Slum dwellers are the most substantial but overlooked section of the Indian society. At a sizable 26 percent of India’s population; they represent the poorest of the urban poor. Different states have different meanings of the word slum. But a few characteristics are hard to escape. Minuscule living areas, a burgeoning population living below the poverty line, nil drinking water, and latrines shared among hundreds, a non-existent sewage system; the record is endless.
The Mumbai model
Dharavi is an area sandwiched in the middle of Mumbai. Spread across 175 hectares and housing almost a million people as of today, it is titled one of the world’s largest slum dwellings and represents Mumbai’s blemish on its otherwise idyllic city.
In 1997, Mukesh Mehta, an India returned NRI architect came up with a plan to rehabilitate the Dharavi slums and create a commercial town in its place along with a pitiable portion to the slum dwellers. Everyone could see that it was a raw deal. Ironically dubbed ‘Save the slums’ project, this scheme was immediately approved by the Government of India. A 9200 crore project, 1.2 bn dollars would be made as profit by the developers and 25 million dollars would go into Mehta’s pocket. And to top it all; this redevelopment scheme represented nothing that the inhabitants of Dharavi wanted.
Vilasrao Deshmukh, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra ordered the evacuation of more than 6800 Bombay houses in a single day. The people were neither informed nor were they given an ultimatum to vacate. A feat by every means, he later admitted to the ‘accidental evictions’. Almost four hundred thousand slum dwellers were rendered homeless as a result of evictions just before the Mumbai rains. Home to 12.5 million slum dwellers; eviction is never the solution.
The existence of slums in every major city of India is due to the imbalance in the urban economy. The government, fully aware of a sizable portion of its poverty-stricken population, that lives under despicable sanitation and housing conditions conveniently turns a blind eye to its cause. Its inhabitants are uneducated except some hopeful cases like in Tamil Nadu where more than 70 percent of the slum dwellers are educated. They take up jobs in the informal sector to serve their financial needs while still harboring dreams of making it big in the city someday.
Third rate citizens
The slum people of India are treated like third rate citizens in their own country. Jobs, food, water, housing, sanitation, all the basic amenities are not enjoyed by this class of people .
Lack of education breeds criminal tendencies among them; rowdyism is the profession for many a young men in the making. Drug abuse finds its roots here. Even the rich kids head to the slums for their weekly weed supply. Their localities are a haven of diseases. Defecating on the streets, child marriages and gross negligence of hygiene has lead to a high mortality rate among them. In one instance, in a survey conducted among the slums of Vadodara, many of the youth there believed that HIV could be spread by mosquito bites.
If this ain’t pitiable, then what is. In some
A slum is like a pawn to political parties. An entire slum could sway its vote-bank towards one party and bring them to power in the centre. Election after election, political parties woo slums with their promises of making life better for them. They pledge material items and reservations; are assured in aplenty. But once in the power chair, the people are left high and mighty dry.
But despite all that, evictions are the foremost concern. The people never know when the electricity might be cut off, and the trickle of water coming out of taps stop. When the message to clear out and rehabilitate somewhere else is not understood by the slum dwellers; invariably the slums are set on fire. Mera Bharat mahaan anybody?
A film like Slumdog Millionaire brought to the world’s notice the condition of slums in India. The rich and affluent were so worried that India is being shown in bad light because we don’t treat our slum children like it was portrayed in the movie. But the truth is what Danny Boyle showed the world.
We would have been even more proud if an Indian had the spunk to make that movie.
Manmohan Singh sees a vision in which within five years India will be slum-free. The sooner that happens, the better.
The writer is the Tamil Nadu correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz
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