Even before Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture last weekend, the popular/artsy/Bollywood crossover flick had created a strange new tourist trade: People traveling to Mumbai to visit the vast slums which are home to 10 million people and the setting for the movie. I must admit, the idea strikes me as fulfilling every negative stereotype of self-indulgent Western patronization towards the world’s poor. “Oh, let’s go tour these slums and see how the little people of the world live! How caring of us to spend our vacation there, and then we’ll hit the beach afterward.” Still, I’m sure that everyone means well, and according to the article the tours are being conducted by some locals who insist on small groups, no cameras, and return 80% of the profits to help people in the slums.
Still, I was particularly struck by a passing reference near the end of the article, which struck me as showing exactly the sort of difficult balance that good intentioned Westerners seeking to regulate the third world for their own good often fail to take into account:
But that didn’t cushion the shock I felt seeing the small-scale industries first hand. Almost all were devoted to recycling First World detritus, from plastics to electronic products to chemicals. People disassemble, burn and clean the hazardous material without the slightest protection. I saw a man using filthy water and his bare hands to clean metal barrels that once held industrial chemicals. Mr. Pujari says the government is trying to close the Dharavi recycling operations for health reasons, but residents are resisting fiercely because it is their only income source.
What to do here? It seems likely that this man will die an early and painful death as a side effect of his unprotected handling of hazardous chemicals. And yet, if regulation successfully bans the work that he does, while no other form of employment becomes available to him, he not only is denied the dignity of providing for himself and his family but is left to starve as well. An improvement?
Regulations are often needed to help keep people from doing things (knowingly or unknowingly) that are against their own best interests, or those of society. And yet, to an extent, when we deal with developing economies we’re in a sense dealing with our own past. My maternal grandfather was one of sixteen children in a Mexican-extraction family in New Mexico where the only industry was the silver mines. It was knowing from the experience of his father and brothers that very few miners lived past 40 that caused my grandfather to lie about his age in order to get into the Navy at the age of 16 in 1945, leading to a 25 year career in the military and the path to the middle class (and out of New Mexico) for his family. All things considered, the silver mines my ancestors worked in back in the 30s were probably about as dangerous as recycling industrial materials in Mumbai — yet I’m sure that they wouldn’t have thanked some strangers who came in and wiped out their only means of support in order to protect them.
What would really help these people would be the availability of better jobs (preferably without the help of a world war and the manpower needs involved in such) so that they could continue supporting their families via better means. When the day comes that man is working in a safe, modern factory for recycling chemical drums, no one there will have a reason to do it slower and more dangerously by hand.