New Internationalist

Squatter citizens

Issue 386

To much of the rest of the world, slumdwellers are ‘other’: criminals, lazy, usurpers, dangerous, parasites, addicts, drunks – the list is endless. But the vitality and energy needed to survive here are not for the faint-of-heart. NI puts a face to those who are making a difference in squatter towns around the world.

MUMBAI, INDIA

Sugandhi: ‘As soon as my life became better, I wanted to do something to help other women.’

As you turn into the narrow lane leading to Sugandhi’s house in Kaju Tekdi, Bhandup – an old industrial suburb of Mumbai – it’s easy to recognize her home. There’s usually a group of boys sitting outside chatting, playing cards and people are constantly walking through the door. Some just come here to hang out, watch TV, talk, ask for advice, borrow a book or discuss local problems. It’s also the first place people go in an emergency at any time of the day or night – when a woman is beaten up, when local goons come to evict, when someone is ill or when a child needs admission to school. They all turn to Sugandhi. In the 15 years since becoming an activist, she has turned into the one-point firebrand solution for her neighbourhood.

People here knew her as Pavitra as a child. Her in-laws changed her name to Sugandhi when she married. Her parents migrated to the big city from the mountains of Garhwal in north India when she was just six and disowned her when she eloped with Francis, who was not from her caste or religion. When Francis lost his factory job and responsibility to support the family fell totally on Sugandhi, Francis took to the bottle. There were fights at home, often violent. He was ill for many years and finally passed away in 1987.

That’s when Sugandhi got involved in activism. She joined the local Tenants Association, Bhadekaru Kruti Samiti. Though the land on which the slum was built belongs to the Government, those who put up rows of tenements here are now landlords. ‘For years landlords have done nothing to maintain their homes. If tenants tried to make any improvements like fixing a leaking roof or getting a water tap, the landlords would bring in the mafia to throw them out,’ says Sugandhi. ‘So, we helped them form tenants’ societies so that they could fight together for their rights. Today, 54 such societies have been able to get ownership of their land.’

But there’s still a long struggle. A few years ago, a builder wanted to grab a plot of land that housed 17 families. So he got some security guards to fence off the land and drag women and children out of their homes. One guard even had a gun. ‘I rushed to the spot, asking our young boys to gather many people. The security guard got scared and ran into Hotel Suraj on the main road. The hotel staff saw a crowd chasing him and closed the doors. We demanded that they let him out or we would break the glass door. Finally he came out and the owner of the security company, a local Shiv Sena leader, arrived. He tried to sweet-talk me into dropping the case, but I told him that his company should not do dirty work for builders. Those 17 families are still living there.’ She winks and gives a naughty smile.

For even basic amenities, it has been a long, hard and sometimes colourful fight. ‘After 12 years of lobbying, we managed to get the municipal corporation to build 14 toilets here some years back,’ says Sugandhi. Still, there aren’t enough toilets – just one for every 17 homes, and there are queues every morning.

The injustices in her neighbourhood still hurt her. Skyscrapers are shooting up in places where factory chimneys once stood. Retrenched workers have had to sell and move to distant suburbs. ‘So many fancy new buildings are being built. Yet they blame slum dwellers for everything, even for the recent floods in Mumbai. But where is the additional drainage facilities, water supply? No-one ever bothers to clean the gutters; builders flout all the rules; but we are blamed. We are going to protest outside the municipal office that there should be no new buildings until they enhance the infrastructure.’

Over the years, Sugandhi has built an organization of women’s activists within the community who have gained confidence to fight for their rights – whether it is housing, domestic violence, hygiene or their children’s education: ‘Most women face the same problems as I did. When my [first] husband beat me, I was on the verge of killing myself. But if women are given even a little support, they have more courage to live. As soon as my life became better, I wanted to do something to help other women. Every 15 days, we would see a woman dying of burns in her home. Now, it’s less.’

Even the mafia and the police have a healthy respect for her. ‘She has changed the balance of power in this area, which has made life easier for people. Goons are less threatening and the authorities more approachable,’ says Vivek, the soft-spoken scientist and union leader she married in 1990. ‘In every crisis, she is there. Sometimes, it’s difficult to restrain her’, he says with a smile.

Dionne Bunsha

BAGUIO CITY, THE PHILIPPINES

Michael A Bengwayan
Michael A Bengwayan

Luisa Arno: ‘I believe in the poor. They are bankable.’

It isn’t every day that a poor woman in her threadbare skirt and rubber slippers gets to enter an air-conditioned office. The bespectacled lady behind the desk listens intently as the woman makes a plea to be given 2,000 pesos ($37) credit to run a street-hawking business in the highland city of Baguio. The lady – a former European Union Fellow – speaks the woman’s language and punctuates her speech with guffaws, bantering and comic relief. The woman in the rubber flip-flops is made to feel at ease.

