Eric Herman Blog: Slum Dog Swimmers

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Eric HermanFrom the something-completely-different category:

On Monday, October 17, in Mumbai, India, an estimated 7,000 people lined up before dawn to gain memberships to a swimming pool complex. According to a report on India's NDTV, would-be bathers started lining up in the wee hours to purchase membership forms for the newly renovated Mahatma Gandhi Smarak Municipal Swimming Pool Complex.

The facility includes a 10-lane Olympic-size competition pool, a 16-foot deep diving pool, a recreational pool and a shallow pool for small children. Managers of the facility are limiting memberships to 10,000 based on the pools' capacity. (We can assume they don't anticipate all members showing up at once, obviously.) At the time of the report, they expected the facility to be sold out within a couple of days, if not within a few hours.

I saw this story on a daily Google Alert, which directed me to the NDTV website. The thought immediately struck me that it would be unheard of in this U.S. to see 7,000 people line up for memberships to go swimming. Here we are stuck in a moment where concerns over arcane drain configurations, which in all likelihood have little to do with actual safety, are keeping some public pools empty and on top of that we see scattered reports of public pool projects stalled because of lack of funds.

Swimming may statistically remain the 2nd most popular form of exercise in the U.S., bolstered no doubt by the heroics of the beloved aquatic superman, Michael Phelps, in the last Olympics, but when, if ever, have you heard of thousands of people lining up in the middle of the night to gain a membership to an aquatics facility?

It just doesn't happen here.

So what on earth is going on in India? The obvious answer, of course, is scarcity of supply, right? After all, India is a poor country and the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) boasts a whopping 13-million plus population. So clearly when a pool complex opens there, it's a rare event that draws huddled masses out of their shanties and ashrams to line up for an exclusive club membership…?

Well, if that's really the case, then Maslow's hierarchy of needs should go through a rewrite.

More accurately, I believe, is the fact that swimming and all aquatic activities are extremely popular in India and other Asian countries to the point that they are ingrained in the culture. Mumbai does suffer tremendous poverty in some sectors, but it also is home to a burgeoning middleclass and produces more the 6 percent of India's GDP. Furthermore, you don't see multi-million dollar aquatic renovations taking place in neighborhoods with no sewage or running water.

My point being, these weren't the starving families of Calcutta that Mother Teresa spent her life helping. These were regular working-class folks who have the means to spend time and money on a beloved recreational activity. In fact, public swimming pools are common throughout India and if you do a quick search for Mumbai public pools, you'll find dozens. Supply and demand obviously has everything to do with the popularity of a new public aquatics complex, but my hunch is that the demand side is where things get interesting.

From the time I was a teenager, I've indulged my own passionate interest in Asian culture and based on what I've learned consistently throughout the years is that this incident is on some level indicative of a value system that places a healthy lifestyle high on the list. And when it comes to water, eastern cultures place the greatest of values on both the spiritual aspects of bathing and the practical healthful aspects of it.

So why did 7,000 Indian citizens line up in the middle of the night for the privilege of taking a dip? No matter how you slice it, they dig getting wet. And with the growing affluence of the Indian middle class, they will soon have the money to pay for the priviledge in their own backyards.

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