At first I could hardly bear to watch, then I was riveted, and at the end, I felt I’d witnessed something profound. I’m talking about the documentary on ABC TV on Tuesday night, in which the host, Kevin McCloud, goes off to spend two weeks living in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. As the doco began, we saw Prince Charles speaking what seemed a bit outlandish gibberish about things we might be able to learn from the slum. He was saying there was an enviable sense of community in the slum, and it was great how people recycled everything and seemed to live in harmony together. Coming from one of the most privileged people on earth, this seemed tasteless, if not outrageous.
But as McCloud burrowed further in through the filth and disease, it began to look like there might be something in it. First of all, the crime rate in Dharavi is very low. Packed together like sardines with pretty-well zero privacy, crime has nowhere to hide itself. People did genuinely seem relaxed, happy, open and smiling. How could this be? Perhaps high density forces people to be more social, and somehow that makes people happier. Certainly, opportunities for individual navel-gazing and angst looked pretty scarce. And the place is one big pulsing centre of ingenuity and creativity where a mountain of rubbish is being transformed into a city.
I’m writing this in a nice big house with hot and cold running water, a flushing toilet, washing machine and weekly garbage collection. I know there is something dreadful about people in the privileged West glorifying poverty and squalour. And yet, I can see how there might be things that we can learn from people who are not – because they have no alternative – living the insular, consumer-driven lives we lead in the West, where nothing is ever good enough and having a lot just seems to drive people to want more.
Just imagine if we brought together the best of both worlds – the high-quality health and infrastructure of the West with some of the social aspects of life in that Mumbai slum. For example, if we had bike and pedestrian-friendly streets with children playing safely in them and lots of people out and about, perhaps we’d have less crime and a little more social harmony.
Tracy Sorensen is the publicity officer for Bathurst Community Climate Action Network. Visit www.bccan.org.au