Posted on 10-10-2010
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

Cherry blossoms and high technology, Mount Fuji and dazzling neon lights are all iconic images of Japan, the world’s second largest economy. But slums in this $5 trillion GDP country? Can such a cocktail exist? Nobody would believe it, not even people in Japan. Yet if you walk down Kamagasaki in Osaka, you cannot escape the desolate old faces and stink of urine in this affluent commercial capital of Japan.

Dilapidated, small lanes of Osaka’s Nishinari ward are home to thousands of homeless men of average age 60 years. I actually saw them scrounging large waste bins for food. A scraggly, grey-haired man found a disposable plastic container and licked stale gravy off it, another was vigorously shaking a Coke can into his upturned mouth in the hope of a left-over drop, while two others in soiled clothes fought over a cigarette butt on the pavement that was long enough to give a couple of puffs. As you get off the train station, you’ll find Sun Plaza hotel where you have to take off your shoes, and wear the slippers they provide you at the door to walk a few feet to its reception. I could only gauge that it’s to prevent the mud on the feet of the neighbourhood grimy men from dirtying their premises.

Japan, the most technologically advanced producer of cars, electronics, machine tools, ships, steel, chemicals, textiles and processed foods, has the majority of its economy based on the service sector. These old men came to Kamagasaki either by choice or compulsion to populate the construction service sector. These casual labourers, if lucky, get into trucks that come at dawn to pick up whatever number of them is required at some house building site. All of them have some sad, personal story, either of failed marriages, being outcast by the family over property tussles, financial ruin or ill health. Kamagasaki’s tuberculosis infection rate is said to be three in every 100 residents, about 40 times the national average. Extreme poverty afflictions here where 2 die every day include hepatitis C, high blood pressure, alcoholism, depression and drug addition.

The difference in this slum, they say, is that 95% are educated, and you don’t see women and children here. These aged elders are too proud to return to their families in penniless conditions. I saw veterans with thick, unclean glasses reading torn newspapers in the daytime. Japan’s culture of discipline is ingrained in people on the breadline too. By about 3pm, they grab roadside space in advance by lining up their bedding or rucksack at the edge of a large public building’s open ground floor. This is a prime begging spot. Office-going commuters getting off the train will pass by here to go home, and are likely to give alms to the destitute. Kamagasaki actually has several paid public lockers in which the shelter-less can keep whatever small belongings they have. Catering to them are vending machines too, and flea markets that suddenly appear selling second-hand clothes and cheap toiletries and cigarettes.

I’d heard of Tokyo’s high-tech slums, and was shocked to actually see them on a recent visit. As per UN-HABITAT, a slum is a run-down city area with squalor and substandard housing, lacking in tenure security. Parts of Tokyo has housing that is cramped, about 400,000 people use public bath houses as they have no toilets at home, and modern buildings co-exist with older urban landscape in slum-like suburbs of Chiba, Saitama and Ibaraki. I’ve even witnessed the homeless sleeping on the street in prime areas like under the Yurakucho station on the Yamanote line near the impressive Tokyo International Forum.

Our planet’s human population is 6.5 billion where the number of slum dwellers is shooting up to be 2 billion by 2030. In Mumbai alone the slum growth rate is larger than urban growth rate. Currently, 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, which cover only 6% of its land. Isn’t it time we took stock of this alarming situation? Although not all slum dwellers are poor, the UN has warned that unplanned, unsanitary settlements threaten political stability and trigger an explosion of social problems.

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