By Mike Easley
Mike Easley is the CEO of Powder River Energy Corporation, an electric cooperative serving northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana. He traveled to Mumbai in December for the launch of XPRIZE in India.
During a trip to India with XPRIZE, I had the opportunity to experience Mumbai from the perspective of a local, yet through eyes of foreigner. I say "foreign" not because of where I live, but because of what I had never seen, or could ever have imagined. It's not that what I saw was frightening, horrible, or unsightly -- in fact just the opposite. What I saw was the beauty of humanity being lived... really lived. If you distill humanity to its essence -- pungent, sweet, and powerful -- you will find in that essence the community of Dharavi. Within an area covering less than one square mile, as many as 1 million people, work, play, laugh, cry, are born, and die (probably far too often and far too soon). And they have been doing it for generations.
Some people would label Dharavi a slum, and mean it as an insult, but those people have never been there. They couldn't know that without its spirit and vibrancy, that the community might deserve that name. Labels are what drive distance between people and cultures. We think labels save us time, make things simple, and give us a framework. Dharavi does not deserve that label, and here's why:
The sorters, chippers and washers who process several tons of plastic by hand before most of the world has eaten breakfast don't see a slum. The scrappers who reclaim waste metals and turn dark and twisted bits of aluminum into bright ingots using hand-banked kilns and a ton of elbow grease don't see a slum.
The precision machinists who build the parts that keep the equipment running, or fabricate entirely new pieces of equipment don't see a slum.
The textile workers who wash, dye, and create wonderful designs and brightly colored materials don't see a slum.
The man who recycles and restores five-gallon paint cans -- willingly shortening his lifespan in order to provide a better life for his children -- does not see a slum.
The painter, the potter, the cook, the teacher and the student -- all doing their work -- don't see a slum.
If one million people living in this community, all doing their best to make life better for the next generation, don't see a slum, how dare I?
In Dharavi, I met humanity, dignity, respect, entrepreneurism, commitment, diligence, self-respect, tenacity, inner strength, compassion, love, struggle, life, death, and most of all, hope.
I did not meet a slum. I will never be the same, and I am glad.