Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Prince and the Pauper: The President of India on Mumbai Slums

The New Indian Express, Aug 19, 2009 carried a couple of news items which were disturbingly similar. In the NATION page 7 it says


President Prathibha Patil on Tuesday called upon Mumbai civic authorities to urgently tackle the problems of slums in the city. She said that the sprawling slums of Mumbai, which house nearly 13 million people (emphasis mine), presented a sad picture especially when they were surrounding posh multi storied buildings.

Now, I didn’t see the rest of the speech tho’ I tried locating it on the net. So this could be a case of quoted out of context. Having said that, I’d like to look at this statement of the first citizen of a nation of more than a billion people.

The implications of her statement are not very clear. Does a sad picture mean an eyesore that is aesthetically offensive, spoiling the appearance of the surrounding posh multi storied buildings?

I am not being cynical. What put this idea into my mind is another news item in the same paper in the back cover Sports page:


New Delhi is to hide the city’s poor during the 2010 Commonwealth games by erecting bamboo ‘curtains’ around their squalid shanty homes, the Daily Telegraph reports.

The games, the Telegraph says, was supposed to be India’s moment to show off its rapidly rising wealth and banish memories of a country once synonymous with chronic poverty.

New Delhi is littered with makeshift slums that house the millions of migrants who pour into the city in search of work from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Their inhabitants are seen naked at the roadsides washing at stand pipes or defecating astride open sewers.

Officials had planned to shift their settlements to the outskirts of the city so the city that the television viewers and visitors see is restricted to the capital’s gleaming new metro system and world class airport, and its smart new roads, pavements and streetlights. But now they fear they could not complete the resettling work and had opted to hide the problem instead.

One official said the govt was so desperate to clean up the city it is preparing to offer free rickshaws and retraining courses to those whose jobs clutter the pavements.

The most positive part of the second news item is that the government is thinking of only hiding the problem and not repeating a Turkman Gate of the emergency days here!

The two news items coming together on the same day reflect the thinking in the corridors of power. Once, the BJP Govt. at the centre carried out a frenzied campaign of India Shining but was thrown out of power by that part of India which did not shine.

The President’s remarks, I feel should not have been made in such a vague manner that it lends itself to ever so many interpretations.

This sight is not a matter of pride and the scenario should change, she went on to say. The report in the paper did not say anything about her concern for the 13million who live in the slums. Her words sounded like an embarrassed echo of the observations of officials of New Delhi from when she came.

The long and short of it is, the government of India, mesmerized by India Inc., finds the millions who have come from the villages to the cities in order to keep their body and soul together an embarrassment only – something to be swept under the carpet, while projecting to the world the image of a country with a quality of life enjoyed by a minuscule number of people in the country.

President Prathibha Patil on Tuesday called upon Mumbai civic authorities to urgently tackle the problems of slums in the city: She sounds so casual and callous. Did she come down from Delhi with a package for slum dwellers which will enable them to pack up and leave Mumbai and live comfortably else where for the rest of their lives? How she has trivialized the huge human problem that exists in the form of slums.

You might ask: What quality of life do these slum dwellers have in the cities.

I am ashamed to say that it was during my stay in Mumbai for six years that I realized that the slum dwellers are of the same material that I am made of. My maid’s children are intelligent and she wanted to send then to English medium schools so that they will have a better quality of life than she. She works hard to achieve that. She too chaperons her girls when they go for the Dandya. There was yet another help that I had who worked and continues to work herself to death to pay the rent of 1000/ per month for a tiny room, to feed her two children and to send them to school. And I discovered that they celebrated life much more than I did. They had that spring of optimism in their gait and stars in their eyes when they spoke of the next generation.

It is these dreams that the President of India and the officials in New Delhi do not see when they ‘other’ these human beings who litter the pavements of the metro. If the civic authorities pack them off without providing for a proper alternative income, they will be guilty of a heinous crime of a massive destruction of the livelihood, dreams and aspirations of a section of Indian population.

When Shabana Azmi took up the cause of the slum dwellers in Colaba whom the authorities were planning to relocate, I heard a lot of criticism from my peer group that she did it for publicity and for retaining the workforce from the slums on which South Mumbai depended heavily. Whatever the motives, I think we should appreciate her activism - for it prevented the annihilation of the dreams and hopes of a large number of underprivileged Indian citizens.

