New Internationalist

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Issue 290

Home is where the heart is

As they become more settled,
splits develop in the community –
notably between those who have grown richer
and those who have stayed poor...

Most of those who live in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar are not activists. Like people everywhere, they simply want to get on with their own lives. Their priorities are survival, sufficiency and security. While they squatted on an insecure site, while they had no guarantee that their homes would not be demolished from one day to the next, while they depended for their food on a daily wage, there was little difference in the shelters they built and no sharp contrast in the way they lived.

But once the community became owners of the site, things began to change. People were secure for the first time in their lives. Those with greater earning power or skills, those determined to get on, were no longer constrained by outside threats to their well-being and could get on with making money – that symbol of individual rather than collective security.

There are now two distinct groups: those whose economic position is much improved, and those who remain poor, still dependent on a daily wage. This is partly reflected in the houses. But only partly.

It has been complicated by the fact that the German development agency casplan has been helping the community with basic building materials for some years: about a third of the people have benefited to the value of about $250 each. This has upgraded some of the houses, so that they have become one-storey concrete and plaster buildings, forming little streets – very much like the dwellings of the early industrial era in parts of Britain.

The contrast in living conditions is not necessarily a reflection of the abilities or capacities of the people, and certainly not of their hard work. Some who have worked all their lives are still poor; others have been afflicted by loss of a breadwinner or sickness; still others are addicted to daru liquor, brewed in neighbouring slums. Some are weaker than others, less skilled, less healthy. But the differences which were once concealed by generalized poverty have begun to create new tensions. Maya Thappa was poor when she first arrived from Nepal many years ago. She is still poor. Her hut is one of the most basic in the community: a bare concrete floor, with only some newspaper to lie on, rusty metal walls, a hole in the roof that has been roughly repaired with some woven bamboo matting. There are a few metal tumblers and a water vessel on a wooden shelf; nothing else. Maya Thappa’s son works in a Chinese restaurant. His family lives close by, next to the family of her daughter. They provide meals for her.

She tells again the story of her life. She had twelve children, five of whom survived. When I last met her she told me that she had lost her husband in Calcutta: ‘kho gaya’. I had taken this to mean that he had died. But she says now that he had literally disappeared, and she never discovered what became of him. She searched the city. She asked the police to trace him. He was never found. She does not know if he was kidnapped. Did he run away from his responsibilities, from poverty and the death of children? Perhaps, she says, he could not bear it. But she had no option but to stay – the fate of women worldwide. Was he killed? An anonymous body among the inhabitants of the streets of that terrible city, part of the wretched burden of perished humanity picked up each day by the municipal authorities? She will probably never know.

Maya Thappa is now 70. She had a stroke last year which temporarily paralyzed her right side. She has made a considerable recovery, but she is more frail, and her face, always sad, seems even more marked by the tragedies of her life.

Tetraj lives in one of the houses improved by the German non-governmental organization. When I arrive she is making sweets for Divali with the help of her daughter, who is now 14. Their hands are covered in flour and sparkling with sugar. The house has a tiled floor, a big wooden bed and an electric fan. There is a tin chair for visitors. They have made a Divali decoration which hangs over the doorway – a runner of scarlet and green embroidered silk.

Her husband sells bhel-puri – a spicy snack made from puffed rice – on the streets. He hires a handcart and buys from a kitchen, working around the popular Gateway of India, where richer families parade in the evening, pink and gold saris blowing in the breeze and children in their best suits and frilly dresses. He has no permit, and this means he must pay the police if he is to carry on his business. Even so, they arrest him from time to time, and take him to the police station where he must pay a 500 rupee ($14) fine. He earns between 50 and 100 rupees a day, depending on the season and the day of the week.

The prospect of getting a new apartment under the plan is exciting and opens choices the family never had before. If they are offered an apartment, they will sell and return to Uttar Pradesh to buy land. What Tetraj does not know is that the price of land in her home district is rising rapidly. The amount she could buy with the sale of the (as yet non-existent) apartment would scarcely keep the family at subsistence level.

In 1986, Madhuker Kamble was a contract labourer. Originally from Pune, he was a mason, working at that time on offices for the Indian Cancer Society on Cuffe Parade. He was earning 500 rupees a month. His wife was looking after their daughter, who was three.

Pointing to their shelter on the pavement then – a few rags on a bamboo stick, a blanket on the hard stone for the child – he had said: ‘At the end of the day, you’re just thankful for sleep. You don’t think how hard the road is, you don’t hear the noise of the traffic, even the crying of the children.’

Today, Madhuker has prospered. He is broad and thickset, and exudes the assurance of success. He has become a contractor; that is, he is responsible for gathering gangs of construction workers, according to the number required – 10, 15, 25. He is not a big-time operator, but he can assemble good workers for the job.

He learned by watching how other contractors worked when they recruited him; he had already mastered most of the building trades by observation and imitation. Once, when there was a lot of work and a rare shortage of available labour, he offered to find the workers with the skills needed. He did so. Since that day he has been an independent labour contractor, mostly with smaller firms. To be employed by major companies, he would need a licence, which he doesn’t have.

Madhuker makes between 3,500 and 4,000 rupees (around $100) profit per month. He and his wife have had two sons since 1986. His daughter has gone back to Pune to study; she stays with her grandparents. Madhuker is in favour of the Shiv Sena party and its promise to give priority to people from Maharashtra: ‘Too many people in Mumbai have come from other parts of India, and they get the best jobs. If all the outsiders were sent home, there would be plenty of work for us.’

