Feature

Editor's Letter: India's urban slums

A great deal of fanfare was made over the two child stars of <em>Slumdog</em> <em>Millionaire </em>when the shantytowns in which they lived were razed. What will become of their less famous neighbors?<em><br />

Two of the child stars of Slumdog Millionaire lost their homes recently after the shantytowns in which they lived were razed. Having previously funded trusts for the child actors, the film’s creators have been working the tangled (and costly) maze of Mumbai real estate, seeking to secure scarce apartments for the children’s families while fending off suggestions that they’ve exploited vulnerable street kids for artistic glory and financial gain. The children’s predicament, juxtaposed with their contributions to a film that earned more than $300 million worldwide, seems a tad incongruous. But the kids now have celebrity, a global currency every bit as valuable as a greenback or euro. And celebrity appears certain to guarantee their flight from poverty.

For their less famous neighbors, the costs of obscurity remain high. There are more poor in India than people in North America. Nearly half of Indian children are undernourished, which makes the worldwide focus on the lucky pair seem especially myopic. Along with much tabloid fare on the fortunate two, however, there was also a story in the Financial Times last week on initiatives to build “ultra-low-cost” housing in Indian cities. Tata Housing Development, a division of the massive Indian conglomerate that’s also behind the $2,500 automobile, plans to market brand-new flats to the upper range of slum dwellers. Apartments, some as small as 283 square feet, will start at $8,200. However, Tata estimates that India would have to produce 24 million units to accommodate all the nation’s urban slum families. It’s an impossible target. But for millions of children, it’s still a likelier path out of the slums than banking on 15 minutes of fame.

Francis Wilkinson

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