The New Indian Express, Aug 19, 2009 carried a couple of news items which were disturbingly similar. In the NATION page 7 it says
PREZ CALL FOR URGENT STEPS TO REMOVE MUMBAI SLUMS.
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:
CWG: NEW DELHI TO HIDE SLUMS
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.