They are called “marginalised,” the word implying their location at the margins. A lot of people like me are interested in helping them overcome their “marginalisation”. We try a lot, we write and talk a lot, we do a lot—only with the intention to address this marginalisation and make it go away. Have you ever tried to make a shape’s margins meet its centre? What does it take? What does it give us? Is it even possible? I was confident it was possible until I saw Ambujwadi, an informal settlement at the coastal edge of Malad in Mumbai.
When I reached my organisation’s community centre in Ambujwadi for the first time, I noticed about 50–60 empty cans lined up in front of the centre. It was that time of the day when Ambujwadi was about to get some drinking water through the few water connections they had. Later I learned that the water was supplied to Ambujwadi for only two hours, from 10 am till noon. And I was further shocked when I learned that the water supplied for the first one hour is too dirty to use and has to be discarded.
Every day, the whole settlement of about 8,328 households (roughly about 38,000 people) depends on this meagre water supply for their survival. Those who miss the opportunity or need more water than what they could get have to resort to purchasing water from the local mafia at the rate of 20–30 INR for a 40 litre can. In a later survey, we found out that almost 96% of the residents of Ambujwadi have to pay for drinking water. The water gets more expensive and less available during summer when most of Maharashtra undergoes drought that is getting more severe with every passing year.
Later, as I was walking in the lanes of Ambujwadi with a veteran community organizer, comrade Sumati, a small boy carrying a 40-litre water can on a bicycle twice his size asked her as he was passing by, too busy to stop even for a moment, “Teacher, when are we going to get water connections?” Comrade Sumati, who has been working in Ambujwadi for decades and knows every child born there and has taught many, smiled helplessly and replied, “Soon child, soon.”
The margins of Mumbai are water-deprived. There is no water in the community toilets as well. I live in a rented apartment in an affluent neighbourhood in the city not far from Ambujwadi. I get water 24×7. I use it without having to worry about it getting over. It never gets over—not even when the rest of the state is undergoing drought.
I never had to even think about its cost. The fact that the apartment owner has never separately added the water bill to my rent tells me that the bill would be nominal. I live in or somewhere around what can be seen as the centre of this society, that part of the society which is the centre of this city, the city that is the “financial capital” of India, the city with the richest municipal corporation in the country.
Comrade Sumati has long been part of the efforts to bring Ambujwadi out of the margins and closer to a condition that at the centre. She told me that the situation is now far better than what it was initially in 1997 when 728 families were first “rehabilitated” there by the government after demolishing about 8000–10,000 homes in Babrekar Nagar. “They destroyed everything that time during heavy rains, even the school records of children,” shared comrade Sumati.
The families were “rehabilitated” by bringing them to Ambujwadi and telling them that they could build their houses there. The area was just a dense jungle back then, no roads, no streetlights, no electricity or water. These initial migrants started building everything from scratch, fighting for every right, be it water, electricity, sanitation, or roads.
Since this first government-forced migration in 1997, Ambujwadi kept growing as a lot of people keep migrating there, pushed away from the city’s centre, towards its margins. As a result, another similar massive eviction and agitation happened in 2004 when about 10,000-12,000 houses were demolished, but only 411 families were allowed to rebuild.
And when another 300 houses were demolished in 2016, nothing was offered to the displaced people for rehabilitation. Ambujwadi’s story is a story of repeated evictions, of a persisting pattern of structural violence, of the many and diverse people being pushed to the margins, socially, politically, economically and geographically.
The situation makes me realize that be it any shape, a circle or a polygon, shifting margins shifts the centre as well—Whether you shrink a shape by pulling one of its margins closer to the centre or you shift the centre towards that margin, enlarging the shape in the process. Centrality remains elusive when you stand at the margins. And it feels like the relative difference between the centre and the margin that Ambujwadi is has also only increased.
While there has been some progress in Ambujwadi on a few fronts, for example, the access to electricity, many other fronts such as housing, water and sanitation still lack progress. And many new fronts have come up that add to Ambujwadi’s marginalisation, such as rising inequality, privatisation of education and healthcare, and climate change.
How can the residents of Ambujwadi survive climate change when they do not even have the right to build a shelter for themselves? Experts warn that urban poor are at the frontline for facing climate risks and the evictions of their informal settlements must stop immediately to help them build their climate resilience.
If anything, governments should provide all sorts of entitlements, basic services, facilities and build early warning systems in vulnerable urban poor communities to prepare them better for climate change. Achieving the needed climate resilience feels like a dream for Ambujwadi where people are not even allowed to bring in any construction material.
