Sunday, January 04, 2015

Wealth issues

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 4, 2015

Unbreakable spirit: Parveen. Photo: Kalpana Sharma
Unbreakable spirit: Parveen. Photo: Kalpana Sharma

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, more peaceful?

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 peaking.

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 courage.

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.

Parveen 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.

Parveen’s 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.

Parveen 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 be grateful!

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.

Worse still, 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 Mumbai.

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.

Parveen 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.

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