Bombay is a city composed of microcosms – comparatively little self-sufficient communities oblivious to each others’ existence. The microcosm is a device this city and its people have adopted to accommodate so many human beings, all of them jostling for space and decent living conditions.
The slums in Bombay are no different. And considering more than half the city lives in shanties possessing varying degrees of shabbiness, it is apparent. In fact, the manner in which some slums in Bombay are segregated reminds one of archaic Indian villages divided along caste lines. The rag pickers, the toilet cleaners, all those performing menial tasks involving manual labour, those who are considered far beyond the long shadow of ‘development’ are quarantined. These are the modern-day sudras of Bombay. This report is about one such unfortunate community.
Gulshan Nagar, a predominantly Muslim slum in the suburb of Andheri is surrounded by the relatively prosperous slums of Shivaji Nagar and Ganesh Nagar, a mosque, and a middle-class Muslim apartment complex. The slum boundaries are stratified. Ganesh Nagar has small-scale industries and even a communal gymnasium. Shivaji Nagar, on the other hand has a Ganesh Mandal which hosts a gigantic Ganesh statue every Chaturthi. Both the slums have well-maintained public toilets and a relatively clean drainage system.
Out of sight behind a 7 ft wall and surrounded by a garbage dump, the 50 residents of Gulshan Nagar live in abject poverty and in unimaginable living conditions. Residents have piled cement sacks to enable them to climb the brick and mortar wall that separates the poor from the poorest but in their hearts they know it’ll take more than cement bags to break down the invisible social walls that keep them marginalized.
“I’ve been living in this slum for 25 years and not a thing has changed yet. Buildings have sprung up around us but progress has bypassed us” said Gulzar Ahmed, who works as a daily-wage labourer and earns roughly Rs.200 a day. The reasons, they say, are land disputes. No developer is laying claim to the 20 ft by 20 ft piece of land that residents of Gulshan Nagar occupy leaving them stuck in this ‘no-man’s land’. The surrounding patches of land which housed slums as early as 2 years ago have been converted into apartment complexes and the slum-dwellers have been handsomely compensated monetarily and also been provided with a flat in the apartments.
The problems that the lawaaris of Gulshan Nagar face are multifold. The lack of toilet facilities for the women is a major issue. The ladies are left with no choice but to squat in the dark in the garbage dump adjoining the slum, the only private space available to them in space-crunched Bombay. This leaves them susceptible to potentially lethal diseases like malaria, dengue, and cholera. Also, they stand the chance of being bit by rats and other insects in that breeding ground for vermin.
“My 5-year old sister falls ill almost every alternate day. We have requested the local corporator and complained to the municipal office to construct toilets for our use but to no avail”, said Rukhsana, a 13-year old who goes to an Urdu medium school nearby.
The cost of books and uniforms are a major deterrent for parents to send their children to school. Most of the women in the slum work as domestic helps in the flats nearby to bring home some cash. Sometimes, the children are also sent to work as dish-washers and cleaning boys for caterers in weddings and get-togethers in times of need.
Gulzar, who has been unsuccessfully fighting a lonely battle for 10 years to acquire a water connection for their slum, says the local officials haven’t provided them with a connection yet because being the poorest of the poor, they can’t grease the palms of officials like the well-organized Marathi-dominated slums like Ganesh Nagar. Gulzar says the residents of Ganesh Nagar also receive political patronage from the right-wing ‘son of the soil’ party Shiv Sena, which has been controlling the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for the last 15 years.
“Politicians used to arrive just before elections promising us water, electricity and toilet facilities. Now they’ve stopped coming altogether”, says Abbas, who arrived from Delhi 10 years ago to Bombay and has been living in the slum ever since.
Meanwhile, the water problem persists – two separate kinds – those of water-logging and lack of potable water. In Bombay’s relentless monsoon season, the lack of any protective wall separating them from the garbage dump ensures that their houses are overflowing with water carrying waste from the dump. Also, a drainage system for their slum is nonexistent leading to water-logging. “Jeena haraam ho jaata hai [It is difficult to live]. Luckily, people from the neighbouring mohalla help us store our more important valuables to save them from the rain”, says Gulzar. “We never know how we will survive the monsoon” says Rukhsana. Local corporators have turned a deaf ear towards their repeated pleas and letters to the corporation to install a drainage system.
They also don’t have potable drinking water. The residents of this slum have to climb the wall and carry water in disposable plastic tumblers from neighbouring Ganesh Nagar where almost every house has a water tap. However, when this reporter visited the local Shiv Sena office, Subhash, a party worker had something to say to the contrary. “They are pilfering water from our taps. I have seen them filling water inside their compound and also noticed a decrease in the flow of water in the Ganesh Nagar tap. On top of that they have the guts to come to our communal tap to fill water and claim that it is their own”, says Subhash. When this reporter questioned Gulzar about the veracity of this accusation he said, “Even a child wouldn’t say that.”
“Mazdoor hoon aur majboor bhi hoon. Shayad majboor hoon isiliye mazdoor hoon. [I am a desperate labourer. Maybe, I’m desperate that is why I’m a labourer] When I go out to search for work I am not thinking of anything else but the pay at the end of the day. To survive, we have to take up any job that comes our way, whether it is cleaning toilets or climbing into manholes”, said Gulzar. It is this hand-to-mouth existence that leaves the poor exactly where they are, unable to save money for their future and ultimately incapable of lifting themselves by their bootstraps, contrary to what many trickle-down economists would claim.