Orangi is not Dharavi!

A recent report, compiled by Mumbai's Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation with assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), claims that while Dharavi, the setting for the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire movie, has 57,000 families living in overcrowded huts with poor sanitation, Orangi on the outskirts of Karachi is home to more than a million people living in poverty. This report has been splashed across Indian and some Western news media without any independent confirmation of its content.

The fact is that Orangi is nothing like Dharavi in terms of the quality of its housing or the services available to its residents. This report appears to be nothing but a shameful attempt by Mumbai's municipality to hide its own inadequacies by diverting the attention of the world to the biggest city of India's neighbor and arch rival Pakistan. What is even more disturbing is how the UNDP has become a party to this misleading claim. This preposterous claim is also an insult to the memory of Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan who organized Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and tirelessly worked with the residents on self-help model to improve their lives.

Reacting to the report, Parveen Rehman, of the Orangi Pilot Project, told a reporter of the Telegraph that the word “slum” did not do justice to its hard-working people, who had developed their own welfare system.

“People are poor but they are not destitute, they’re working class. It’s one of the poorest settlements. People have arranged their own schools, clinics and water supply. They are a great example of people helping themselves.

Ms. Rahman is right in her assessment. Orangi is not really a slum today. But it started life as a 'kutchi abadi' or squatter settlement for the large influx of refugees in Karachi from East Pakistan (often mistakenly called Biharis) after the fall of Dhaka in early 1970s. It consists of an area larger than 25 square miles (versus 0.67 sq miles in Dharavi) with a population of over a million (versus over 700,000 residents of Dharavi). Most of Orangi's population increase in the last three decades has come from the growing rural to urban migration, particularly of ethnic Pushtoons from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Shanties have now grown into single or two level cement houses over the years and a large number of schools have been operating successfully, sending the poorest children into the best educational institutions of the city. A significant population of educated middle class has grown in Orangi. There are a number of small businesses and a cottage industry, started by budding entrepreneurs and funded by microfinance efforts in the area. The city of Karachi has built roads into Orangi to provide improved access for the residents. A hospital was built in the community in the 1990s. While Dharavi has only one toilet per 1440 residents and most of its residents use Mahim Creek, a local river, for urination and defecation, Orangi has an elaborate sanitation system built by its citizens. Under Orangi Pilot Project's guidance, between 1981 and 1993 Orangi residents installed sewers serving 72,070 of 94,122 houses. To achieve this, community members spent more than US$2 million of their own money, and OPP invested about US$150,000 in research and extension of new technologies. Orangi pilot project has been admired widely for its work with urban poor.

Like any other growing and poor urban neighborhood, Orangi has its share of problems. Pollution, crime, corruption and political volatility are just some of the issues confronting Orangi residents. A large underground economy flourishes in Orangi.

While the deplorable motivations of the Mumbai city authorities are clear, it is the UNDP that is doing a great disservice to its mission by joining with the BMC in defaming the highly laudable work of the ordinary citizens of Orangi and the OPP in Karachi.

Here's a video clip of Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh saying "if there was a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India would win it hands down":


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