Am I saying that the slums must be allowed to exist as they are? No. But the city planners MUST factor in these millions when they do their job. It is not all about constructing a few buildings to relocate them. The authorities should not leave it to a few NGOs and social workers to make an effective relocation of the slum dwellers. In planning and budget allotment, the slums should figure as prominently as the flyovers and the sea bridges that pop up in big metros at an incredible speed.

The civic authorities need to reorder their priorities.

For no city or country can flourish on the ruins of the dreams and hopes of a large chunk if its citizens. No India Incorporated has a moral right to build its empire on these ruins.

Yes. These slum dwellers are citizens of India whom India could not take care of. So, instead of going under, they opted to survive. In the cities.

Once again, I am reminded of what the Gandhi so vehemently warned: India lives in her villages, he said. So take care of the villages and the cities will take care of themselves.

We did not take care of the villages. And if we cannot still do it, the cities must provide for these migrants from the villages. Even if it means we have to face and bear the embarrassment of the naked bottoms and littered street.


  1. india no longer lives in her villages nor it belongs to the poor. it belongs to a few people who are able to construct countless floors for their luxury living, billionaire brothers whose business rivalry is a concern for our parliament, people who grabs natural resources as if it is their ancestral wealth...!

    pratibha patil! had anybody heard of her before the presidential election.....?!

  2. teacher, you make a strong case for them. now, how do I make Prathibha Patil to read this? ( scratching my head!)

  3. It was me scratching my head(Sorry, i think I clicked the anon button by mistake)

  4. I'll tell you a word of mouth story I heard. It might be true, it might be false. It might be an exxageration...

    This is the story.
    The government had tried to relocate the slum dwellers and the downtrodden classes many times. These slum dwellers move to these flats only to lease and rent them to migrant workers/employees. They again move back to their favourite slum spots and build up tents until the government relocates them to a new place under public/political pressure. You presented the rosy picture of these slum dwellers where each one is hard working, diligent and part of an aspiring labour class.. but they also consist of goondas, murderers, rapists, and opportunists like the ones I descried in the scenario above.

    Is the government the only one to blame?

    I do not disagree with what you have said in this post. Just that, I feel there have been efforts.. but never fully effective because people come in shades of grey as well.

  5. @ deepak
    'but they also consist of goondas, murderers, rapists'
    you find them only in the slums?
    'They again move back to their favourite slum spots and build up tents'.
    that's what i meant when i said that the follow up of relocation should not be left to NGOs alone. i am aware of what you have pointed out.

    @ anon
    sadly, you are right.

    did scratching your head yield any results?:-)

  6. no and yes:)teacher
    No- Ms.president had her royal supper and sleeping peacefully in her palace. Pareltank blog did not come in her dream even.
    yes- reminds me I have to get more head and shoulder shampoo to prevent the flakes on my black coat due to scratching:)

  7. your friends are right about shabana azmi. she is no activist - it is a PR stunt, and A great actress - acting runs in her veins 24/7. I have had the chance to interact with her a few times and friends who work in the film and movie business also maintain a similar opinion about her

    i heard many stories of ms azmi from the stores in new york when she came to shop. it is not worthy even to write about them.

  8. She actually said that???
    Wow!Thats new heights.

    I have witnessed several demolations and relocations and reverse relocations in Mumbai slums. And sadly, its not all so easy and simple as it is portrayed.

    Yes, these people have encroached on government lands-but because they were not given place to stay or live. And there are people who had been living there for decades and asking them to relocate is asking anyone of us to leave our settled homes for paltry compensation. We think in terms of profits with our heads, but they think in terms of survival with their hearts.I dont even know whether we have the right to deny someone of their homes and filial envt?
    Why do goons and murderers go there?They are nurtured and cultivated by others outside the slums.And most of the time, these people exploit the slum people.

    And it is also true that government had built 'flats' for them and asked them to live there as compensation.And most of them didnt or rent it out and live in their slum dwellings. So this is much more than demolish,compensate and relocate.

    Slums has to be gone.But by the people in them...and there should be a conscious effort to help them make that change and empower them towards that

  9. You know about my old idea of nuking. Might as well mention that also the next time you feel the need for any cleanups.


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