Slumming it no more

Sadhavi Sharma reports from Bombay where thousands of slum dwellers are being moved into gleaming new flats, and asks: why are greens so down on this inspiring initiative?

Sadhvi Sharma

Topics Politics

BOMBAY — In India’s largest and most populous city, some 6.5million people still live in slums. They are enveloped in squalor and poverty. In the northern part of the busy and fast-growing commercial metropolis there is the 9,000-hectare Sanjay Gandhi National Park. A vast green expanse within the city limits, it has long entertained nature-lovers, bird-watchers and morning joggers – as well as being home to 33,000 families living in mud huts and shanties.

This won’t be the case for much longer. In a landmark development initiative, the Indian authorities will move 12,000 of these families to new flats in a modern township in the northern suburb of Chandivali by the end of the year; the township will have homes, a hospital, schools and other facilities. It will only be a few miles from the shanty villages in Sanjay Ghandi National Park, but the specially-built township will feel like another planet for the families who move there.

The movement of thousands of people from squalor into civilisation is part of the largest urban rehabilitation scheme in recent times in Asia. And hopefully, it will serve as a model for future development programmes in India and elsewhere. For 7,000 rupees (£85), the new tenants of Chandivali will be given a flat worth more than 1.1million rupees. It’s a good deal, which the people who formerly eked out an existence in shacks in Sanjay Ghandi National Park more than deserve. And yet, some environmentalist voices in India are celebrating the movement of slum inhabitants from the park as a victory for nature rather than for the families.

A drainage stream running through
one of the shanty towns in Sanjay
Ghandi National Park.

For prominent greens in Bombay, the great thing about the movement of thousands of people is that it will help to protect animals and plants from the ‘carbon footprint’ of the poor. From this anti-human perspective, damage to the park is a more pressing issue than the fact that people live in appalling conditions. The debate about this inspiring development initiative in Bombay captures two things very well: the fact that the Third World poor still have high aspirations for a better life, and the topsy-turvy attitude of environmentalist groups who really do put the earth, rather than people, first.

Despite the fact that it is an admirable and progressive development, the movement of the families came about as a result of action to protect forest land. In 1995, the Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) filed a Public Interest Litigation against encroachment on forest land. In 1997, the Bombay High Court ruled that the ‘encroachers’ – that is, the thousands of families living in slum conditions in the park – should be evicted. Under Indian law, the government has a duty to rehouse people who settled in slums before 1995; so it proposed moving the slum-dwellers of Sanjay Ghandi National Park to Kalyan, an area of land outside of Bombay’s city limits.

Some people were not happy with this decision. Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti (NHSS) is an NGO that represents the interests of slum inhabitants. It protested against the planned demolition drive that would effectively render thousands of families homeless, and demanded that first alternative housing for all should be built and made available. The NHSS, and the vast majority of slum dwellers, also rejected the planned move to Kalyan, arguing that the area was unsuitable to live in and lacked access to public amenities. Residents in Kalyan also reportedly opposed the plan to have former slum inhabitants move into their part of town.

Because the slum dwellers’ objections to being moved to Kalyan in the late 1990s meant that forest land was still being encroached upon, green activists began expressing hostility against the ‘slum people’. Even now, BEAG, the environmentalist group that first filed the lawsuit to have the ‘encroachers’ evicted from the park, is disturbed by what it considers to be the slum dwellers’ choosiness. Debi Goenka, president of BEAG, tells me: ‘Slum dwellers think they have a god-given right to settle wherever they want to.’

Last month, after a decade-long wait, the relocation programme – to the new Chandivali township rather than to Kalyan – finally began. Some families have already moved into their new homes; others are waiting for their documents to be verified at the rehabilitation project office set up by NHSS and government officials in Goregaon, a Bombay suburb that borders Sanjay Ghandi National Park. When I arrive at the office – a room with three desks and a couple of droning ceiling fans – eager and anxious slum dwellers are waiting in a long, stationary queue. One, 63-year-old Shekhar Viswas, first came to Bombay from Calcutta in 1947; he has lived in slums ever since. He shows an affidavit, a voter’s ID card and a family photo to the forest officer sitting behind one of the desks. He is then given his allotment papers for his new modern flat in Chandivali. I ask him if he’s pleased. He says he hasn’t checked out his new place yet, but he imagines it will be very nice.

For those who have been living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park for 10 or even 20 years, without access to running water or electricity and with the constant fear that their homes will be demolished, the shift to secure accommodation with civic amenities is a huge step forward. Satyabhama lives in Azad Nagar (which ironically means ‘Free Land’), a shanty area in the park. She works as domestic help in nearby apartment complexes and is her family’s sole breadwinner. Her husband suffered a nervous breakdown, she tells me, after the repeated demolition of their home by often corrupt local officials. She’s delighted that she will soon get a new flat, complete with electricity, as her four school-age children will be better able to concentrate on their studies. What aspirations does she have for her kids? ‘I certainly don’t want them to scrub utensils in other peoples’ homes like I do’, she says.

A slum dweller relaxing on a second-hand couch.

Gayatri Devi is another resident of the park awaiting her allotment papers. Her home has been demolished several times in recent years, too. She simply rebuilds it each time, with jute sacks and plastic sheets. She is looking forward to moving to the new township, asking: ‘Who would want to live in darkness all their lives?’

