibrant sense of community.

And that is a good part of the reason why the people of Dharavi would rather have a hovel than a high-rise.

Preeti Aroon was copy chief at Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2016 and was an FP assistant editor from 2007 to 2009. Twitter: @pjaroonFP

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