In the past two decades, Asia has experienced a fast-paced
urbanization fueled by significant economic growth. With booming economy in Asian
countries like China and India, urbanizing and transforming at a fast rate, one
can easily see how there is a clear correlation between urbanization and
economic growth in Asian regions.1
As the world transformed, cities were formed and industrialization continued;
“the twenty-first century to be declared ‘the century of the city'”2.
Today, urbanized cities hold homes to 54 percent of the global population3,
and that figure is expected to rise.

A
densely populated city of Mumbai has become India’s largest city, one of Asia’s
mega urban regions that functions as a financial center and also as the heart
of Bollywood film industry. However, underneath this glorious and rapid
urbanization, one should question, what does all of this mean for the actual
lives of people living in the city of Mumbai? And this is where Katherine Boo’s
novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers
comes in handy.

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There
is no denying that urbanization is a critical step for socio-economic
transformation, national wealth and prosperity, and also overall development.
However, with every positive change and trend, there are bound to be issues and
problems surrounding it. According to UN’s World Cities Report 2016,
“persistent urban issues over the last 20 years include urban growth, changes
in family patterns, growing number of urban residents living in slums and
informal settlements, and the challenge of providing urban services”4.
In my essay, I will be analyzing few of these issues in comparison to Katherine
Boo’s novel as it will be a great way to highlight the different aspects and
lives of people living in Mumbai at this urbanization era of India.

The
story of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
takes place in a slum-side of Mumbai called Annawadi and chronicles the lives
of several characters from different family backgrounds in the slum from 2007
to 2011. With rapid industrialization near the international airport, many
people from the rural area have migrated into the city of Mumbai and formed
many slums surrounding the airport. People in Annawadi is trying to elevate
their lives and eventually move out of the slum. With this rapid urban growth
based on capitalism, I noticed some very different family dynamics forming in
the stories of Annawadi slum. India is traditionally deeply rooted as a
patriarchal society where women are known to have limited roles in both family
and society. However, in the lives of Annawadi slum, there are significant
changes in the roles of women in its rapid growing capitalistic city. In
chapter two, a female character Asha Waghekar is introduced. She is a 39-year
old woman who aspires to become the new slumlord of Annawadi, which she
succeeds by working with and by bribing the local politicians and police
offices to keep the slum under her control. “In this reformation, thirty-nine-year
old Asha Waghekar perceived an opportunity… she wanted to be the woman-to-see.”5
For Asha, her hopes for prosperity comes through corruption. From a Western
perspective, corruption usually has a negative connotation attached to its
meaning as it is perceived to be a dishonest act of those in power and
something that needs to be eliminated from society. However, what is interesting
to see is that, for the people of the slums in Mumbai, corruption works as
another opportunity for success in their efforts to elevate their lives. Asha
uses the art of corruption such as being a fake kindergarten teacher and by
establishing a non-existing non-profit organization to launder money through
these businesses. She uses sexual favours with numerous number of companions
and is not ashamed. By chapter 12, “Asha was in control of Annawadi”6,
and “relaxing into her authority, Asha stopped making elaborate excuses to her
family about the men she met late at night”7,
it was almost as if she had earned the right to behave as she pleases with her
newly found authority and success. India, where women are seen as a men’s
commodity, Asha definitely represents changing family dynamics through gaining economic
and capitalistic power; if she can be a successful breadwinner of the
household, then she has he own voice.  

Another
major issue surrounding urbanization in the city of Mumbai is urban poverty:
“the widespread growth of slums or informal urban settlements”8
just like the Annawadi slum from the book. Moving to the city doesn’t guarantee
absolute prosperity and success, you get a substantial number of people that
dwell around the city squatting in slums where they do not have the right to
the land they occupy nor have any ownership over it. Because of their fragile
state and position within the city, people of the slums face challenges against
the corrupt state and are in desperate need of state governance in providing them
with adequate basic public services and affordable public housing options. Some
of the major but basic services a city should be able to provide include: transportation,
water and sewer systems, health care, education and affordable housing options,
without these services, the slums and informal settlements will continue to
grow and “the basic productivity of all citizens will be compromised”9.
In Annawadi, people live in very poor conditions; access to running water is
only available for two hours a day, people use public washrooms with their
neighbours, and the sewage lake that they live next to is prone to flooding
which the main protagonist character Abdul and his family lost everything over
once. Annawadi being an informal settlement, residents face enormous amounts of
corruption as they must make payments to police officers and slumlords in order
to insure their life in the slum. Through this vicious cycle, government funds
are wasted in the wrong hands as corruption persists; Due to corruption, Sunil was
kicked out of the orphanage, Asha takes away the money for the slum’s education
into her pocket robbing the children of their education, and even during the
trial on Fatima’s death, medical officers, police officers, and witnesses all
demand payment for their testimony and there seems to be no hope for a fair
trial. At the end of the book, Annawadi is scheduled to be taken down by the
government, Abdul’s family stay hopeful that they will quality for one of the 269-square
foot apartments seen as the best option to the slum dwellers of Annawadi.

Throughout
the book, Mumbai is divided into two; one being the overcity that is prosperous
and moving ahead into modernization, and the other being the undercity that is
poverty-stricken where options at bettering their lives are very limited. The
two Mumbai cities constantly clash with each other, however what one should
remember is that how their co-dependency and co-existence
is an inevitable part of the urbanization city of Mumbai. Both the rich and the
poor rely on the same corrupt systems of law and order, and that they both
depend on each other. The slum dwellers picking the scraps of the overcity
clean and providing plentiful of labour force for the staffing at services
industries, meaning that the informal economic activities of the slums are also
a key part of what makes the city run smoothly. Without the government’s effort
in “providing adequate basic services and infrastructure”10,
the city will continue to experience structural setbacks that stem from inequality
between the rich and poor.

1 Lecture 1 Notes

2 Linda Peake and Alison Bain, Urbanization in a Global Context (Oxford: 2017), p. 1.

3 Urbanizing and
Development: Emerging Futures, World Cities Report 2016 (UN-Habitat: 2016),
p.1.

4 Ibid, p.1.

5 Katherine
Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers,
(New York: Random House, 2012), p.17.

 

6 Katherine
Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers,
(New York: Random House, 2012), p.177.

7 Ibid,
p.177.

8 Urbanizing and Development: Emerging Futures, World Cities Report 2016 (UN-Habitat:
2016), p.13.

9 Ibid, p.
14.

10 Urbanizing and Development: Emerging Futures, World Cities Report 2016 (UN-Habitat:
2016), p.14.

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