How designer Jeroen van Erp had to talk at a conference on Designing Relevance in Goa, India and afterwards ended up in the largest slum on earth, Dharavi: home to 500.000 people. The experience made him rethink Designing Relevance


The invitation to come and talk at the Designyatra conference in Goa wasn’t difficult to accept. It was the reason I had been waiting for to visit India. I knew I wouldn’t go on my own just to explore this huge country with so many languages, subcultures and atmospheres. And to be honest: I’m lacking the real adventure genes.

By Jeroen van Erp

One way or another I was very curious to undergo the culture shock everybody has always talked about. I got a hint of this when the plane was approaching Mumbai on the 12th of September. During the descent, we flew over slums, and I noticed that the little houses were almost built on the runway. They were only separated from the tarmac by a wall with barbed wire and security guards. I had a connecting flight to Goa, and the image seen through the tiny airplane window was literally too distant to impress me instantly.

Goa was hot and humid. It was the rainy season, so exploring the environment wasn’t an attractive option. I had been told by India ‘connoisseurs’ that Goa wasn’t the real India. Because of the many foreigners attracted by the beaches and the hippy atmosphere, it looks more like Ibiza. The organizers of the wonderful and very inspiring conference had put a few of the speakers in the Marriott hotel, which even by western standards was incredibly luxurious. Time was tight and I didn’t get to see much more of Goa than the hotel and the venue in which the conference was held. In the spare moments during a drive to a restaurant, the image was diffuse. Because of the monsoon, it didn’t feel as glamorous as I had expected. And observing the many people and pretty chaotic traffic I also assumed that nowhere in India was likely to look glamorous.
My talk at the conference was about ‘designing relevance’ and the fact that the design profession is, in my view, drifting away from taking responsibility for what’s relevant for people. The crowd reacted very kindly and enthusiastically, and I flew back to Mumbai tired but satisfied.

I had an 8-hour layover in Mumbai. A Dutch girl working in Mumbai recommended that I visit Bandra, which was a nice district near the beach. It was only a one-hour drive from the airport by taxi. Leaving the airport I asked for a cab. A friendly well-dressed guy asked me where I wanted to go to. He told me driving to Bandra would cost me 350 rupees, which is about 5 Euros. You have to know that I’m a very bad negotiator by nature and I decided to accept this offer. A different guy took me to a small cab. I had an address to drive to but this driver didn’t seem very willingly to communicate with me. To my great surprise, another man jumped in after 500 meters. He was definitely higher in rank. He had a very dominant attitude and he started talking to me with this typically Indian – English accent I knew so well from bad television series. While driving he asked me what kind of cab I wanted. This question confused me a little bit because I was already sitting in a cab. I really should take the air-conditioned one. ‘Theses are my rates’ he shouted while I noticed that the cab was driving into the slums. ‘Only 600 rupees for Bandra’.This guy wasn’t the friendliest bloke in the world and one way or another this middleman activated the tiny remnant of negotiating skills I have. I told him that this cab was fine and an air-conditioned car wasn’t necessary.

In the meantime, the density of houses and people increased and the streets were getting narrower. I was definitely the only foreigner in the neighbourhood at that moment. The middleman looked very angry and started talking very rapidly in Indian to the driver. ‘Yes, it will cost you 600 rupees’. ‘No, I said, I like this cab and I agreed on 350 rupees with the guy on the airport. So if we have no deal, you can let me out’. One way or another I was able to say this very convincingly. To be honest, it was by no means an attractive idea to step out of the car. It felt if I was in an Indiana Jones movie. I was sure everybody was looking at me. The guy became angrier by the second and I sat quietly in the backseat, trying to look calm. Suddenly he told the driver to turn off. We entered a small square in the middle of the little houses, where more than 15 of these small cabs were waiting. Again he looked at me with eyes like coals, he leaned over towards me and ordered me to give the 350 rupees. I gave him 400 and told him to keep the change. He shook his head, put his arms in the air, and I heard the Indian version of ‘aaarrrgggghhh’. He jumped out of the car and walked to another cab. He started yelling at the driver while pointing at me. This took about a minute and by then I had a good chance to look where I was. I realised that I was in the middle of the big slum near the airport. The sight of the poorly-built houses, the garbage everywhere, the chaos, the smell and the many people just hanging around really hit me. I had never experienced anything like this before, and the image of the slum would be stuck in my head for weeks. When the guy stopped yelling he told me to step into the other cab. It seemed that I had taken a kind of shuttle to this place. My new cab driver wasn’t in a very good mood. I imagined that this very aggressive middleman had forced the poor guy to take me to Bandra for only a few rupees. He started driving like a madman, only having one goal: dropping this arrogant western asshole off as soon as possible. I knew I had to spend at least three quarters of an hour with him so I started talking to him. His English was poor but after fifteen minutes the ice was broken. It made me feel a little bit more relaxed. He dropped me of in Bandra. I gave him 500 rupees and he looked at me as if he just had seen a miracle. He bowed down with his nose to his knees and drove away, beeping his horn very loudly. I walked around Bandra for a few hours, then went back to the airport, paying only 185 rupees for the cab (…).

Mumbai had hit me. On my way to Bandra I had passed people living almost on the highway. There were people literally everywhere. This city, crowded with 15 million people, is extremely poor and incredibly rich at the same time. Dirty and beautiful, fascinating and frightening, confronting and mysterious, but always vibrant. There are slums and luxury hotels right next to one another, incredibly dense traffic, in fact chaos everywhere. Mumbai is big beyond imagination, Colorful, noisy and fragrant. An explosion in every sense. Many questions popped into my head. Who was in charge of this city? And was there anybody thinking about changing things? Would it be possible to change this huge living organism. Does anybody care? And having talked in Goa about designing relevance, it occurred to me that the real challenge lies in this world. This trip brought more confusion than I ever could have dreamed.

Back in the Netherlands, I carried out a little research into the slum I ended up in by accident. The slum is called Dharavi, and in fact is home to 500,000 people. According to some sources on the web, it is the biggest slum in the world. Wikipedia refers to it as a mega slum. To my great surprise, the slum has its own website: . But the most interesting information I found on Curren, a ‘collective journalism’ website.  Charlotte Buchen made a short documentary about the new 1.2 billion dollar project to rebuild Dharavi. Talk about ambition! The question is: will it work? Building new houses is one thing, but changing the entire economic and social structure of Dharavi is another. Time will tell. And before that, I will go back to Mumbai. I haven’t finished with this yet.

By Jeroen van Erp, Fabrique. Written for Mastermundo 2008, a limited edition book. Published by the Texelse Boys Foundation in corporation with Zwaan Printmedia

nonfiXe, oktober 2010