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Slums dogged by bias

india Updated: Aug 26, 2009 16:06 IST
Sumana Ramanan

For the second time in the past year, readers have raised the uncomfortable subject of class prejudice in HT’s coverage. The first was during the terror attacks, when a few readers said we had given more space to the devastation in the luxury hotels than to the carnage at CST.

This time, a reader was upset about a July 30 front-page report about the state government’s move to recognise slums built between 1995 and 2000. Only slums constructed until 1995 are now legal.

“I was surprised that a liberal paper like yours is so biased against the poor residents of slums,” the reader wrote. HT had sensibly pitched the story as a sop to voters before the assembly elections. It would take a very deluded person to presume otherwise, namely that our ruling politicians’ hearts bleed for those down and out in Mumbai.

The report went on to look at what this would mean for the city as a whole, also an eminently sensible course of action.

The reporter said that first, the municipal corporation would have to provide services to the four lakh units that fall in this category, which would add to the burden on the city’s already scarce resources, and second, that eventually, the government would have to rehabilitate these estimated 20 lakh slum dwellers, which taxpayers would end up funding.

So far, so uncontroversial. After all, the reporter did not take any position on these two consequences: he did not evaluate whether the benefits of recognising the slums (they do exist, at least to the slum dwellers) outweighed the costs.

At the end, however, the reporter quoted architect Hafeez Contractor, who said politicians were pandering to “freeloaders” at the expense of “tax payers.”

This is what got the reader’s goat. “How about looking at people living in slums as citizens like you and me?” he asked. “How about asking Hafeez Contractor how many people working in his office live in these slums and are ‘freeloaders’?

“May be you should also ask yourself where your poor maid lives, before writing such amazingly lopsided reports to make your upper middle-class readers happy, but which also reinforce their prejudices against the poor, who their lives so comfortable at starvation wages.”

The reader had raised a complex question — of the rights of two different — some would say antagonistic — groups of people: the tax-paying middle class and slum dwellers.

It is true, as the reader argues, that the lifestyles of the middle- and upper middle-classes are predicated on the existence of a continuous source of cheap labour from the slums. If they want the cheap labour, they have to accept the slums.

Yet, many callously dismiss them as a blot on the city’s landscape, blocking out the uncomfortable truth that people live there, people who love, dream and hope like everyone else. (Swiss novelist Max Frisch pithily summed this up in another context, of Germans' attitude towards Turkish guest workers: “They wanted only labour, but human beings came instead.”)

Slum dwellers are not, as Contractor says, “freeloaders.” They contribute actively to the city's economy. Moreover, what about the burden to the city’s infrastructure and resources caused by the rampant construction of skyscrapers, often in violation of the rules?

Yet, it is also true that life for many honest, tax-paying members of the middle class is harsh, as many commute in appalling conditions and live in cramped flats, often with no running water. What about their rights?

A straightforward report about a government announcement cannot explore the complexities of this subject. It can only spark debate, as it has.

But even so, the report would have been stronger without Contractor’s quote. Or perhaps it should have been balanced with one from a housing rights activist or been qualified thus, “said Contractor, whose view typifies a mindset.”

This might have taken some of the sting out of his remarks – and the reader’s indignation. What do you think?