New Internationalist

The City, Our Stepmother

Issue 290

The city,our stepmother

- ten years in the life of a slum community

Jeremy Seabrook introduces us to the poor community in Mumbai
(formerly Bombay) that he has known for a decade.

Everywhere in the world dawn is grey, as the women who greet it know. The beginnings of day always reveal a landscape drained of colour.

Many women in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar are, in any case, up long before then – standing in line with their metal vessels and plastic pails to capture the trickle of water that comes through the municipal supply before it dries up by 5.30am.

Parvati sets out in the early morning, her sandals kicking up a small cloud of dust as her steps join the noiseless tread of servitude of the poor. The bus halts only briefly, as though reluctant to take on people: it is already overcrowded in its descent from Film City on the way to Goregao station. At the station, Parvati gets into the women’s compartment in the chocolate-brown suburban train, already full if it is coming from the end of the line, still with space to sit on the hard wooden seats if it started at Borivali. Although free from harassment, there is no escaping the pushing and shoving. Every day she finds a bruise inflicted by someone’s elbow, a scratch caused by a stranger’s umbrella, a tear in her sari from a vendor’s basket. Bodies are pressed so tightly together that there are even stories of people having sexual intercourse unperceived by those standing next to them.

Past the buffalo-sheds at Jogeshwari and the feral stench of the sleek black animals which provide milk to the privileged of the city; past the airport at Santa Cruz, where the planes come in from the Gulf with their cargo of labour, miraculously missing the high-tension cables above the slums; down to Bandra, where the old colonial bungalows are being sold off for the construction of ten-storey luxury flats and where the waters of the Arabian Sea glint, cobalt and silver, a mixture of clear morning light and industrial poisons.

Parvati holds her breath as the train rattles over Mahim Creek, trying not to inhale the stench of glassy black water and the mangroves that are being eaten by teak-fly. A red sun appears over the new bridge, innocent as yet of the intensity with which its glare will later fill the city. Next is Dadar, the heartland of Hindu fundamentalism, then the desolate area of Lower Parel, its mills fallen into ruin and monsoon creepers growing into the empty cavities of the broken windows. On to Bombay Central, where travellers and derelicts sleep on the stone floor of the station.

Grant Road follows, where prostitutes from all over South Asia stand in the doorways of the brothels in lime-green and scarlet saris, combing their long hair; where the Jain diamond-merchants make and lose fortunes each day; where the facade of the Opera House conceals no longer the plush seats for colonial exiles dressing up to see a third-rate touring company perform The Barber of Seville, but a poor houseless humanity sleeping under rags.

Then the open vista of Marine Drive; the expanse of Chowpatti Beach, cleared in the morning of its hucksters, masseurs and tellers of fortunes; the burning grounds of Charni Road, where the acrid smoke of banyan wood from last night’s cremations lingers; and finally into Churchgate station. There, the crowd moves like a single living thing.

All these things Parvati notices and does not notice. She has seen them every day for ten years. She climbs into the battered red-painted double-decker bus, which takes her past the Victorian architecture of the Raj, the Law Courts and University, past the posh Art Deco flats bordering the maidan, down to Colaba. The bus drops her outside the extensive apartment block of a Parsee housing society.

Her duties among the elderly Parsees she serves are repetitive. She can do them without thinking; cleaning floors, washing vessels, shopping for the old woman who can no longer go out. Her mind runs on her anxieties for the family and on the tasks that wait for her at home. She wonders whether she will get a seat in the train back to Goregao, or if she will fall asleep standing up, rocked by the movement of the tightly packed compartment.

Parvati works two hours a day in each of four houses, and earns 200 rupees a month at each house. The train fare costs 100 rupees a month and the bus half as much again. All of this has been added to her costs since she and the rest of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar were evicted from this area ten years ago. An hour and a half each way, sometimes two hours – time erased from life. Over a period of ten years, that represents several months in a train or bus, day and night.

After work, she may visit her husband. He is now living with his brother in Colaba, looked after by his brother’s wife. He was an electrician, but can no longer work. One day, drilling a wall for some wiring, he fell from the ladder. He lost consciousness and it has never entirely returned to him.

Parvati came to Mumbai from Bidar in Karnataka to get married. She is a dignified woman, not crushed by adversity, but tired from a life of insecurity and servitude. Her employers are reasonable; sometimes they give her food and clothing; but no-one has ever wondered where she lives, or what her life is; nor has anyone observed the exhaustion with which she begins her daily work.

She is, after all, a servant. The rest is of no concern of those who pay her. P Sebastian, a human-rights lawyer who has been involved with Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, points out: ‘If you ask the rich where their servants stay, they will say they do not know. They know. They do know. But they won’t say. They won’t say, because it is the rich who create the slums they deplore. They employ human beings to do their work, but what they really want is machines. They will not pay enough for people to afford decent housing. What is intolerable is to say that they are criminals who have dirtied Bombay. I say to them: “Those criminals are in your houses, doing your work, looking after your children, cooking the food you eat.” The rich are adept at rationalizing the injustice they do. To get servants at that salary, you must have slums.’

