It all started when I started questioning my conditioning. Though born in Bihar I grew up in various parts of India due to my dad’s transferable job. In due course I was introduced to various Indian cultures and sub-cultures which led me to think about the society we live in. At every stage in life the society tries to tell us what we are and what we are supposed to do. It’s like a concrete wall all around us with the text written all over it. We are not allowed to think differently at all. We are constantly made to think that we are in this world to do a certain kind of work in a certain way. Like I have always been told by my friends, relatives that, if we study well we get good paying job and we can live a happy and comfortable life. We’ll have a house of our own a luxurious car to drive and we can have a vacation in some exotic place in the world. We are taught in a certain way so that we can do certain job properly. The society tells or governs us by laying out the dos and the don’ts. The society further divides us with a very thin and invisible line around us, like religion, sect, caste, jati, varna, rich, poor, upper class, lower class, workers, labourers, managers, so on and so forth.
After experiencing this spectrum of division in society in my own life, there was a fight within. I posed questions, questions which were an integral part of the society. When I don’t get answers from others, I try to find them on my own. When I joined IIT Bombay, it was my first interaction with the city. Everything which was at the back of my mind came back up in my consciousness when I saw the extreme opposite realities of the city. The multilingual, multicultural society that people take pride in held within it multiple class divide, multiple economic divide. All of these were in Mumbai together (yet keeping their distance from each other) playing their respective roles. Class struggle is a constant fight, economic equality is in extremes, space is one of the major problems which also give birth to various other problems.
Everyone seemed to be very busy. No one had any time for anything in this world but their daily routine of home to work and back. And its true, the situation and condition of the city is so different from any other city, travelling is one of the major occupation of the people here, home to office and back itself is a struggle, Ignorance is what people accept as their daily emotion. People see inequality everyday but it has become a habit, people themselves have so many problems in their lives that the problems of others are negligible. In pursuit of happiness they have to earn money for which they travel three to four hours daily (some more than that), They sacrifice their family life, distance themselves from their ‘humanity’. Ignorance becomes the key to survive, money becomes a way to escape reality, a particular kind of transportation system becomes their lifeline. The idea of “me” and “I” overpowers their social responsibility, and a human is no more human here, they submit themselves to the condition and convert themselves into a machine without feelings and emotions.
Like in other metropolis, I see these amazing buildings, roads and hotels in Mumbai. We are trying to become a developed nation with good infrastructure, easy transportation, international cars and gadgets etc. But to build all this and to help our country compete with other ‘developed’ nations we need lots of money and lots of labour. Money is easy. People have created various ways to gain it, produce it and multiply it.
Now Mumbai is one of the most populous urban regions in the world, with a population of approx. 21 million according to 2011 census, Mumbai is also the richest city in India, and has the highest Gross Domestic Produce (GDP) of any city in South, West or Central Asia. Mumbai is also called the financial and commercial capital of India as it generates 6.16% of total GDP, it serves as an economic hub of India, contributing 10% of the factory employment, 25% of industry output, 33% of income tax collections, 60% of customs duty collections, 20% of central excise tax collections, 40% of India’s foreign trade and Rs. 4000 crore in corporate taxes. This is the land of opportunities. It has been for many years. People dream of coming here to try their luck… to be one of those who enjoy life to the hilt. It also lures them to do anything to be here and enjoy the endless pleasures of life.
But what about labour? Did the whole of Mumbai’s population contribute equally to build the city? Who actually contributed their sweat (and blood) to build this city? So then who’s GDP are we talking about? After adding such huge amounts of revenue to the Indian economy, why are there so many poor people in Mumbai? And why in this city of skyscrapers do we have the world’s largest slum, Dharavi? And the people who work night and day to provide the city dwellers like us comforts of this city cannot afford the ridiculously high property prices so they live in the city but in patches of inhumane conditions that are called slums and theyare called the “Urban Poor”. Now what does urban poor mean? This was the question I was asking myself. according to the standard definition.
There is no consensus on a definition of urban poverty but two broad complementary approaches are prevalent: economic and anthropological interpretations. Conventional economic definitions use income or consumption complemented by a range of other social indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, nutrition, the proportion of the household budget spent on food, literacy, school enrolment rates, access to health clinics or drinking water, to classify poor groups against a common index of material welfare. Alternative interpretations developed largely by rural anthropologists and social planners working with rural communities in the third world allow for local variation in the meaning of poverty, and expand the definition to encompass perceptions of non-material deprivation and social differentiation (Wratten 1995; Satterthwaite 1995a).
More than half the 21 million people living in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, live in slums. Over a period of time, policies and programmes for slum-dwellers evolved from “clearing” them to recognizing them and providing some basic amenities on a subsidized basis and then to granting tenure of land and offering services on a cost-recovery basis. In recent years, plans to rehabilitate slum-dwellers either in situ or at alternative locations by granting incentives to developers, have been drawn up and have begun to be implemented, albeit on a small scale.
Yet, until as recently as 1995, pavement dwellers were considered encroachers and remained outside the scope and ambit of slum policy. Over a period of time, while basic amenities were provided in some measure to slums as they gained ‘recognition’ or legal status, families living on pavements had no access to water, sanitation or electricity and were always faced with the real and present threat of eviction and demolition. And it was the women of these families, who raised their children and managed their homes as their men went out in search of work, who bore the brunt of the trauma inflicted by the demolition squads of the Municipal Corporation.
To know this I had to peep through the cracks of the metropolis to get a glimpse of the other side. For this I thought I needed to read various papersand articles written on the issue. But I soon realised that these are my secondary research material. I wanted to see the layered reality I was a part of for myself, and get a little deeper look at the other side. For which I would need to meet the ‘urban poor’ communities and engage with them in a dialogue.
I knew it would be difficult. After all here I was, someone who barely understood the issue, let alone have some suggestions for an alternative. And in my experience it’s very tough for a privileged person like me to talk to a person who is deprived of some of the most basic rights and yet it’s also a kind of inclusion when someone listens to them and wants to know about their condition. But for this you need to make them comfortable with you, you need to let them know that you are not yet another exploiter. You listen to their problems and people share their life. Such an exercise also brings forth my own personal discomfort. Of talking to and being confronted by people who are struggling to make ends meet.
To reach these communities I had to find a way that would lend me some credibility. People in Mumbai, are a busy set of people, most of all the people at the bottom of the pyramid and also, I didn’t have much time on my side to be able to spend with them to establish trust. Therefore, I chose a path through the people who they knew and trusted already, and whowere already working with them… I would be more like friend’s friend and then I can proceed with my work too.