The local police that doesn’t easily act on the concerns of Ambujwadi residents suddenly become very strict and efficient when it comes to stopping poor people from building petty homes. As a result, people are unable to build strong houses that can stand extreme weathers. The materials used for walls and roofs are mostly sheets made of tin or cement. Not surprisingly, more than 80% of residents of Ambujwadi find it too hot to stay inside their homes during scorching days.
The increasingly heavy rainfalls every year in Mumbai that frequently flood and paralyse the city also flood many of the roads and houses in Ambujwadi. Many houses get flooded for days; some families have to move out of their houses for some days. Damages to houses and belongings are also common during rains.
Adaptation experts would tell the residents to elevate the level of their houses or build embankments. But that would need construction material which is not allowed inside Ambujwadi. The rule, however, doesn’t apply to a multi-storey community toilet built and managed by an NGO and a huge wall built by the government to contain the informal settlement. More than climate change, unjust policies render Ambujwadi residents vulnerable.
The streets in Ambujwadi also get frequently flooded, and commuting becomes impossible. Children cannot reach their schools; workers cannot report to work and lose their daily wages, hospitals and markets become inaccessible in times of need. While my neighbourhood springs back to normalcy quickly after heavy rains and flooding, Ambujwadi remains flooded for the absence of paved roads and a stormwater drainage system. Unmanaged solid waste lying in the neighbourhood clogs whatever little drains the residents have dug themselves. Margins do not qualify for development.
It is the centre that deserves all the development and services, even during extreme weather. On one such day in Mumbai last September, two sanitation workers who were ensuring smooth drainage of rainwater amidst the heavy rains drowned to death. The irony is that sanitation workers mostly come from poor neighbourhoods like Ambujwadi.
They keep Mumbai clean and functional while their residences are not even recognised on maps and development plans and are persistently denied basic services and infrastructure. Would such workers be still paid if they are unable to report to work because of flooding? The prevalent contract system used for manual workers here doesn’t have any such provision. They are not granted even the weekly off.
Does anyone insure the homes of the poor? No. Do poor vendors have their goods insured? No. Is there any formal loan available to the urban poor to build/repair their homes? No. Even the money meant to help in crises flows towards the well-insured centre, away from the deprived margins. These vulnerabilities render the urban poor more vulnerable to climate change and hazards.
Ambujwadi is one such community where the government is more occupied with hindering and containing the spread of the settlement and less concerned about the needed preparation for reducing the climate risks of existing residents. As someone in Ambujwadi informed me, the government keeps an eye on the settlement to check further expansion using drone cameras. It is not that the government is short of resources or time or awareness of the living conditions in Ambujwadi.
And yet, when it comes to action on climate change, the attention and money are diverted to big fancy technical research and projects in and around the centre. In India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), there is hardly any proposition to address the insecurities at the margins. Such policies bear good news for many private businesses and ventures built around the packaged idea of “eco-friendliness”.
The government pretends to be doing all it can regarding climate change by pouring money into such eco-friendly technology and development projects. The losses and environmental damage caused by prematurely abandoning the existing technology and ongoing projects is entirely ignored. The exploits of the entire exercise are fully enjoyed by the people in and around the centre. Nothing changes at the margins.
I have noticed within the past few months of my work on climate change that many of even those claiming to serve the interest of the marginalised stay in and around the centre, finding excuses not to go beyond. They might be portraying the misery of the people at the margins, but that is often done while sitting in secured air-conditioned fancy facilities in and around the centre. If they would travel for such work, it is often from the centre of one city to that of another. It doesn’t occur to them to shift the centrality of their work to the margins.
There is also a lot of money in selling to the elite the packaged freedom from their guilt of exploiting the planet and exacerbating climate change. The elite buy this freedom from guilt in the form of “eco-friendly” products, services and even weddings! But that is where the guilt ends. It never goes to the extent of them quitting their central spot or accommodating margins into their space. They would still cherish their expensive and carbon-intensive lifestyle but now guilt-free, thanks to the business of eco-friendliness.
Have you ever tried to make a shape’s margins meet its centre by occupying the centre? Is it even possible? It looks impossible to me. While I was in Ambujwadi the last time, I was chatting with comrade Sumati as we were heading out. It was then we saw a man walking ahead of us. We could see his backside. Most likely, he was coming from the small dump yard on the opposite side of the houses.
The tiny bucket he held casually told us that he had just now openly defecated in that dump yard. Comrade Sumati read aloud the message at the back of his t-shirt: “Cleanliness is Godliness”. And we both immediately looked at each other amazed at the irony. And then we laughed so hard about it. So much for trying to make the margins meet the centre!