Whether or not it wins Oscars, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire tells of more than India’s dirty underbelly. Boyle’s audience will remark at the inventiveness of Jamal Malik who, despite the odds, survives, becomes a millionaire and wins the girl of his dreams.
Such triumph isn’t just the stuff of reel melodrama. It’s the real everyday story of India’s slums.
Take Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Asia’s largest, where a million people inhabit 1.75 sq. km. Indian Bank indicates annual business worth Rs3,000 crore, with the leather industry playing a significant role (there are 130 leather goods stores in this area alone). Forty per cent of the slum is permanently employed, with 35% self-employed and 10% partially employed.
The tale is no different for the rest of India’s 70 million slum dwellers. Noting such business successes, Union home minister P. Chidambaram sang praises of the movie on Saturday.
Most of the country’s slum population consists of migrant workers, who come to Mumbai and Delhi in search of opportunity.
Instead of driving them away, it is worthwhile for India’s cities to harness their economic potential by granting some formality to an informal economy (most of these businesses are illegal). Property rights are important here. A slum dweller, living under the constant threat of his residence or shop being bulldozed, doesn’t need to bribe the local official if the law is on his side.
But even without the law, the slum dweller beats adversity. Malik ekes out a livelihood after escaping rioters who murder his mother and mobsters who blind his friend. Out of destruction, his creativity gives way to a new life. This phoenix-like quality resonates all across India’s urban sprawls, where capitalism’s idea of “creative destruction”—the entrepreneurial animal spirits that ensure the death of the old and the birth of the new—is more than abstract theory. It is this sheer will—a will to live, and a will to empower—that takes one from rags to riches.
Slumdog Millionaire gives us a glimpse of this will. It is up to India’s society to enable this will on to greater success.
What does Slumdog Millionaire say about India’s slums? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org