Standing at the centre of Dharavi Slum in India, I was overcome by a sense of awe. I asked our guide, “Where do all of these people come from?” He said that over 80% of the people in the slum were from smaller villages around India, including himself.
Slums, like all human settlements, are a world of their own. As the biggest slum in India, with over one million people packed into an area half the size of Central Park, this is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. They’d made the journey, leaving their families behind, to the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai. Dharavi represents an opportunity to work and send money home.
It’s clear, and tragic, how difficult this life must be — alone and in an unfamiliar environment, the majority of your day spent working a mundane job, such as sorting tiny pieces of plastic according to colour. It’s because of this that I was astounded at the happiness, gratitude and generosity of the people living and working in Dharavi.
The question: How do people display these traits while living a life of incredible hardship?
Life in The Slum
Walking through the narrow streets you’re surrounded by a constant hum of noise coming from the mass of people and machinery. This doesn’t come as a surprise when you consider that Dharavi is home to over 10 000 businesses, and has an annual GDP of over $1 billion.
The slum has its own estate agents, responsible for the letting and purchasing of rooms. These rooms, approximately 15 square meters, are rented out for $100 a month. They’re available for purchase too, although, with a price tag of $30 000, few can afford them.
The steep costs of living mean that people live and work in a single room. A grey, concrete room in which they spend the day working, and the night sleeping. Passing room after room, different people doing the same thing, my surprise at the bullishness amongst people continued to grow.
Most people working in the slum are involved in the plastic recycling industry. Syndicates within the slum have systems in place which ensure that the entire recycling process takes place within those 1.75 square kilometres. With plastic collection points throughout the city, workers melting and sorting the plastic throughout the slum, and more workers packaging the final product, the process has become extremely efficient.
Manufacturing warehouses have been established by the Dharavi recycling syndicate. Workers, with previously no experience, are taught in the space of weeks how to build machinery used in the recycling process. They’re given a place in the warehouse where for years to come, they’ll build, repair and sleep.
The average life expectancy in the slum is 50 years old. This is due to people living and working in the same room, constantly being exposed to harmful fumes. Because of this, lung disease is the leading cause of death amongst workers.
The question: Why do millions of people willingly leave their families in pursuit of these hardships and a shortened life expectancy?
Religion in India
With a population of 1.38 billion people, only 0.27% of Indian people consider themselves to be atheist. This makes India one of the most religious nations in the world. This plays an incredibly big role in influencing peoples behaviour.
Census data shows that although the majority of Indian people are Hindu, various religions are followed throughout the country. Reincarnation is a central tenet amongst most Indian religions. Included in this is a strong belief in Karma.
The prevailing belief is that karma dictates that the next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived. In a lifetime people build up karma, both good and bad, based on their actions within that lifetime.
Here’s what this means: People embrace the difficulties presented to them, viewing hardships as an opportunity to build up good karma and pave the way to a better life in the ‘next life.’
What Does This Tell Us?
Religion is a tool more powerful than any other in controlling human behaviour. It’s seen in the willingness of millions to embrace hardship, without question, in the name of faith. It’s seen in the willingness of people to fight and die in the name of religion. It’s seen by the fact that religion is believed to have existed for more than 4,000 years, and is showing few signs of slowing.
Religion influences human behaviour in a unique way, the question is, why?
Religion, understandingly, seems absurd to many people. Whether you’re a believer or not is beside the point. Religion is a comforter. It provides a reason for people to continue living, despite being dealt a bad hand. It’s a crutch that guides people through life, assuring them along the way that “everything is going to be alright.”
Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived four concentration camps before authoring ‘Mans Search for Meaning’, writes that forces beyond your control can take away everything that you possess, except your freedom to choose how to respond to that situation. He states that life holds meaning, even under the most miserable conditions. Your response to those conditions is where that meaning lies. Religion governs that response for many people. Religion provides meaning for many people.
The smile of a person as you walk by, or the sound of children laughing as they run past the tourists, does little to mask the difficulties of living in a place like Dharavi. Instead, it shows that despite these difficulties, people are capable of finding comfort and meaning regardless of their conditions. Once you see this, it cannot be unseen.
So here’s the point: In a world full of pain, suffering and inequality, religion provides comfort and meaning to those in need. The rare ability of religion to provide these means that it plays an enormous role in influencing the way that humans behave.