This is the Highland Community Development Foundation (HCDF). Each day its Programme Officer, Luisa Arno – a child of the rebellious 1970s – talks to a stream of sidewalk peddlers, itinerant vendors, small storekeepers, drivers and even junk and trash collectors. Every borrower gets a patient explanation on the requirements and nuances of barefoot banking. Loi (as Luisa is fondly called by the slum dwellers) would rather spend her time visiting her clients in their tin shanties than sitting in her office. The sharing of ideas and insights fits easier with her concept of banking with the poor. ‘I believe in the poor. They are bankable,’ she stresses. ‘My idea is to bring banking services to the access of the poor.’

And she is doing just that. Since 1999 the HCDF has loaned out 5.2 million pesos (around $92,000) with a remarkable repayment rate of 95 per cent. According to Carolina Reconde, local president of the Urban Poor Residents for Solidarity (URNOS): ‘No bank ever wanted to give us loans. No-one ever went to our homes to see how we live. “You are poor, what will you use as collateral?” the banks always ask. So we were forced to borrow from the Bombays [Indian moneylenders] who charged us 10 per cent a day. Now we don’t have to be at the mercy of loan sharks.’

Loi abandoned a potential international consultancy career to return to where she grew up – Irisan village, where 300,000 Baguio City residents dump some 45,000 tons of garbage and human filth daily. Hundreds of families scavenge the dumpsite for a living. ‘It is where I learned that the poor, when given a chance, can matter in this world. For seven years I worked and lived with the poor people in Tondo (Manila’s slums). Like these squatters in this dumpsite, they are proud people, waiting to be given a chance for an honest living. So I started training them on micro-credit.’

‘I have heard a lot of ill talk about the poor and that all they need is charity. But look – the poor have made a lot of usurers and moneylenders filthy rich. And yet these are the same poor who end up always at the losing end of a bargain, paying exorbitant fees for a small amount of money loaned and often losing even the shirts on their backs just to meet interest payments.

‘It is far easier to check a poor person’s background than that of the rich. A poor man or woman’s life is practically an open book to all. The poor have discipline; their projects are viable and verifiable and they pay their amortizations on time.’ Her pride is obvious.

But does giving the urban poor access to little bits of credit really make much difference? Loi doesn’t shrink from the hard question: ‘Let me just say that it is better to light one candle than to stumble in the dark. I do not harbour any illusions that I can solve people’s poverty and misery. What I am doing is to provide a vehicle for the poor to start a better life.’ From the long line outside, it looks like her clients agree.

Michael A Bengwayan

LAGOS, NIGERIA

Chux Okei Ohai
Chux Okei Ohai

Hajia Kaka Rano: ‘Everything we have got here, we achieved through self-effort.’

‘In life, everybody has one destiny,’ says Hajia Kaka Rano. Reclining in the cool comfort of her shop, she looks how she feels: a queen at peace with her environment. She is in the Mile 12 market: the biggest foodstuff market in all of West Africa. A warm, contented smile spreads across her fleshy face as she recalls the circumstances that brought her all the way from northern Nigeria to Lagos three decades ago. ‘We found only thick forest and swampy land. There were no houses. Nobody lived here.’ There is a note of pride in her voice – justifiably so. Once they arrived, they worked very hard clearing the bush and filling up the land with sand. Then they built makeshift stalls and set up tents where they sold their wares by day and returned to their families at night. Eventually they were able to build houses around the market. That was how the settlement known as Mile 12 was born.

But the settlement is still basically a squatter camp. Denied electricity, potable water, hospitals and schools, Kaka and her fellow settlers have had to fall back on their personal resources. ‘Everything we have got here, we achieved through self-effort,’ Kaka explains. ‘The Government has never really shown much interest.’

Animosities arising from tribal or religious differences are virtually non-existent. A walk through Dada Street reveals a church building and a mosque snuggled so close that you’d think they were owned by the same person. Strolling further, the Hausa phrase ‘Hanunka mai sanda’ warns ‘be careful’. Slang is an important tool of communication here. It is used to convey a sense of self-preservation from outside hostile forces and to strengthen comradely spirit.

And there have been many hostile forces from outside. One of the first things that Kaka’s work was able to achieve was a deal with meddlesome officials of the local municipal council who never wasted an opportunity to remind the traders that they are squatters on the land. In return for a levy of 16,000 naira ($122), payable every six months, the traders can now continue business without fear of molestation. As a result the community has gained some autonomy. ‘No-one bothers us any more,’ says Kaka, the woman behind it all.

