In the United States, the wealthiest one percent owns 40% of the country’s wealth. While these numbers are veritably disproportionate, wealth disparity in India is staggering.
In India, the richest one percent own a whopping 73% of the country’s wealth, as reported by Business Today. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mumbai, where densely populated slums, like Dharavi, are contrasted by extravagant real estate developments.
Mumbai, home to about 13 million people, holds almost $1 trillion in private wealth. And while multi-billionaires like Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries builds a private residence valued at $1 billion, the middle and working classes find it increasingly difficult to own or rent a home.
In 1947, the Bombay Rents, Hotel, and Lodging House Rates Control Act was passed. The bill would effectively place a ceiling on the price of rent following the economic vacuum precipitated by Britain’s concession of India.
The intention of rent control is, ultimately, benevolent, allowing people across a range of incomes to find housing easily. However, in the context of India, where there is a substantial population of wealthy citizens, controlling real estate value has only created demand for cost-effective housing among the affluent, pushing middle and working-class residents outside the city or into the slums.
For perspective on the issue, it’s important to explore incomes in relation to rent and property values. The median rental cost of a 1-bedroom apartment in Mumbai proper is around 30,000 rupees ($430) a month.
Meanwhile, according to payscale.com, the average salary in Mumbai is around 45,000 rupees or $640/month. Additionally, 99acres.com, a popular Indian rental site, reports that a 600 square foot home in Mumbai would cost around $265,000 to purchase, against a yearly average income of about $8,000. Excluded in these numbers are other basic needs like utilities, transportation, phone and internet services, and, of course, food.
So, when the average resident of Mumbai earns at a subsistence level and lives paycheck to paycheck, the reality of owning property or even staying in an apartment is almost inaccessible.
In addition, according to 99acres.com, a popular Indian property rental site, 95% of residential construction in Mumbai has been built for ownership, and only 5% for rent. These statistics, given that non-affluent residents struggle to afford property, suggests that the wealthy can maintain and even expand their lifestyles, buying property when and where they please.
Alternatively, those with a fraction of that capital are forced to move further from the city and their employment or reside in a slum. Moreover, Mumbai is a waterfront city, meaning pricy high-rise buildings are and will continue to be in abundance, while horizontal expansion will inevitably peter out.
It doesn’t take much to see that metropolitan areas in India, like Mumbai, are desperately in need of sustainable, affordable housing.
For any socially responsible entrepreneurs in urban development, India is poised for investment that goes beyond just the bottom line.
At a traffic stop entering a major roundabout, a man in a blue t-shirt weaves between six lanes of traffic holding books up to car windows. No one takes the bait.
The young man is a book vendor in the streets of Mumbai, and the area around the traffic light is what he refers to as his “signal”, or territory.
“The most I ever sold in a day was 26 books,” says Salman Sayed, a native of Mumbai who found his way out of the book selling hustle by teaching himself to speak, read, and write English.
With the help of Beth Colosimo, a Salt Lake City business leader and philanthropist, Sayed is now making his way to the United States to pursue an MBA at Utah’s Westminster College. However, Sayed, who grew up on the streets of Mumbai selling books, remembers how difficult it was to have consistent business.
His eyes widen as he notices the inventory his long-time friend and current book seller.
“The first book I sold was from that author,” he says, pointing to a Sidney Sheldon book.
Wrapped in a protective plastic film, book titles like Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”, or Mark Manson self-help books are available to purchase. But, in an age of mobile devices and easily consumed news feeds and content, selling hard copies of books has become an increasingly less viable business.
Moreover, with police extorting and shaking down vendors for “protection money”, profit margins for street book vendors, aren’t exactly favorable. Additionally, the alternative of selling books independently, or without staking out a territory and paying law enforcement is even less profitable as it leaves vendors open to further extortion.
“Bosses”, who might provide the means of distribution, also control and extort their respective territories of vendors, preying on individual peddlers who aren’t affiliated with law enforcement or another boss.
Although India’s literacy rate is rising exponentially, the reality is that the digital age might mean that India’s youth and soon-to-be educated population will skip ever reading hard copy books, opting to read and listen to books digitally, or perhaps not at all.
Alternatively, newspaper readership has risen alongside literacy rates. According to the Indian Readership Survey, in the past two years, India has seen nearly a 20 million reader increase, with 39% of the population taking the time to read a newspaper.
While India is a developing economy, and quickly so, media convergence is evident everywhere.
From rural villages without flushing toilets or proper roads to a slum in the heart of Mumbai, nearly every adult has a smart phone, scrolling Instagram, posting to Tik Tok, or messaging on WhatsApp. Thus, from personal observation alone, the existence of and contribution to the proverbial “global village” is undeniably a reality.
Off a busy street in the city of Pune, a row of women sits behind a line of windows.
The windows, set up in an open air foyer, look like train ticket windows, but instead of selling train tickets, piles of speckled dough and women in brightly colored sarees sort taffy-like cylinders of raw dough.
Adjacent to the windows, a pair of women sit cross-legged on the ground while they sift through near-opaque circles over a light box. They are looking for imperfections in the finished product of their operation: shaped, uncooked papa dum.
In another room, a group of older women mix dry ingredients for the dough in large aluminum vats. Upstairs, more women package the paper-thin circles of dough into plastic bags. The operation is in full swing, and one thing can’t be ignored…
Save for the bookkeeper, there are no men working here.
In this operation, 90% of the employees are women responsible for sourcing, making, sorting, and packaging stacks of papa dum. When cooked, papa dum are a thin, crispy, wafer with some spice, almost like a tostada or a large tortilla chip.
In a country where women are often excluded from participating in business and encouraged to stay home and tend to the home, this operation is an anomaly. With over 6,000 operations across India, it allows women who might not find adequate and regular work a place to do precisely that.
