New Internationalist

Friendship And Fracture

Issue 290

Freindship and fracture

Security and community have their benefits,
but they also mean excluding outsiders.
Sometimes this can lead to violence...

One of the most extraordinary features of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar has been the way the same people have held together for more than a decade. This is partly a consequence of having gained a security which other slums envy, and partly a result of a rigorous screening of newcomers. There are only about 50 or 60 families here who did not live on the earlier site – only 12 or 15 per cent of the population. Some of these are family members of existing residents.

The Residents Association laid down a policy ten years ago that individuals could not sell their houses privately if they wanted to move, but must sell them back to the Association which then has to approve future purchasers of the property. This prevents the vast profits that have been seen in the sale of some hutments elsewhere in Bombay – in some places, even poor huts can command 50,000 rupees ($140) or more. This has been a powerful force for stability over the years; but it has also meant that other needy people, as desperate for shelter as the people of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar once were, have been excluded.

It is false to sentimentalize the slums. The cohesion of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar was won only with pain and struggle. The sense of being together was created principally by external threats of eviction. The memory of struggle and triumph over adversity carried the slum through the period of transition and the solidarity remained, even after people had gained security on the site at Malad East.

The community had to be disciplined to resist being undermined by outsiders. Attempts were made from time to time by strangers to build huts inside the compound, often with the support of representatives and goondas (bullyboys) of political parties.

One day in 1988, I visited when they were asserting themselves against infiltrators. Some of the people, unable to bear the cost and the long hours of travel to work, had gone back to live on the pavements of Colaba or in slums at Bombay Central. A few huts had been abandoned or the plots left unoccupied.

Some of these had been taken over by strangers. One hot day in March 1988, the men of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar decided to destroy huts identified as belonging to outsiders.

It was not a pleasant experience.

The operation is conducted in an almost military style. Armed with hammers and bamboo staves 20 or 30 men with red armbands prepare to demolish the buildings. They know how to do it: it has happened to them often enough. A strange sensation – victims become oppressors. They fall to, prising apart the frail structures. Clouds of dust rise, particles of rust from ancient metal.

In the beginning, the mood is good-humoured, but it becomes more aggressive. The party makes its way to a substantial hut, where a young woman is staying with her mother and two children. The place is owned by her brother who, she says, is away studying. She is accused of inviting men into the hut and offering them sex for money. The men she has allegedly been entertaining are members of the Shiv Sena.

The woman’s mother, old, pathetically thin, weeps and denies her daughter is a prostitute. The younger woman shouts her defiance angrily but she is trembling. The children of neighbours gather. They are interrogated. A seven-year-old is asked: ‘What have you seen while playing in the vicinity? Have strangers been here? What kind of strangers?’ The child is bemused, does not answer. The old woman calls the child to her and encircles her with a bony arm. There is a long argument. The woman’s children cry and cling to her sari. The men do not break the hut, but are adamant. She must go.

We have to be hard, they say. People who come by stealth might be representatives of land-grabbers, politicians, drug- or liquor-dealers; even those who seem to be innocent, homeless, desperate people.

I observed another, less ambiguous, example of community self-defence in November 1993. A worker from the Congress (I) Party, bodyguard of a former Health Minister, came into the compound with some goondas and began to build a hut. The people knew that this was an attempt to take over their land. The women – Gurubai, Mallamma and Anna Kurian, the social worker from Nivara Hakk, demolished it. The police arrested them, and they were jailed for three days.

People surrounded the police station. The police inspector lathi-charged the crowd, and many were injured. A lawyer from Nivara Hakk went to the police station and met the Senior Inspector: ‘What is this? An encroacher comes into a private society and constructs a hut, and you arrest those who evict him?’ The women were released without charge.

This time my first day in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar was a Sunday. Every week there is a meeting in the community centre which is open to all the residents. In recent months, with the new slum-redevelopment proposals, these meetings have become angry and quarrelsome.

On this day a man called Datturan Gurav had been drinking and had fallen into an argument with one of the friends of Uday Raj. Several times they almost came to blows but were restrained by the other men; eventually anger overcame everything and they fought, throwing hard punches.

Dattu’s mouth was cut and two teeth loosened. Red-eyed with rage, he went to the police station to complain. His friends tried to dissuade him. They are proud that over the years people have never had to go to the police, but have always settled their disputes internally. Dattu’s going to the police is yet another warning symptom of the disintegration of the community. The police were not interested. He returned home, defeated.

It was a disturbing incident. Many people were upset that this had occurred in the presence of an outsider. They reassured me that it was not typical. Gurubai said it was the effect of drink; basically, she insisted, the people are still united.

The week after the incident I went to visit Dattu and his wife Manjula at home. He is an intelligent, good-hearted and thoughtful man, with a weakness, as he admits, for daru. No-one in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar brews liquor, but a number of men buy it outside. When he has been drinking he becomes argumentative and passionate: conflicting, troubling feelings he cannot control.

Dattu today is a different person. He is neatly dressed and sober. He tells how he left his native place Ratnagiri, in Maharashtra, because they had only 2,000 square metres of land. His father, brothers and sisters remain there. He has worked in the Naval dockyard for 15 years. When I met him ten years ago, he was working in Colaba and Manjula was washing plates in two apartments there. Theirs, they told me, was a love-marriage. They had run away together to Bombay. (‘Love-marriages’ are often quoted as a reason for migration to the city.)

Today, he is a fitter and servicer of pumps in the fleet maintenance department, now earning 500 rupees ($14) a month. The couple have three children: one daughter who is married, another aged 19, and a boy who is working in a factory making glass feeding-bottles for babies. Manjula still works in Colaba. They say that jobs available in Malad and Goregao are not well paid: new industries have come up, including units that make plastic toys, tins, bottles, plastic sheets and carpets. The pay is as little as 18-20 rupees (50 cents) a day.

On the whole, those who travel back to Colaba are better paid than the people who have found work locally. But, like Parvati, Dattu has to leave home at six-thirty in the morning and is not back till about seven in the evening. On the wall of his hut, there is a Certificate of Merit, commending his work in the dockyard. It is signed by a Rear Admiral, whose picture is also on the wall, shaking Dattu by the hand.

Today for the Divali festival there are streamers running across the street where washing is usually strung out. Outside each house is a red or silver lantern and above the lintel of the doors a homemade embroidered frieze.

For Manjula life has improved since they came here. They have all that is necessary for a secure life. It costs 18 rupees a day to feed a family of four modestly – rice twice a day, chappatis for breakfast, dal with one meal, vegetables with another. At Divali they spend more to make sweets, buy dried fruit, nuts and cakes.

Bombay, described by one resident as a ‘stepmother’, has been good to them.

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