Chux Okei Ohai

CARACAS, VENEZUELA

José Orozco
José Orozco

Humberto Berrocal: ‘We’ve gotten many people to become part of a collective. Now, you hear “individualist” used as an insult.’

On a street corner on Caracas’ poor west side – a short walk from the San Isidro slum he calls home – Humberto Berrocal is helping people to organize themselves. As part of President Hugo Chávez’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution, slum dwellers now have a way officially to own the land upon which they’ve built their homes.

An Executive Decree in February 2002 created Urban Land Committees (CTUs) that can give slum residents title to the land that they were once accused of ‘invading’. Once a CTU approves a house for a land title, the required documents get handed to the National Technical Office (OTN), which gives out the titles. These land titles are helping slum residents get loans as well as protecting them – finally – from eviction.

‘It’s not just about land titles,’ says Berrocal. ‘We want to improve the habitat. It’s about [creating] a dignified home in a dignified place. [At present] we have two countries inside one: on the east side of Caracas, where you find the middle class and the rich; and on the west side, the poor. The [rich] think Westsiders don’t deserve the same [living] conditions.’ That’s one way of explaining the vicious economic inequality that has given Venezuela the world’s highest per capita gun murder rate: a situation that has moved people like Berrocal to organize.

A resident of the Altavista area, Berrocal – who works as an odd-job person – devotes much of his free time to helping neighbours with land and housing issues: neighbours like Teresa Porras. Porras lived in a precariously placed shanty. On Mother’s Day last year, Porras’ home slid a few metres down the slope with two of her children inside. They were eventually saved by a neighbour. As Berrocal says: ‘Nature came to make its arguments.’ One might add that nature came to prove Berrocal right: he had wanted to move Porras and the children, but found opposition from other CTU members who thought more urgent cases demanded their attention. Though Porras and her children are presently scattered in different homes, Berrocal is helping the single mother of five navigate the bureaucratic maze into a new home.

Riding another oil boom, Venezuela has channelled the bonanza into social spending on literacy, education, primary healthcare, housing, and so on. Yet Venezuela remains heavily dependent on oil even as Chavez diversifies the economy. What’s certain is that the Government can’t solve the economic puzzle on its own. Government plans will accomplish little if left unsupported by people, which is where the CTUs come in. Along with health and water committees, CTUs are connecting the streets to power in Venezuela.

Berrocal’s CTU is pressuring the Government for a ‘huge works project’ that would revamp his neighbourhood’s entire water services, including the sewage system. He is also proud that 10 area CTUs have joined together to form a Centre of Participation for Political Transformation (CPTH), which integrates a wide range of social services and gives slums greater political leverage.

But it’s the Pioneer Communities that are Berrocal’s dream: ‘[Future residents] will build the homes themselves; 80 housing units will be owned collectively, not with individual titles. [The idea is to] create an orderly community where people are part of a collective effort. That way, it means more to people; they’re more willing to struggle.’

While Venezuela remains a capitalist consumer culture, Berrocal thinks that serious inroads now will one day mean a country of these pioneering communities. Although he’s often serious, this thought makes him smile. ‘Through the CTUs, we’ve gotten many people to become part of a collective,’ he argues. ‘Now, you hear “individualist” used as an insult.’

Collective communities may be part of Venezuela’s quest for a ‘new socialism’, but for Berrocal, they’re a key part of what he has always struggled for since his days as a labour activist in his native Peru. Grounded and logical, Berrocal has a vision that’s in every way collective. ‘Take this tape recorder,’ he says, pointing to the device recording his voice. ‘A lot goes into making this recorder. You need plastic, oil to make the plastic, and then you need a technician to put it together and someone to cook it. It requires a group of people. But [at the moment] the final product doesn’t go to them. They get a few crumbs, while the parasite[s] take the rest.’

These outbursts belie Berrocal’s cool pragmatism. His wife Elsayda Pinedo (who he met on labour marches) admires her husband: ‘He’s very practical; he doesn’t fool around,’ she says. ‘He evaluates [a situation], then pushes forward.’

Repairing roads and sewage systems tells slum residents that they matter. But for Berrocal, meeting basic social needs is part and parcel of what a socialist revolution is all about. ‘What do I aspire to? To see everyone in Venezuela eats because not everyone now does. The same goes for education, work, health, housing. We have to improve living conditions because you don’t get new citizens with new mentalities from [harsh conditions].’

José Orozco

CAIRO, EGYPT

Nasra Ismail: ‘These people won’t leave here, and won’t let you finish your project.’