I visited some of the hutments that line the forest land. They are mostly flimsy and dingy mud huts with thatched roofs and walls made out of asbestos sheets; the huts are crammed into narrow lanes with drainage water running everywhere. Some huts are made simply of plastic sheets and bamboos; none has electricity or running water. The nearest water source, a municipal pipeline that the slum dwellers have tapped into, is a 15-minute walk. Most of the residents take odd jobs or work as domestic help. One 14-year-old girl I met says she threads beads together to make earrings; if she makes 100 pieces a day, she can earn 12 rupees (15p). Many of the residents of the park are migrant workers who came to Bombay with the hope of improving their lives. They might once have been described as migrants or ‘the aspirant poor’ – now they are looked upon by some as ‘encroachers’.

For all the enthusiasm and excitement amongst slum dwellers who will soon move to a gleaming new town, some environmentalists are mainly concerned with getting the forest land back to its ‘original’ state. Their main concern seems to be that ‘unchecked encroachment’ on forest land and around streams and rivers has disrupted the natural habitat of wildlife; Sanjay Ghandi National Park is home to diverse species of plants and animals, some of them rare. According to this green outlook, it is imperative to get people out of the park because nature needs to be protected, not because poverty needs to be eradicated. Encroachers apparently threaten the bio-diversity of the park.

When I ask Debi Goenka, president of BEAG, about the Chandivali re-housing project, he says it is ‘the most anti-progressive move’. ‘It is not progressive’, he declares, ‘to reward someone who breaks the law with a free flat.’ Goenka acknowledges that the living conditions in urban slums are terrible, but he demands to know why these people ‘chose to come to Bombay in the first place’. He thinks that one of the dangers of the slum rehabilitation project is that it will only encourage more people to come to cities: others will see the slum dwellers of Sanjay Ghandi National Park being ‘rewarded’ with a new flat for their law-breaking ‘encroachment’ of the park, and will be tempted to do likewise. Would that really be a bad thing – for poor families to head towards cities where they might eventually be housed in decent accommodation with amenities?

Goenka insists that BEAG’s fight is with politicians and ‘slum lords’ who have encouraged encroachment on forest land. It is true that the slum dwellers are vulnerable to exploitation and violence, including repeated house-demolition and even extortion at the hands of forest officials and local goons. Yet it does not help slum communities to describe them as encorachers who must be evicted, and to treat their demands for decent housing in clean and safe parts of the city as tantamount to making wild and unjustified demands.

Since BEAG finds it deplorable that people who break the law should be rewarded with modern flats, I ask Goenka where he thinks the slum dwellers should go. ‘I didn’t encourage them to stay in the park, so it’s not my concern’, he replies, flatly. Islambhai, another slum dweller, told me: ‘If these people don’t want us around, then they should at least be concerned about our welfare otherwise. Some of them love animals more than human beings.’

Slum dwellers access water from a municipal water pipe that serves Bombay.

As thousands of families head from the slums of Sanjay Ghandi National Park to the rehabilitation offices in Goregaon and then to their new homes in Chandivali, we can glimpse the impact that human design and effort can have on poor people’s lives. The city of Bombay is incorporating the extremely poor into its boundaries and giving them somewhere to live. At the same time, however, a sense of misanthropy is palpable in the discussions about the park slummers. From the initial court case to have the ‘encroachers’ evicted to the complaints from BEAG and others about the poor being rewarded for damaging nature, we can see what happens when nature is elevated in importance over man: even a great movement of people from destitution into something approximating modernity is looked upon as problematic and slammed for sending out the ‘wrong signs’ to other poor people.

BEAG is only taking today’s politics of environmentalism to its logical conclusion, where the whole of humanity is effectively seen as ‘encroaching’ on planet Earth. As Goenka says: ‘If the slum dwellers have to depend on trees for their proteins, depend on forests for their resources and income, then their relationship with nature is far from symbiotic. It is exploitative.’ He continues: ‘Just as we are taught to be respectful to weaker sections of society, as a powerful species we ought to be responsible towards those [in nature] who can’t speak, have no money and no votes.’ Perhaps we residents of Bombay should campaign for the right of the trees, birds and leopards in Sanjay Gandhi National Park to have a say in the next national election…. This view of humans as encroachers and exploiters of nature captures the central tenet of environmentalism: that man is a plague on the planet and should tread carefully and respectfully rather than being ‘arrogant’.

Well, let us be grateful for the human ‘arrogance’ behind the decision to rehouse thousands of poor families in Bombay. The Chandivali project is a groundbreaking move in a city where millions still live in poverty; if it gets other poor people demanding better homes and living conditions, then that is all to the good. For those inhabitants of Sanjay Ghandi National Park who will soon move to their new flats, the shift means more than a change of address: it also means a change in lifestyle, a move towards modernity, a step in the right direction. The more people we can bring into the modern world, the better.

Sadhavi Sharma is a writer living in Bombay.

Previously on spiked

Sadhavi Sharma said it was backward to worship a Bollywood actress and explained why patronising gifts for the Third World get her goat. Kirk Leech reported that many in Gujarat welcomed the Narmada Dam and noted that, in India, sanctuaries created to ‘protect’ species have turned people into animals and animals into the kings of the jungle. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

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Topics Politics


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