A New Life for Resettled Slum Dwellers

October 25, 2007

Mumbai, India. October 2007. Jyothi Pujari will never forget what life was like in her squalid tin shack a hair’s breadth away from the railway tracks in the teeming city of Mumbai. She remembers the open drains, the constant battle for water, the endless bickering of neighbors, and the stench of the common toilets– all the wretchedness of the life of the urban poor at the bottom of the social and economic heap. But most of all she remembers the trains thundering by ever few minutes, their colossal wheels gnashing dangerously close, and her dread of an accident, of which she saw many.

Now, sitting in her new 225 square foot apartment in Mankhurd in the eastern suburb of the city where she and her neighbors from the track-side slum have been resettled, 37 year old Jyothi recounts how her life has changed. “There is peace now, and a huge sense of security,” she says. “We don’t have to face the horrific accidents, and I am no longer afraid. We can all sleep peacefully at night.”

Children now study and sleep better, and many are doing well at school

For the first time in their lives, the resettled slum-dwellers now legally own their own homes in Mumbai, after decades of living in constant fear of eviction because of illegal occupation of government land. The new brick and mortar apartments are also a huge improvement from the makeshift slum dwellings, especially during Mumbai’s fierce monsoon rains.

The running water and indoor plumbing are a particular benefit. “For the girls and the women, one of the best things is that each family now has their own toilet and bathroom,” says Jyothi, referring to the privacy and greater sense of security they now feel.

With clean water available, jaundice, typhoid, and gastrointestinal infections have been reduced, especially among the children. “In the slum, the children used to fall ill frequently and had to miss school often,” she says. “Now, that they are able to study and sleep better, many are doing well at school. School buses also come to this neighborhood – unlike in the slum that was always forsaken.”

The easy availability of once-scarce water has also brought a new sense of harmony to the community. “Earlier, everyone stole water from railway supplies. And, people were always fighting over water, over the toilets, over everything. Thank goodness, that is a now a thing of the past,” she adds.

Most people now have a TV and a fridge and sleep on beds

The move to the resettlement site has opened up many new vistas for earning livelihoods, especially for the women. Already, the more enterprising have adapted to the new surroundings by starting small shops within the complex. Some have opened beauty parlors while others have started to lay out their wares for sale alongside the broad streets, selling anything from vegetables to dried fish, to bangles and garlands.

Living standards have also improved. “Earlier, no one had a TV or a fridge, or a gas stove to cook on because the trains shook the ground violently,” adds Uday Kumar, Jyothi’s auto-rickshaw driver husband. Now, with rapidly rising social and economic aspirations, “everyone looks at what others have, and they want the same thing,” he says. “Most people now have a TV and a fridge and sleep on beds instead of mats on the ground. And they are motivated to work hard just to keep up with their neighbors.”

Families are getting better marriage proposals for their sons and daughters

The move to a better home environment with the growing trappings of a more middle class existence has given the resettled families a new sense of social identity and rising self-esteem. “When we lived in the slum, everyone looked down on us,” says Uday Kumar. “No one respected us, not the hospitals, not the police, nobody.”

“Now, I tell people with pride where I live and they treat us differently,” he says, visibly pleased with this new upward mobility that has fortuitously come his way. “It’s also easier to get a job, as people don’t suspect you the way they did when you gave the slum as your address.”

“What is more, families are now getting better marriage proposals for their sons and daughters,” he adds, speaking of the ultimate arbiter of social status in many an Indian community.

Harnessing the power of women

But, moving long-time tenement dwellers to better surroundings is one thing. Ensuring that their new high-rise complexes don’t become a vertical slum is quite another. To develop the communities’ capacity to manage their common environment, women’s groups – so effective in the rural setting- are being replicated in the ‘Mahila Milans’ that have been set up in each of the new buildings.

Although, playing an active role in community matters was a totally new concept for the women, the groups are meeting with much success. Unschooled Jyothi, once a domestic help in a Gulf country, was one of the first to come forward to join the new group.

