This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
2014 ended on a grim note. The horror in Peshawar with
the gunning down of 132 children by the Taliban left everyone, not just
Pakistanis, shaken. So as 2015 dawns, will things change, get better,
On current calculations, there is
little to indicate that the trend of violence, seen not just in this
subcontinent, or in West Asia but around the world, is anywhere near
At times such as these, when we are filled
with despair at the state of the world, and indeed even our own country,
where hate-filled talk against people of other faiths and persuasions
is now out in the open, I turn to individuals who face life with a
So let me begin this year with the story of a
woman in Mumbai. Parveen Sheikh is in her early forties. She is a
member of Mahila Milan and organises women in Mumbai’s slums so that
they can tackle together some of the myriad problems all of them face.
was one of eight women I met recently in an office in Dharavi. We
discussed politics, problems and possibilities. Maharashtra’s Chief
Minister, Devendra Phadnis, is considering setting up a special
committee to deal with Mumbai’s problems to be headed by the Prime
Minister. What should be the priority for a city like Mumbai, I asked.
Housing was the consensus. Affordable housing for the poor should be top priority.
personal experience illustrates how politics and policies deal with the
daunting problem of the homeless in one of India’s wealthiest cities.
While the government introduces schemes to deal with the ‘slum problem’
(as if it involved buildings, not people); for people like Parveen, the
solution is often worse than the problem.
lived for decades on a pavement in Sewri, in the north-eastern part of
Mumbai. The threat of eviction was constant. Yet, thousands of families
like hers remained where they were, making a living by earning daily
wages, using public — usually dysfunctional — toilets, and awaiting with
dread for the inevitable flooding followed by disease that descended on
them every monsoon.
In 2008, Parveen and her
neighbours were told that they were going to be resettled. The road had
to be widened. The pavement was to be broken. So they would have to
move. “I was dying with happiness,” says Parveen. She had never imagined
that in her lifetime, she would live in a pucca house.
With tremendous excitement, the families moved to the distant suburb of Govandi. What they found was certainly pucca;
a seven-storey building identical to the hundreds scattered across
Mumbai as part of the slum resettlement scheme. But you stepped inside
and there was nothing. The rooms that were supposed to be their new
homes were just bare walls; no lights, no fans, no windows, no doors, no
toilet seats, no taps. Anything that could be stolen had been removed.
But they had a roof over their heads. And for that they were supposed to
The other side of resettlement is
rehabilitation. In their new neighbourhood, far from the old, Parveen
and the others could find no work. Parveen’s husband was a head loader.
Earlier, he could walk to the place where he got daily work. Now he
would have to spend a good part of what he earned to travel before
finding work. Women who worked as domestics in a mixed neighbourhood had
no work in an area inhabited entirely by people like them. So this was a
strange formulate for rehabilitation.
the area where most such urban poor have been ‘dumped’, as Parveen says,
is right next to Mumbai’s garbage dumping ground. According to a recent
journalistic investigation, people living in this area suffer from
acute health problems, particularly respiratory, and their life
expectancy is a third lower than that of people in other parts of
But the point of telling this story is not
just to paint the grim reality of being a poor person in a very rich
city, but also to recount the unbreakable spirit of women like Parveen.
Instead of throwing up her hands in despair, Parveen set about dealing
with the problem. With the help of her women’s group and support from
the federation of slum dwellers, they have fixed their building. There
are doors and windows and taps. There is water. There is even a lift,
something that they did not have for the first four years.
breathes fire when she speaks of the authorities and their attitude
towards poor people. But she will not let that get her down. What stands
out is her determination to fight the system by organising other women
like her. That surely is a recipe to deal with despair.