June 09, 2008

Islands in the slums

This NYT article about a gated community in India is a really good snapshot of what the developing world is like today.

As money flows into an impoverished nation, first you get a few tiny islands of First World development, usually in the capital: embassies, presidential mansions, five-star hotels. Inside you find armies of servants in ill-fitting uniforms ready to obey your every whim, for labour is cheap. But the lack of infrastructure still tells. I've been in many luxury hotels with little garbage cans for soiled toilet paper placed beside the toilets because the plumbing still isn't up to much, generators that hum all day and night, and menus which are largely theoretical. (I know, poor me.) Outside - often, literally, immediately outside - all is filth and chaos, and the streets are clogged with crowds of the malnourished. Beyond major cities the roads are often so bad it can take all day to travel a hundred miles.

Then the pockets of wealth begin to metastasize: four-star hotels in secondary cities, private estates, luxury tourist resorts. Public transport begins to shift from cramped tro-tro/matatu/dalla-dalla minivans to slightly-less-cramped buses (which invariably play movies and music at EXTREMELY LOUD VOLUMES) and, especially if they were lucky enough to be colonized by the British (hey, it sure beat being colonized by the Portuguese!) rickety but serviceable railways. A couple of decent roads appear, although bizarrely this often happens first in remote, little-travelled regions, rather than along main arteries. Internet cafes and privately owned cell phones become more visible, even in local-residential areas. Shantytowns swell up in the outskirts of cities as young people flock from rural areas to try to get a taste of their nation's growing wealth. Usually they fail. Meanwhile, in the cities, a tiny middle class begins to develop.

Almost invariably, in old cities, a suburb-like region without historical inertia and ancient buildings becomes the epicentre of the modern earthquake, and the first entire region of the country to go semi-First-World: Miraflores in Lima, Pudong in Shanghai, Ma'adi in Cairo, Juhu in Mumbai, PĂ©tionville in Port-au-Prince. It's where the rich live, where the modern shopping malls and cinemas go. And it's flooded, needless to say, with poorly paid servants and security guards. Gated communities like those mentioned in the above article develop elsewhere. Meanwhile the slums grow to epic proportions.

Then - and this is in some ways the most interesting stage, one that China went through in the last ten years, and that India is going through right now, and perhaps one that Paris went through 150 years ago - highway and sewer networks are built, shantytowns become slums and those close to wealth are razed, and the formerly isolated pockets of development begin to reach out and connect to one another, like merging drops of water, until you get multiple connecting avenues, regions, even entire cities of money and modernity, all still surrounded by bitter, grinding poverty. Shanghai today, for instance: not just First World but actually Next World, having in many ways leapfrogged New York and London. (Maglev railways, anyone?) People flock from around the world to live there, at the coal face of the future, and huge expat communities grow.

Meanwhile, not so far away, in the same country, slum dwellers sleep ten to a room, and subsistence farmers still eke out a living as they always have.


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