With a local Cleopatra cigarette dangling between decaying teeth, Nasra Ismail paces in front of a lone stone hovel in knock-off Fendi sneakers. She raises her voice over the roar of dump trucks and diggers belching diesel nearby.

‘Rise up and you’ll get what’s yours,’ the grizzled 45-year-old exhorts a half-dozen have-nots who have refused to abandon their homes in the Cairo shantytown of Al Duwaiqa. The once densely populated settlement is now a massive construction site. All but a handful of the residents have long since left, and the scrap metal and stone shelters they inhabited have been demolished. Al Duwaiqa is just one corner of a sprawling 500,000-person slum on the eastern edge of Cairo. Here the Government is demolishing thousands of makeshift one-room shelters, and building in their place modern five-storey apartment blocks. For the first time this neighbourhood will have a school, a post office, plumbing and electricity.

It is a showcase project meant to tout the Government’s commitment to providing adequate housing for the estimated 16 million Egyptians now living in illegal slums. But Ismail is among just a handful of former slum-dwellers who secured one of the newly constructed Government-subsidized flats. The majority of her former neighbours, she says, are now homeless. The new units, meanwhile, are being snatched up by police officers, government officials and other well-connected types.

When the Government tossed Ismail on to the streets with her three children, she decided to put up a fight. She went to the local building authority and was ignored. She naïvely knocked on the gates of the presidential compound, but was turned away by bemused guards. With dirty fingernails, and a hairy mole on her chin, she walked brazenly into the Prime Minister’s office. An astonished secretary stopped her, but suggested she visit the Minister of Housing, Ibrahim Soleiman, instead.

In addition to being a Minister, Soleiman is the parliamentarian whose district includes al Duwaiqa. When he refused to see her, she persisted. She went to an opposition newspaper, which jumped on the story. With parliamentary elections looming, Soleiman, already besieged with corruption allegations, relented. He met Ismail twice and gave her a new apartment. Housing rights groups hold her up as an example of the downtrodden learning to assert their rights. Her former neighbours, now homeless, go to her for advice.

But even if all of these new apartments went to al Duwaiqa residents, it would do little to address Egypt’s housing problems. Abu Zeid Rageh, the former head of the National Institute for Housing and Building Research, says that for the past 40 years government housing policy in Egypt has encouraged developers to build homes for middle- and upper-class Egyptians, but has ignored the poor. The policy has created a glut of luxury housing – hundreds of thousands of high-end units are currently vacant, according to Rageh. Meanwhile, Egypt’s poor have no choice but to resort to building illegal, informal units.

Charles Levinson

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Sujeewa Ratnayake: ‘Education is for the children… Most of all we try to give them values.’

The Shanti Community Centre in Dehiwela, Colombo, where Sujeewa Ratnayake works, is busy with tsunami rehabilitation in addition to its regular work, assisting thousands of squatter families in the area. With her cheery smile, Sujeewa takes it all in her stride. She is the Centre’s Library and Cultural Programme Co-ordinator. She’s been working here as a semi-volunteer for nine years. It’s here she learned skills such as flower-making, crochet and painting, that bring in her main income.

Sujeewa, now 29, has been in this area since she was 12. Her family moved to the canal bank at Bandaranaike Road. ‘We are village people,’ she says. ‘My mother’s sister was living here. She told us there was land available.’ Sujeewa’s father (now dead) was a harbour clerk, so he had a pension. She says they paid Rs 15,000 (US$150) for the land. It is not clear to whom. Or for what, as there was no legal title.

The next year, her father died. ‘My father always said you need to go to school. He wanted us to be educated. Father Catalano helped me,’ she says. The Italian Jesuit priest founded the Shanti Centre, and his vigorous presence still keeps it going. Shanti means ‘peace’ in both Sinhala and Tamil.

Four years ago the Government offered tiny blocks of land as an incentive to the shanty dwellers to move to better locations. Sujeewa’s family moved to nearby Sri Maha Vihara Road. According to Sujeewa: ‘There are about 58 families living in our watta [the Sinhala term meaning literally garden]. The facilities are much better here.’

Memories of Bandaranaike Road are not pleasant. The shanties used to be raided by police two or three times a week. Sujeewa recalls how one night she heard them beating up the kasippu dealer and his wife who lived next door. The brewing of the illicit liquor known as kasippu is widespread in the shanties. Also, many of the boys take ganja (marijuana).

What are her hopes, her dreams? She shrugs. ‘Education for the children. It’s too late to reform the parents. We have six pre-schools and after-school activities. But most of all we try to give them some values. We don’t teach any particular religion – it’s a mixed community.’

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Squatter citizens

Leave your comment