The process of making papa dum might not be simple, however, the operation breaks down each step, from the creation of the dough to packaging, allowing women who might be less experienced to still work.
However, there is still an incongruence between giving these women more opportunity and giving them full autonomy over the operation. They are still doing what would typically be considered a traditionally female role: they are responsible for the production of food.
The women are mostly older and thus were not part of a generation that had the same access to education women in India have today. Were they to have domain over tasks like bookkeeping, marketing, and other vital operational aspects of the business, Lijjat papad would be a women-only enterprise.
In the grand scheme of India’s business and social responsibility landscape, however, it would be hard to argue that Lijjat isn’t looking in the right direction.
A stream of colorfully clad women in sarees file into a small, dark room. Dusty, unused computer monitors line the crumbling concrete walls as Salt Lake Community College students eagerly await their counterparts.
Gracefully, the women take a seat and await instruction.
These women, from the rural village of Gulumb, are budding entrepreneurs looking for ways to expand and develop their proposed and existing businesses.
The wives of farmers and village merchants, they have the means to take their pre-existing skills and monetize them, something not everyone, let alone women in rural India, can do.
One woman, Minesha, has taught a tailoring class and spends her free time making traditional Indian garments. Another, Smita, was an art teacher who lost her job and found herself wanting to leverage her artistic ability to establish a pottery business.
One recurring theme for many of the women, however, comes to the foreground: literacy.
While their sons and daughters work as engineers, teachers, and businesspeople in major cities, a substantial number of these rural women cannot read or write, striking up a curious juxtaposition.
On one hand, these women have immense artistic talent and skill, with children who have ambitions beyond Gulumb. On the other, expansion of their businesses will be no small feat, considering bookkeeping, price-setting, and basic marketing require one to read.
Additionally, these women struggle with a lack of opportunity.
The wife of a tomato farmer, one woman sees limitations in expanding beyond Gulumb, given there are only four trucks owned by one business-owner. While the quality of produce her family’s farm generates may be competitive, a market of maybe 3,000 potential customers and an absence of adequate distribution poses a significant hurdle.
SLCC students listen to their grievances and pose some potential remedies to their economic woes, helpful or not. However, what sets these women apart from past generations of rural women in India is their ability to give credence to their own aspirations.
Not only do they see an opportunity to improve the lives of themselves and the people around them, but they recognize that they are empowered and capable enough to at least pursue opportunities.
When people have faith in their own ideas, bringing them to fruition becomes exponentially more attainable.
Resting alongside a dust-topped road, a pair of cows lazily watch foot traffic. Scooters and cars still honk incessantly in what might be considered a quieter neighborhood, at least by Delhi standards.
Sitting no more than 100 yards from the chaos, however, something remarkable is taking place.
Tucked away in a series of mismatched buildings, the headquarters of a non-profit operation, Goonj, has been unwavering in their attempt to bring about positive change through, of all things, recycling.
By reusing donated items from urban and metropolitan areas, Goonj can provide rural communities with necessary items by taking advantage of their reduced production costs.
As a number of impoverished regions across India are at the whim of natural disasters, constricting social norms, and a general lack of resources, Goonj has put clothes on backs and books in hands of an otherwise neglected population.
“[We provide] men, women, and children with clothing,” says Pacha, a young woman who previously held a highly coveted government position. Pacha also adds that Goonj provides utensils to families, toys for children, dry rations, books to schools and any other necessities required by the communities they aim to serve.
Additionally, the organization assembles “wedding kits” for those who simply can’t afford to pay for these often pricey items.
A testimonial from a young girl in the rural village of Siyuna reads: “My parents would have had to spend a large amount of money renting out a lehenga and other accessories from the market. I did not have to spend a single rupee on any cosmetics as the Goonj Wedding kit contained things I could have never purchased in my life.”
While these items come at no cost to the acceptor, those receiving goods are required to bring further change to their own communities before being awarded any donations.
“Some of the work they have done includes bridge and dam construction, creation of irrigation channels, digging wells, and clearing ponds. And all of this was done before [anyone] received any materials,” says Pacha.
Outside of this work, however, Goonj has made substantial strides with their menstrual pad and undergarment production center through initiatives called MyPad and Not Just a Piece of Cloth, or NJPC.
Amidst an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, women in rural India are left in the dark about their hygiene and reproductive health.
“Often, menstrual hygiene is not even in their vocabulary,” says Pacha, adding “in some cases, women must resort to using ash, or cow dung [in place of a proper menstrual pad].”
Since 2005, Goonj’s MyPad initiative, alongside NJPC, has been producing menstrual cloths and undergarments fashioned out of donated items. Though these items aren’t donated to the women they’re made for, they still come at a fraction of the cost of most feminine hygiene products.
The unavailability of adhesive pads in rural areas, feminine hygiene and reproductive education, as well as high costs of cloth pads force many young women to resort to unsanitary or dangerous measures.
While purchasing typical cloth pads can set a family back 200 rupees ($3), MyPad and NJPC’s tireless work has permitted bundles of menstrual cloths and undergarments to be purchased at 70 rupees, or roughly $1. For those stuck in immense poverty, that extra 130 rupees can go a very long way.
Pacha says heavy taxes are also applied to the sale of feminine hygiene products, sometimes as high as 15%, making the purchase of these items even more difficult. Moreover, according to crownit.com, a trusted Indian research database, only 12% of women in India have access to any form of sanitary napkins and adequate undergarments.
While it may be an uphill battle, there is hope for women in India, however.
Not only does NJPC and Goonj have the financial backing of tech behemoths Facebook and Google, but as an increasing number of the millennial population in India seeks to support women’s rights, more education and awareness on the issue of feminine hygiene has come to the forefront.