The Times – Build and Learn<br/> The routes out of poverty for India’s real slumdogs are surprisingly straightforward

The slum in which the year’s most successful film is set is based on a real one. Dharavi, home to a million people, covers an area slightly larger than Hyde Park in the middle of Mumbai with a population density 164 times that of Manhattan.

Holy cow.

The first is to build the infrastructure that makes the difference between slum living and tolerable safety. Seven hundred million Indians still lack access to a modern lavatory. Those living near the Ganges are exposed to 3,000 times the safe limit of faecal bacteria in their chief water source. Nationwide, 1,000 children die of diarrhoeal sickness every day.

Maharashtra’s state government, which has responsibility for Mumbai, has belatedly announced a $60 billion road and rail modernisation [y'see that? trains!], but much of the programme depends on private capital deterred by corruption and the suffocating red tape of the “permit Raj”, and its benefits to slum-dwellers will anyway be marginal. Even when private developers try to tackle slum deprivation head-on, too often they work against rather than with the inhabitants’ complex web of interests. They promise high-rise housing. They deliver vertical slums.

The second service owed to the children of the slums is a route out of them through education. Every Indian government trumpets the value of education as a national ideology. Yet India’s percentage of GDP spent on education is half that of Kenya’s. Schools are too few and woefully under-resourced. Adult literacy levels are, consequently, shameful. In 2001 just 61 per cent of Indians (and 48 per cent of Indian women) could read, compared with 86 per cent, amid comparable poverty, in Bolivia. The Chinese figure is 90 per cent. From Shanghai to São Paulo the battle against child poverty is being won, above all, through improved literacy. In India, one of the world’s great literary cultures, it is being lost.