Mrs Newman is an Anglo-Indian, the daughter of some minor British official – a railway officer – and an Indian woman. Her father later went home ‘to his wife and children’.

She lives in a concrete house in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, although this was achieved only at a terrible price. Her husband was killed in a car accident two years ago. The case was taken up by Nivara Hakk. She received 70,000 rupees ($2,000) in compensation. Some 18,000 of this went on lawyers’ fees, and the house cost 50,000 rupees, because they were not in a position to build it themselves. Her youngest daughter, the daughter’s husband and three young children share the house with her. The daughter’s husband works in the Mumbai Port Trust.

Mrs Newman speaks perfect English, but her daughters are Marathi speakers. She is a proud woman; greying hair, a pale skin. She sits on the doorstep of the house peeling prawns. When she talks to me, there is an element of defiance and reproach; something of the bitterness of the older Anglo-Indians, who were abandoned by the colonial power and, they feel, shunned by independent India.

B R Salve is in his fifties. He is disabled, one arm severed just above the elbow. He tells once more how, when he was three, he fell from a high place on a wall and broke his arm and elbow. This, he says, was the time of British rule and there was no treatment available to poor people; so the arm had to be amputated.

He has worked for the Collectorate of the city for 19 years. His wife is still a domestic worker in Colaba, earning 200 rupees ($6) a month at three different houses. They have three daughters, all at school. His house is poor: the metal walls are corroded, so that the sun shines through, forming strange lacy patterns on the earth floor; beams of light illuminate air that is thick with dust. The house is detached from others, and the sun on the metal makes it stiflingly hot. On a stone platform in one corner food is prepared. A low concrete wall separates a small bathing area from the living space. There is a corrugated metal barrel and a zinc drum for bathing water; some smaller water vessels for drinking stand on a ledge. The family’s clothes hang from nails in the wall. On a wooden shelf is a clock and a vase of dusty plastic flowers. A locked wooden trunk, once painted blue, nestles in the corner. A black-and-white television is showing a Sunday-afternoon Hindi film; a woven tray for sorting rice grains hangs on the wall. Mr Salve says: ‘If I had good hands, do you think we would still be living like this?’

Uday Raj is a thin, energetic man who has very obviously bettered himself in the last decade. When I first met him on the pavement of Cuffe Parade, I learned that he was a migrant from Uttar Pradesh, who had come from a poor rural family owning less than one hectare. He married a woman from Maharashtra. He was a taxi driver at that time; he had begun by renting from the owner of a fleet of taxis, but by working long hours had saved enough to buy his own vehicle. He was even then earning 3,000 rupees a month, although repayments, maintenance and petrol cost perhaps half the income. His five-year-old son was going to the Convent School of the Holy Name.

Uday Raj now owns a number of taxis whose drivers rent the vehicle from him at a daily rate, just as he once did. What is more, Uday has lent money to people in the community and this, naturally, makes them dependent on him. He is ambitious; he has even expressed his desire to become a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. He now has capital, and a high income. This has transformed many of his attitudes.

People like Uday are not rare in the slums: there are well-to-do people in almost every such community. It is the prohibitive price of land in Mumbai which prevents them from getting out. But even this is not the determining factor in Uday’s life.

Uday will not hear of any objections to the new scheme, which promises riches beyond a lifetime’s earnings for everybody. He places his faith in the promises of the Shiv Sena/BJP, who have said that there will be transitional dwellings for those displaced while the building work is going on.

Significantly, ten years ago, most people – including Uday Raj – were against the policies of the Shiv Sena which had then just come to power in the city. But now that they control the State government, their promises to slum dwellers have earned them many friends. Uday will not listen to arguments about the complexities of migration to Mumbai, nor of the violence likely to follow if people are rounded up and deported. They left their villages only because they could no longer win a livelihood there, as Uday himself well knows.

He then attacks the poor. He says: ‘A good 90 per cent of the people of this city are ignorant. They do not understand. They drink daru. They are lazy. They will not work. They are lying drunk on the bed. I came from Uttar Pradesh, from Ayodhya. No-one helped me... I saved up for a train ticket from Delhi to Mumbai, for which I paid 17 rupees (50 cents). When I came, I had nothing. What I have achieved, I have done by myself, without help.’

The values and attitudes of the successful are the same everywhere; his is the ideology of those who have prospered, the upwardly mobile, the high achievers. How easy it is to see those who are less successful as idle and undeserving! After all, Uday himself was for many years on the receiving end of the same ideology, from the well-to-do in Colaba. The poor know the arguments by heart – they have heard them so often.

Uday, too, has suffered in the city. Three children, all girls, died while they were living in the slum, on the pavement. He spent 40,000 rupees (over $1,000) on medical expenses for his last daughter; but she died anyway. The son alone remains. Uday speaks from a depth of personal experience that cannot be denied: a life of such insecurity, subject to loss and sudden death. For him, it is only logical to find such security as you can in the accumulation of wealth; it is as though flesh and blood are too perishable to place faith in them. Arguments about having no security but each other freeze on my lips. Uday looks at me intently.

But he is the explicit bearer of the capacity for community disintegration as distinctions and differentiations set people against one another and as conflicts emerge that remained hidden by shared insecurity and want.

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