By Raghav Bansal:
A strange uneasiness, a queer sense of pity flashes across everyone’s heart, when you are on your way to work, or school, or just the daily supermarket and pass by a slum. Although evanescent it’s queer, so much so that perhaps an instant later one would probably be admonishing himself/herself mentally as to why that ludicrous idea had been given even a momentary access to the highly sophisticated, upper class, too-busy-to-think-of-such-trivial-matters mind of mine. Then he/she would definitely roll up the glass and spend the rest of the journey probably reading the newspaper, often telling the chauffer to turn up the radio or just mindlessly exercising the fingers away at mankind’s new best friend. Why? Just to draw the minds’ attention from one of the biggest anomalies of the developing world, and that too in a country that boasts of having the highest growth rate among the Trillion Dollar economies.
A miserable, blotched, hapless picture of stained tin covered huts and houses is the first thing that would come to your mind if you thought of a slum. According to the UN-HABITAT “a slum is a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security.” Well ever been inside one of our very own city slums? The picture is far more gross than painted by our analytical experts. Home to India’s original ‘six-packers’, a place teeming with half-naked children running around barefooted on coarse gravel down the thinnest of lanes imaginable, the incessant barking of rabid street dogs, the occasional cry of a family evicted from a squalid shack, the dark corners of the side-lanes with covering hooded guys betting their meagre oppurtunences on a vile game of luck or simply sharing a smoke.
The houses and settlements are so out of shape that one might wonder, would they withstand even a tiny breeze before collapsing. The hand-pump on every cross-road that never has yielded a drop of water from time immemorial, the street-lamps that never fail to disappoint, the irreplaceable ‘out-of-order’ sign on the local public phone, open stinking sewer pits, all of that coupled with the never settling cloud of dust and ubiquitous mosquitos.
But the most astonishing part of all this is that in a slum no one ever seems to be complaining. The people has accepted the way of life with such unbelievable serenity and calmness that makes you wonder whether these people really face a tough time out here. The answer is an emphatic ‘NO’ if one would judge from the perspective of the number of televisions each household has, or the refrigerators, and scores of other electronic gadgets. Scour the scene for what you and me call liveable conditions and I am sure you’d end up with a big zero on the grade-sheet. That might seem like two contrasting statements.
Well the thing is that these slum-dwellers have developed ingenious techniques to get all they want! Need an electricity connection without the monthly bill reaching you? Just throw a metallic wire onto one of the overhead supply lines and voila!! You have 24X7 electricity supply. Even the Middle class don’t have that luxury. The presence of power solves a lot of problems, mind you. The extremely cheap black market electronic gadgets in an average slum household will surely pull the rug from underneath you.
But what these areas lack in is the bare essentials. According to WaterAid India’s urban population is increasing faster than its total population leading to heavy congestion in the cities and henceforth the slums are more, and more people migrate to the cities from villages in search for jobs. In a survey it was found that less than 35% of slums in Chattisarh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat,Bihar have access to drinking Tap water. Only 44% of the notified slums had drainage facilities of any kind. Half of the notified slums had public latrine facilities while just 17% of the non-notified slums had that luxury, yes it is a luxury there. The drinking water quality too will shock several of us. It was observed that there has been contamination of the water supply due broken underground sewage drains in 37% of the slums.
The slum waters of Dharavi, Wadala Mumbai have reported to be having extreme levels of fluoride and other toxic chemicals. The extreme scarcity of lavatories is highlighted by the fact Dharavi in Mumbai has 1 toilet for 1440 slum dwellers. The one thing that you should’nt expect to get in an Indian slum is sanitation. Acute poverty, combined with illiteracy drives the youngsters of these slums to resort to abominable acts like betting, narcotics, economically exploit the upper class, black market and illegitimate export, illegal liquor sale, prostitution etc. On an average 90% of all the construction in a slum is illegal. All these factors like poor sanitation, water supply, unhygienic conditions, lack of proper medical aid lead to premature deaths, high infant mortality rates in a slum. Average life expectancy in Indian slums is 47 years for males and 51 for females.
These slums are places that feed the fourth-class work force of our urban livelihood. Imagine a week with the house maid deciding to shut shop. I bet it gives the jitters to every middle-class house wife. Imagine a day without the fourth class staff of the goverrment offices and private institutes. Little do we ever reflect upon the fact that our ships in the waters of a developing country are probably sailing smoothly due to the product of these very slums
The pressures of improving the Urban developed picture of India has unintentionally deepened the slum crisis. The number of people living in slums in India is more than the total population of United Kingdom, the Indian Government has announced. Still we all tend to overlook the stark truth facing us dead in the face. Being generous towards a handful of the top economic strata and producing the maximum millionares in the world is not going to cement India’s place at the top internationally. Recently the Commonwealth Games 2010 hosted by New Delhi saw scores of advertisement hoardings on high scaffoldings all along the high flyovers barely 100 metres apart from each other. At first sight, looks like the managers left no stone unturned to publicise the mega event doesn’t it? Well those high scaffoldings were simply the efforts of the Delhi government to hide the stark naked truth of 51% of the delhi population living in slums behind a thin layer of plastic and wood from the foreign delegates so that they wouldn’t feel uneasy. The movie Slumdog Millionaire completely shot in the slums of Dharavi portrayed the miserable life of a slum and the world saw it and laughed. We Indians saw it too, but simply as a 3 hour entertainment package without realizing that it was actually sounding the death-knell for our reputation as a superpower. Some of us voiced our opinion against it’s screening on grounds of it defiling the image of “India Shining” economically as well as culturally.
Now what does one call that? By doing something like that aren’t we running away from our own veraciously sorry state? Are we not failing to accept our complete failure in the eradication of slums or atleast doing something to improve their state? An economically booming country like ours having 10% of its total population living in slums is a shame and a black blot on our global image. Have we become so blasphemous that we completely overlook the interests of this particular section of the society in order to keep the positive face of India that the world so unknowingly accepts, unblemished, undefiled? My dear friends, its high time we stop rolling up our windows, turning out face away in disgust from the sad plight of slums or else many more Danny Boyles will come to our country and walk away with the Oscars abroad revelling in the misery of the same.
The writer is a Correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.