February 20, 2005

In perspective : Slum Demolitions in Mumbai (Vidyadhar Date)

[www.sacw.net | 20 February 2005 ]

In perspective : Slum Demolitions in Mumbai
by Vidyadhar Date

The current controversy over the demolition of thousands of huts in Mumbai reminds me of Shakespeare's classic play King Lear. In one of the greatest scenes in world literature King Lear realizes the plight of the poor and the houseless in his kingdom when he himself is thrown out of the door by his daughters.

Lear discovers that there is a far bigger tragedy in the world than his own personal suffering He realizes that he has taken too little care of the poor in his kingdom. He wonders how the poor houseless heads were defending themselves in cruel weather.

The realism of the play is so stark and it disturbed the establishment so much that for nearly a century after 1661 the play's tragic ending was changed and a happy ending was provided during performances.

Lear undergoes a radical change in his outlook when he experiences suffering himself. King Lear is Shakespeare's most mature play with a wide social outlook. No other play of Shakespeare has such words as poor, beggar, wretch, bare, charity, houseless , at least not to any significant level..

Like Lear our rulers too need to understand the plight of the houseless. This is not to suggest that all encorachers should be given protection and allowed to live in Mumbai.What needs to be understood and emphasized is that people migrate to Mumbai because life is much worse in rural areas. But the ruling class does not want to admit its utter failure to solve problems in the villages where India still truly lives despite all the urbanisation.

So, the government should pay more attention to solve problems in rural areas, that would take care of problems in urban areas, there would be no or less migration. For those talking of converting Mumbai into Shanghai the latest issue of Time magazine should come as an eye opener and a setback. It depicts the brutal way the city is being built at the cost of the ordinary people and life. It quotes an architecture professor Mao Qizhi as saying that "if other cities copy Shanghai we would have disaster on our hands." More ironical is the fact that the city is being developed by the son of Albert Speer, the architect of Adolf Hitler who is notorious for ugly fascist architecture.

Our ministers need not themselves become houseless like Lear to realize the gravity of the problem of houselessness. But they could certainly start experiencing the problems of the people in other ways.

When the government was criticized recently for the move to buy Skoda luxury cars for ministerial use, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh posed a counter question "are ministers to use buses or trains if not cars ?" The answer would be yes, at least on some occasions the ministers can do that.

Ministers is so many European countries are known to walk to work or travel by trains or bicycles. There is no earthly reason why this cannot be done here at least occasionally and not as a stunt. Vested interests always say such things cannot be done here, this is a different country but the same people think nothing of imitating the worst Western models here.

In the land of Mahatma Gandhi a simple life style should come naturally to most people. Gandhiji seldom used the motor car and when he travelled by train, he chose to travel by third class and he was not happy with trains too as he felt they travelled too fast and in a way did violence to nature.

His simple but architecturally excellent ashrams have inspired many architects and no history of Indian architecture can be complete without a detailed reference to the ashrams. Mr Nripen Chakraborty, former chief minister of Tripura, who died recently, had only a steel trunk for his possession when he started his tenure as chief minister and that was his only possession when he left office. He was a dedicated member of the Communist party of India (Marxist).

The leadership of most right-wing parties is far removed from people . In Mumbai state legislators think nothing of taking a special bus provided by the government to travel the short distance from the MLAs' hostel to Vidhan Bhavan, a distance of not more than 200 metres.

Many bureaucrats live bang opposite Mantralaya but take a car to travel that distance.There is so much talk of car pooling, which is a good idea, and there is no reason why this cannot be done occasionally in the case of ministers residing in their sprawling official bungalows at Malabar hill.

The two Congress parties have now woken up to the issue of slums because municipal elections are approaching. The problem is they look at people as vote banks and not as human beings, so it is better for the parties to keep people living in uncertainty and filth and threat of removal so that they can cash on their votes.

Mr Bhaskar Ghose, a retired IAS officer, former union secretary for cultural affairs and sensitive human being, recently wrote of the insulated lives bureaucrats live. Everything from their travel arrangements to household work and getting things repaired is taken care of by the state machinery. Mr Ghose said when he retired he realized what it means to live a life like ordinary people as he did not have any help in doing everyday chores and other jobs.

Ministers are in an even more privileged position. Far from setting an example in simple living, they are displaying wealth and celebrating marriages with pomp. The wedding of public works minister Chhagan Bhujbal's nephew at Bandra Reclamation ground recently is a pointer. Mr Bhujbal , an OBC, has suffered because he is not a Maratha. But as a follower of Mahatma Jotirao Phule, the social reformer, he has added responsibility of performing a marriage ceremony in the simple manner which was part of the the Satyashodak Samaj movement.

It is a pity that the progressive legacy of Phule has been negated by some of his followers. The most recent betrayal of this movement is the embracing of a new religion called Shiv Dharma by some people led by Mr A.H. Salunkhe, a scholar who had won considerable respect with his rationalism and writing which included the depiction of the subsidiary status given to women in India since ancient times.

The priorities for ministers are quite different. The union minister for civil aviation Praful Patel laments that our airports are neglected and there is absolute need to provide connectivity by air. That would be fine provided the basic needs of the common people are taken care of. Unfortunately, even basic infrastructure is ignored when it comes to the people. It is a scandal that the pedestrian bridge at Charni road station broke down recently and a major accident was averted. There is no proper connectivity even for walking for ordinary people.

I was in Shrirampur (formerly Serampore) in West Bengal famous for the work done by William Carey , a protestant missionary in the 19th century, in translating the Bible into several Indian languages and writing their grammars. This is a district town and I found at the railway station that it has no overhead bridge. As a result people are forced to cross railway tracks at great risk to their lives. Some people are worried about traffic jams and the inconvenience caused to motorists. Do they realize that there are major jams on railway bridges too because the space is so small and commuters are so many. That is the state of infrastructure in this country when it comes to the ordinary people. It is all right to have modern airports, but it does not mean you impose the most humiliating conditions on ordinary commuters.

Coming back to the housing question, last week I saw an excellent film 'A Raisin in the Sun' at the American Center featuring Sidney Poitier among others. The film made in 1961 shows among other things a black or rather Afro-American poor family's struggle in a white-dominated society. The family buys a house in a white locality and soon a white man comes to them talking sweetly and saying they should live among their own folk, it is much better for you guys. Moving to the white locality would create problems, the crafty fellow says.

Similar sorts of words are being used by some of the defenders of globalisation now to the urban poor. They are being told, you should not stay here, your are illegal and you should relocate yourselves. This city is only for us, the better off, the middle class and the like. The Mumbai high court showed some humanitarian concern when it observed earlier this week that night shelter should be provided to the poor, if not housing.

Recently, an architect made a sinister argument, blaming Medha Patkar and leftists for promoting the growth of slums in Mumbai.

All sorts of arguments are being invented to turn the attention from the real problem, government's failure to carry out its basic function to provide housing to the people or at least to ensure that ;prices of land and other sectors are checked ..

Slums and homelessness is not just a local problem confined to Mumbai. If it was the handiwork of a few people as some would argue, how is it that this is increasingly becoming a more and more acute global problem ? It is caused primarily by economic inequalities and the policies of globalisation. Let us face it.This comes from none else than the United Nations body UN Habitat in its exhaustive report. . But some people refuse to accept the bitter and harsh reality of the failure of governance.

Some people may not agree with Medha Patkar's agitation but it is a good sign that she has broadbased her struggle to include issues other than the displacement caused by the Narmada dam. She is already collaborating with activists involved in other struggles and heads the organization called National Alliance for People's Movements.