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Home / Analysis / In Indian cities, the quest for dignity

In Indian cities, the quest for dignity

Many cities still subscribe to an unhelpful policy which enjoins that the people living in “unauthorised” colonies are not eligible to get water and sanitation from the city, although they are “authorised” citizens, holding ration cards, working in the city and contributing to its economy.

analysis Updated: Oct 21, 2020, 06:25 IST
Renana Jhabvala
Renana Jhabvala
In India, between 25% to 40% of city-dwellers are estimated to live in what are euphemistically called informal settlements. However, a slum need not remain a slum forever
In India, between 25% to 40% of city-dwellers are estimated to live in what are euphemistically called informal settlements. However, a slum need not remain a slum forever(Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)

Cities in India are characterised by institutionalised inequalities. Planners, administrators and mayors prioritise policies and resources in favour of the influential middle-class, with little thought spared for those less fortunate, despite their making up a substantial portion of any city.

Geeta Devi used to live and work as construction worker at Yamuna Pushta in Delhi. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, she and another 30,000 other households were moved to Savda Ghebra area on the outskirts. “It was like coming to a wild jungle, with nothing around, no water, no toilets, no electricity and we had no house. We had to build our own kutcha house, every second day a water tank would come and we spent hours carrying buckets of water. We used the jungle for defecation. My children were often ill and I had to stop working, so we had very little money. We were in despair,” she said. She was poor — and expendable.

Babuben Patni, a vegetable vendor, after marriage, came to live in Ahmedabad City. She found that her area — Sinheswari Nagar — had only one public tap, no toilets. It had garbage piled up at the entrance of the area and was water-logged every monsoon. Apart from the residents contracting water-borne diseases, women such as Babuben faced the humiliation of having to defecate on the railway tracks nearby.

Geeta Devis and Babubens abound in every city, always characterised by the contrast between areas dominated by multistoried buildings, parks, shopping centres, malls and gyms on the one hand and ramshackle, tightly-packed dwellings without infrastructure on the other.

In India, between 25% to 40% of city-dwellers are estimated to live in what are euphemistically called informal settlements. However, a slum need not remain a slum forever. And, that is the story we tell in our book, The City-Makers.

Today, 20 years later, Babuben is the proud owner of a two-storey pucca house with her own bathroom and toilet. Sinheswari Nagar has drainage, and sewage and garbage is collected every day.

How did the change come about? Not overnight.

We detail a long-drawn-out process, involving a chain of actors, from individual households to a non-governmental organisation — Mahila Housing Trust — to officials and elected representatives of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, among others. My colleagues and I in the Mahila Housing Trust have worked for over 25 years to help convert slums into more liveable colonies. The real spark for change starts with the women in slum households who have to queue up to get water; who suffer humiliation when they have to defecate in the open or in badly-maintained public toilets; who have to look after those who get sick from the open festering drains. They are the most keenest on change.

The first step for change is for the households in a slum to agree that they will work together. Women must take the lead and form a Community Action Group (CAG), which then becomes the spearhead for action, beginning with finding allies such as a sympathetic elected official or the local administrator.

This often requires a financial commitment from the slum-dwellers and it is the task of CAG to collect the money and maintain accounts. Trust is important because these slum dwellers, most of whom are poor and working in the informal sector, have been cheated so often in the past.

Many cities still subscribe to an unhelpful policy which enjoins that the people living in “unauthorised” colonies are not eligible to get water and sanitation from the city, although they are “authorised” citizens, holding ration cards, working in the city and contributing to its economy.

Fortunately, the compulsions of electoral democracy assert themselves. Those in “unauthorised” colonies also happen to have votes; fortunately, programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Mission are kicking in. Consequently, the “unauthorised” restrictions are being relaxed — and where that happens, the slum slowly begins to transform.

Fourteen years later, Geeta Devi, says her “jungle” in Savda Ghebra has become a busy colony. This happened gradually as she and her neighbours formed a CAG, approached their MLA, the Delhi Jal Board and the municipal corporation. She took a loan and installed her own underground water pump and made her own soak pit. At first, her CAG was ignored by the authorities but as they persisted they began getting responses. Today, not only is she recognised by the authorities but was recently invited to be part of consultations for the Delhi Master Plan 2030.

The efforts of thousands of women like Geeta Devi and Babuben are paying massive civic dividends. Many planners no longer think of the poor as interlopers; instead, they are seen as useful citizens who need to be integrated into the physical life of the city if we are to have a sustainable future.

Renana Jhabvala is executive trustee, Mahila Housing SEWA Trust and co-author of The City-Makers

The views expressed are personal

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