Now, as president of the ‘Mahila Milan’ of her building, Jyothi has her hands full. She works tirelessly in the group’s office from 10 to 4 each day, entirely voluntarily, helping people in an endless number of ways - to get a ration card so that they can buy food and kerosene at subsidized prices, encouraging women to save, and counseling wayward children.

We have to work hard to make people change their age-old ways

Building the new community’s civic sense is an ongoing challenge. “People here have only known life in the slums,” says Jyothi. “We have to work hard to make them change their age-old ways.” Garbage is now collected from door to door each morning at a small cost of Rs. 20 per month. “I tell people that we will fine them Rs.50 if they throw garbage anywhere they please. The mere threat is sometimes enough to deter them.”

But, despite the community’s efforts, some matters remain beyond their control. The quality of construction of the buildings is often not the best, and leaking pipes are a continuing problem. “The main garbage dump also needs to be cleared regularly. We have taken up the matter with the civic authorities,” says Jyothi, hoping to resolve the matter soon.

I make it a point to keep a check on the young boys in our neighborhood.

Another challenge of resettling people from slums is recreating their strong community bonds. Despite the difficulties, or perhaps because of them, slum dwellers often share a deep sense of solidarity that transcends other differences. In the new complexes, conscious efforts are therefore being made to bind the new community together and prevent the new apartment blocks from growing into anonymous dens of big-city crime, alienation, and decay.

Solid bonds are being fostered among the melting pot of peoples from across the country – in a telling indicator, government schools in the area teach in 7 different regional languages. “We celebrate all festivals – be it Onam, Pongal, Eid, Christmas or Diwali, says Jyothi. “And we are always there for each other in times of need,” she adds, voicing the old credo of the slums.

“We also have a Police Panchayat,” she says proudly of the group that has been formed to keep the peace. “We get together to take on drunken and abusive husbands, arbitrate in domestic disputes, and generally tackle small problems,” she says. “I make it a special point to keep a check on the young boys in our neighborhood. The adolescent children are now generally better behaved than when we lived in the slums. More than half of them won’t answer back roughly, be rowdy, or try and skip school.”

We began with just three women in our savings group. Now, we have more than a thousand.

Jyothi emphasizes the importance of saving to all the women she meets. “When we lived in the slums, people were wary of giving their money to others to save. I had to go from house to house explaining the value of saving for the futureÉ for the children’s education, for an illness in the family, for anything,” she says. “We began with just three women in our savings group. Now, we have more than a thousand,” she says.

“I also tell the husbands that their wives must help in managing family finances because the women know what is important in bringing up a family. That’s why it’s important for women to earn,” she says decisively, a natural proponent of women’s empowerment.

The small loans have helped families to meet large or unforeseen expenses – from daughters’ weddings to start up funds for small shops. “I myself took a loan to buy my husband his new auto-rickshaw,” she beams.

The road ahead

As the president of the women’s group, Jyothi has successfully donned the mantle of a leader. She is now moving the authorities to provide a playground that is large enough for the young boys to play cricket, a perennial favorite. “That should hopefully keep them out of any trouble,” she says.

To keep up with the times, Jyothi watches the television news regularly. “I learn a lot about the kind of problems women and children face – rape, abuse, dowry etc. We women then discuss these things,” she says, every inch the leader.

Articulating her hopes for the future, she talks of introducing training for the mostly illiterate women – wives and daughters of some of the poorest people in the city – so that they can help raise their families’ incomes.

Although the process of resettlement in Mumbai is now almost complete, it remains to be seen how the community will fare in the years ahead – how well they will hold together, keep the sense of harmony, manage the common areas such as the corridors and lifts, carry out the regular whitewashing of walls, and deal with repairs to infrastructure.

Much work still remains to be done, but an important new exercise in radically improving the welfare of the urban poor in India has well and truly begun.