Slumming it for success

By Neil T

Slumming It , which was broadcast on Channel 4 this week, made for interesting viewing as it documented the experiences of Kevin McCloud who spent time living in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum where the film Slumdog Millionaire was made. Praised by Prince Charles for its strong happy community, this square mile – crammed with a million people living in appalling conditions of open sewers, the inevitable disease and rat infestation – nonetheless manages to have no crime to speak of, safe streets, generally happy and social people, and higher employment than Britain. It also effectively has no government whatsoever!

The paradoxes are extreme: on the one hand, there is extreme poverty, disease and overcrowding, yet the place is vibrant productive and thriving with happy social people. I had never understood how Bangladesh could in one year hit the news headlines for widespread deaths, famine and starvation and yet a few years later come top of the world happiness survey. While I can accept that riches don’t buy you happiness, surely grinding poverty must make you miserable also, yet it seems not, which is barely comprehensible to a westerner like me.

What these examples suggest to me is that the value of liberty, or self determination, total self reliance, and no government, the ability within even the most appalling restraints on space and economic possibilities to totally make your own life in your own unique way in absolutely every aspect of it, is such a powerful instinct in us as to have more bearing on happiness than material comfort. Better to live with disease and the stench of open sewers than in a comfortable English suburb! Really?!

That’s both astonishing and deeply disturbing. Is this how much liberty is really worth, that its lack simply can never be compensated for by any material compensations? And then I think of our modest experiment in cutting out the daytime imprisonment of our children, and the amazing difference that freedom has made to who they are, despite the rest of the dysfunctional and dangerous society surrounding and grooming them.

What would the million in that square mile do if they were just allowed a decent amount of space? Would they then ensure proper sanitation at a minimum to improve their conditions, or would such ‘civic’ undertakings never get organised? Is Kevin is right to imagine that this is where they need government to do that for them? I suspect they would have a choice they don’t currently have and be perfectly capable of constructing proper communal sanitation, but they may shock our disinfected western sensibilities by not being as bothered, who knows? The point is: the choice of how to live would be theirs and always up for renegotiation.

I’ve never been to India, or anywhere else where there are places like Dharavi, but that programme certainly made an impression on me, which is always hard to achieve through the small screen and someone else’s eyes.

However, the conclusions that Kevin comes to are somewhat disappointing in saying that there are lessons here for government and planning as to a different more social and community minded approach to planning. The main point for me is that it is precisely government and planning that you want to get rid of if you want a decent living environment. One that is constructed entirely by the people who will live in it. Before post war planning regulations restricted where you could build, there were examples of shanties in Britain, and they could be surprisingly beautiful places with strong community, even though the dwellings might have been little more than glorified garden sheds or old converted railway carriages.

My experience of something close to this is of the summer/week end log cabins of ordinary working Czechs in the wooded hills surrounding Plzen. My Czech friend’s sister and brother in law live and work in Plzen. They have a flat in one of the ugly communist era blocks that blight these beautiful Bohemian cities and towns. They have no control whatsoever over their living environment in the city. The reverse is true, however, with the cabins which are all self builds and completely individual. Set in enough space to grow vegetables and sit out in the sun, these would be considered good sized gardens, certainly by today’s mean build standards.

Amenities are few, and what there are have been obtained by native ingenuity and bribery of officials, for example to install electricity in recent years. Digging your own well is also done without the required permission. Earth closets for sanitation and dead wood from the forest floor for heating and cooking on a variety of locally made wood burning cook stoves are preferred to expensive bottled gas. I noticed they even made their own rotary lawnmowers from old washing machine motors and a simple flat deck with a fixed wheel at each corner. They did the job very well, but mind your toes!

In the hot summers, bathing was in the river that is also Plzen’s river, and in frozen winters they could even skate along it to get out to the cabin. What these ordinary people, who mostly worked at the Skoda works, had created was nothing short of a little paradise of amazing beauty. The gardens were verdant and full of colour and produce. Unsurprisingly, this is where they spent every moment they could get away from the city, and for the whole of the temperate seasons once retired. I realised that, had these people been allowed to create their own living and work environments, they would doubtless have created the most beautiful cities and towns, with little need to escape them. In Britain, even this escape is closed off from us since The Town and Country Planning Act, and a touring caravan, or static van on a site has to suffice instead.

Mostly these experiments in self regulation are hidden or entirely exterminated and forbidden, so we are prevented from understanding what we are capable of. So we get ugly corporate estates that at best result in alienated isolated individuals, with no community, and at worst a hated and trashed environment that was never fit for human habitation in the first place, and the product of some egocentric architect who knew he would never have to live in it. The fact that in Mumbai they are employing the fascist architect who designed the Peterborough panopticon child abbatoir (and the Gherkin) to bulldoze and redevelop Dharavi tells me that the powers that be not only don’t want to learn lessons in successful community, but they seek primarily to destroy them. Like the very existence of home educators themselves, they are a living testimony not only to the fact that we don’t need government running our lives for us, but we need it like a hole in the head.

Dharavi is not a paradise, despite the people being happier than we are, a fact which should profoundly shock us and cause us to reevaluate our priorities, but the cabins around Plzen come closer as great spaces, except that the potential for commnity is lessened by these being only occasional living spaces, unintegrated with the rest of life.

I haven’t seen much of the world in my life, but I’ve seen enough to know that, left to ourselves, we are capable of self building our own environment in a way which would enrich us all beyond our current imagination. Like the amazing discoveries we make as home educators about the potential for the happiness and contentment of our children, protected from institutionalised molestation, glimpses of places like Dharavi also inform us of the immense and indispensable value of self ownership and direction of the life, of freedom – liberty. Even the most squeezed and stunted examples that the ruled world accidentally permits reveal our true but hidden and suppressed natures to an astonishing degree. How brilliant could human life on earth be without that parasitic layer of molesters and exploiters f***ing it all up for us?

And just as fascism menaces home education, so it also menaces Dharavi – not, I suspect, because the land is valuable real estate, which it is, but because we are not to be allowed to learn the lessons that places like that could teach us, and which Kevin McCloud almost fully grasps. Even a stinking rat infested slum like Dharavi is simply too interesting, too potentially whistle blowing of the whole big lie we are all forced to live. The lie about who we are, and what we are capable of.


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