There are two common responses to the urban poor. The first is the belief that slums are concentrations of a dangerous and volatile population, who must be controlled and rigorously policed. This attitude echoes the revulsion of the middle classes at the slums in Britain in the early industrial era. It lives on, not only in the attitude of the rich in the South today, but also in the response of governments and administrators who are charged with running the cities.

The poor, goes this refrain, are criminals, prostitutes and thieves.

The second response holds that the city slums are communities of hard-working people, whose self-help, endurance and capacity for survival are a source of inspiration. This second view is far closer to the truth, as the interviews in this magazine show. Most people who live in slums may be exploited but they are resourceful and hard-working; their homes are emphatically not places of despair and demoralization. The word ‘slum’ tells us something of the living conditions, but nothing about the qualities of the people themselves.

Mumbai and its hinterland Many governments in Asia, Africa and South America are currently implementing ‘structural adjustment programmes’, economic reforms that follow the prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank. Global integration is the name of the game. This means embarking on programmes of liberalization and privatization. It also entails deep cuts in government expenditure; not on arms, because that would run counter to Western interests, but on social spending – nutrition programmes, education, health and welfare.

This has led to a change – from earlier repressive reactions to the urban poor to a policy of a benign neglect. If the people can help themselves, if they are self-reliant and generate their own employment, what need is there for government intervention? Their welfare can be turned over to private interests and they can be safely left to get on with seeking their own salvation. It is now clear that they are not going to rise up and dispossess the rich of their privilege. For generations, the urban poor have been regarded with a watchful and apprehensive eye by the authorities; but they have, for the most part, inserted themselves into the city economy and found a place, however precarious, in the existing order. In India, certainly, they have not risen up in revolt. The State can disengage and leave them to the mercy of market forces.

Most of the people who live in slums are in any case used to managing by themselves, through their own efforts. From the slums of Mumbai come some of the most beautiful artefacts imaginable – jewellery, pottery, glassware, carved woodwork, metal and precious stones, fabrics and clothing, although those who actually produce them rarely receive anything like the value of their work.

Parvati’s only saleable commodity is her own domestic labour. Returning home in the evening, Parvati ponders how much has changed since the people of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar were forced to move here from the site in the centre of the city almost ten years ago. Then, she would not have had the long journey to work as employment was on her doorstep. But on the other hand, things were much less secure.

Sanjay Gandhi Nagar now has some assurance that its people will not be evicted. As a result the surroundings of the slum are different from a decade ago. The area around it is busier – permanent stores, shops, little restaurants have replaced the rough wooden stalls, though on the margin of the road fruit and vegetable sellers still provide daily necessities.

The quarry is now semi-solid with waste: plastic bags, old shoes, all the indestructible offal of industrial society simmers in a swamp covered with a bloom of vivid green algae. Separated from the built area by rusty barbed wire, people use it as a garbage dump.

The little streets are neat; the interior of most houses is clean. But there has been little improvement in the public spaces. Waste water still meanders in an indigo stream that empties into the former quarry. A second garbage dump on the other edge of the slum attracts swarms of flies, performing their black and silver dance above the vegetable waste. Mosquitoes are a constant nuisance: a recent outbreak of cerebral malaria in Thane, about 20 kilometres away, has frightened some people. The municipality has been using a pesticide, a liquid that turns the muddy water a milky grey.

The public latrines are close to the houses. There are few growing things – some medicinal herbs, a tulsi-plant in a thin strip of earth around the walls. But the houses are well spaced: a hectare for 300 families; an area open in the centre of the slum, where the coloured kites of children get entangled in the electricity wires that loop in sagging skeins from building to building. The electricity itself is unreliable; many connections have been illegally made, although the Residents’ Association pays for what is used by collecting from the people. Even after so many years it still has the air of an improvised settlement: rocky, barren, unbearably hot in its exposure to the sun. All around, ominously, middle-class flats have been constructed.

But, like Parvati, most people feel that their lives have improved much in the last decade. Her five children are grown up now and there is the prospect of increased income from their work. Parvati’s first son had to leave school at the age of 11, to contribute to the family income. He worked at Sassoon Dock in Colaba. His task was to empty the catch from the fishing-nets into machines that would sort and grade the fish. One day, the net caught in the machinery and his arm dragged with it. The arm was severed. He is now 19, getting the schooling that was denied him as a child. Since he became disabled, he has been painting with his good arm. A picture of his – some palm-trees along the shore and the sea – has been fixed to the wall of the house where they live.

Parvati’s oldest daughter is married. Her second, Mahedevi, is a capable and serious-minded 17-year-old. She is training as a diamond-polisher. After six months, she has every chance of getting a secure, well-paid job. From domestic labour to diamonds in one generation, thinks Parvati; and her heart is filled with hope.

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