Life and Death in Annawadi


Jan Breman in the New Left Review:

Slums are the habitat par excellence for a very substantial part of the world’s informal workforce. These settlements can be either urban or rural, but their defining feature at first sight is the poor quality of the housing and the paltry provisioning of basic utilities. There is no dearth of writing on slums, as Mike Davis’s panoramic survey in Planet of Slums made clear. Within this extensive literature, Mumbai in particular—where the slums that house half the population occupy less than a tenth of the land—has been the subject of a vast number of studies. Nevertheless, Katherine Boo’s chronicle of Annawadi stands out as a striking account of work and life at the margins of the urban economy. [1] Crouched in the shadow of the city’s international airport, Annawadi was born in 1991 when a gang of construction workers brought in from Tamil Nadu to repair a runway decided to stay on when their job was finished, fabricating a settlement out of a swamp; its name comes from the Tamil word anna, a respectful term for ‘older brother’. Today’s inhabitants live on the leftovers of the opulence nearby—the waste from a cluster of gleaming luxury hotels, offices and airport buildings. If not salvaging trash, they resort to pilfering material from construction sites or warehouses scattered around the airport.

The stark contrast between Annawadi and the wealth all around is one reason why Boo—previously a reporter at the Washington Post, winning a Pulitzer in 2000 for her work on mental homes, and since 2001 a staff writer at the New Yorker—chose this terrain for her investigation. Its somewhat mawkish title derives from the repeated slogan of an advertisement for Italian floor-tiles, plastered on a concrete wall that hides the slum from view. A second reason for focusing on this enclave was its small scale, allowing for door-to-door surveys and what Boo calls the vagrant-sociology approach. Over the course of more than three years, from late 2007 to early 2011, she repeatedly returned to Annawadi. Monitoring the day-to-day life experiences of the slum-dwellers over such an extended stretch of time enabled her to change her initial perspective as outsider to something closer to that of an insider. If she has to a certain extent overlooked the wider context, Boo has managed to get close to the ups and downs of a small number of households on which she has zoomed in, and their tales are extensively documented.