For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working in Dharavi: the heart of Mumbai, its center of small scale enterprise, and “one of the largest ‘slums’ in Asia”. Dharavi is an incredibly unique area that outsiders rarely get the opportunity to work in and learn from for such an extended period of time. It is an organically built neighborhood comprised of over 80 different communities that was born out of necessity and now houses up to one million people (who speak over 30 languages and follow six religions) and 15,000 small scale industries.
While slums are an all too common sight in the modern world, Dharavi is unique in its scale and ability to integrate work and living in such tight proximity – it is 20 times as dense as the rest of Mumbai. When people visit the area two things stand out: the evident happiness of many of the people in the residential sections and the level of industry. While these are important takeaways that fly in the face of common perceptions of low income areas and people, Dharavi has much more to teach the world. For the past two years, I have reflected on two central questions: where does that ‘happiness’ come from and why do slums exist? To answer these questions, I drew on conversations with community members, its recorded history and elements of philosophy, economics, and urbanization. Using Dharavi as an example, in this article I will attempt to explain what I have learned.
First, I have learned that happiness should be decoupled from money and material possessions. While this might sound obvious, it is an idea that is woefully absent in practice, especially in economically developed countries where people work nearly every waking hour, neglecting friends and family, to achieve status and money through their careers. The residential area of Dharavi illustrates that once basic needs (food, water, and shelter) have been taken care of, money has little impact on happiness. While an abundance of issues continue to persist, these needs have been met and one is immediately struck by the happiness among the community when visiting and talking with them.