A city and its hovels

Print edition : January 08, 2000

The impoverished residents of Mumbai's slums find several ways to survive, but there is no escape for them from economic hardships and shrinking opportunities.

IN the movies, the Mumbai slum is full of possibilities. The slum boy can discover a separated-at-birth millionaire twin, turn underworld lord, or at the end of the story, marry a tycoon's daughter. "Bollywood" images suffuse the imaginations of many you ng people in Mumbai's slums, where half the city lives. Imitation Nike shoes and Levis jeans are worn almost as uniform; posters of film stars and fast cars decorate shops and homes.

The Dangarwadi slum in West Andheri. Half of Mumbai's population lives in slums.-PUNIT PARANJPE

Cooper Hospital Naka is one of the places where this fantasy ends. By 6 a.m. hundreds of workers from the slums that sprawl across Andheri, a suburb, gather there, hoping someone will hire them for a day's work. Every few minutes, customers drive by in s mall trucks and even autorickshaws, depending on how many workers they need. Dozens of desperate workers mob them, offering to labour for just about anything. Wages start off at up to Rs.120 a day but dip to Rs.50 towards noon. Then, for the many workers who do not find work, it is time to trudge back home.

Ramanna Govindappa used to work in Lower Parel, Mumbai's industrial heartland. His job at Srinivas Mills earned him upwards of Rs.700 a month in 1983 along with benefits like Provident Fund and medical care. But that year Srinivas Mills closed down in th e wake of the Mumbai textile workers' strike of 1982. As other factories followed in quick time, hundreds of workers in the west Andheri slum of Dangarwadi were rendered jobless. Since then Govindappa has spent every morning at Cooper Hospital Naka. He i s getting older, and work is now harder to come by. If he finds work for 10 days a month, Govindappa counts himself lucky.

"I hoped that my children would follow me into a steady job," says Shankarappa Veerappan. "I wanted to educate them so they could have a better life." Instead, Veerappan himself lost his job when Madhusudan Mills closed down. He now works as a carpenter, earning Rs.120 a day for some 10 days a month. "I cannot afford to educate my children," he says. "It is much tougher to find proper work now than it was in 1977, when I came to Mumbai." Even those residents of Dangarwadi who still have work find times are hard. Bhimappa Topanna spent 10 years as a temporary worker at Phoenix Mills, earning Rs.160 a day. Phoenix Mills recently placed Topanna on a contract, which binds him to work 12 hours a day, instead of a regular eight-hour shift, and for no extra p ay.

In the wake of the industrial closures, Dangarwadi found other, sometimes distasteful, ways to survive. The slum rapidly grew into one of suburban Mumbai's main centres of bootleg liquor production. Media attention rapidly led to political intervention and brought an end to this cottage industry. When the Mumbai Police raided Dangarwadi after this year's Holi festival, more than 300 family-run stills were shut down. "Everyone is scared to resume the business," says Shivlingappa Thayappa. "But this is t he only work available here. We could make perhaps Rs.100 or Rs.150 every other day selling liquor. Now, all we can do is starve."

Gilbert Hill never had a large number of organised sector workers. This predominantly Muslim slum colony made its living from odd jobs and from the incomes of women working in nearby apartment blocks. A decade ago, opportunity seemed to beckon. Maqbool G arments was set up during the first flush of liberalisation to stitch shirts for garment export houses. A welter of smaller stitching units sprang up at Gilbert Hill, but Maqbool Garments, with 200 machines, remained the local giant. Now, it lies idle. " For the last four years," says foreman Nisar Khan, "we have not had work for more than 10 days a month, and we have not had a single order in the last two months."

Businesses such as Maqbool Garments were advertised as examples of how even slums benefited from the Government's policy of economic liberalisation. But the lived experience of workers at the unit suggests that liberalisation has in fact brought only pai n. Raju Chowdhury came from Gorakhpur five years ago to work at the unit. Piece work pays between Rs.3 and Rs.14 for every garment he stitches. So a typical 16-hour day would fetch him up to Rs.150. Since a one-room, eight-foot by 10-foot hovel in Gilbe rt Hill rents for Rs.700 a month and an up-front Rs.10,000 deposit, Chowdhury slept on the company's premises. That meant he could save enough to send a few hundred rupees home each month. Now, there is barely enough money to pay for food. The workers at Maqbool Garments survive on loans from its owner and spend their days wondering just how long this lifeline will hold out.

Even businesses not linked to global trade have been pushed to the wall. Ten years ago, Pankaj Nair along with four friends set up a small motor repair workshop. They did good business until Mumbai's stock-market-fuelled boom collapsed a few years ago. " Customers used to come to us because they could get their work done cheaper than elsewhere," explains Nair. "But now, even though people say things have started to improve, we have very little work. Larger businesses, which can offer credit, have started attracting all the business." Nair's partner Zubair Sheikh says: "A skilled welder demands up to Rs.3,000 a month. The point has come where I cannot afford to pay the workers."

The decline in the organised sector has hit Gilbert Hill. Mohammad Husain lost his job five years ago when the Mumbai soft drinks factory he worked for decided to contract out its driving operations. He now gets work occasionally, when extra hands are ne eded to make deliveries. "When he finds work," says Husain's wife Lalbi Begum, "we make enough money to see the day through. On other days he sits around playing cards."

The family survives on loans and Lalbi Begum's income of Rs.1,400 a month, earned by working as domestic help. Of this, Rs.800 goes towards repaying a loan taken to purchase a television set, leaving little for the children's education and other things.

After Ram Sharan Huriya, 47, moved to Mumbai from Varanasi, he made enough money in five years to buy a tenement at Gilbert Hill. Like Husain, he lost his job in a company to contract labour. Huriya's new job as a taxi driver provides him with no retirem ent benefits, and he is worried about the future. A surgical operation in 1994 decimated the family's savings. Huriya's son, the oldest of three children, has found work in a factory which makes glass curios, but the job brings in just Rs.600 a month. Hi s elder daughter earns Rs.30 a day checking plastic toys for quality. "If I were to start off in Mumbai today, there is no way I could have saved money or bought this room," Huriya says. "In 1969, things were much easier."

Looking for work in the Gulf countries is one route of escape. A few homes in Gilbert Hill have television sets and even the odd refrigerator, purchases made after years of work in abysmal conditions in Dubai, Sharjah or Dhahran. Anwar Sheikh saved enoug h money to start a textile business, but found his savings go down the drain in the recession two years ago. He paid a broker Rs.35,000 to find him a job in Mauritius, but was cheated. Two months ago, Sheikh put his last Rs.2,000 into a scheme, the Saki Naka Consumer Network, which promised loans. He received kitchen goods worth that amount, but no loan.

WOMEN have been the worst hit by the narrowing of opportunities. Shabana Rahman, 17, left her alcoholic husband a year ago and returned home. But her ailing father, Zafar Rahman, has been unemployed since he lost his factory job 10 years ago, and the fam ily is struggling to survive. Along with her sister Fatima and mother Chand Bi, Shabana stitches clothes for a garment dealer. A skirt brings in Rs.5 and a blouse Rs.3. If she makes Rs.300 a month, Rahman counts herself lucky. Saraswati Gupta weaves plas tic-wire baskets on a wage of Rs.8.50 apiece. If she spends on the baskets every minute she can spare after running her home, she can put together just six each day.

If cash is hard to come by, it also buys less and less each day. Maharashtra's collapsing public distribution system is on display at Gilbert Hill's ration shop 25-D-62. Sugar, for some reason, is almost never available against ration cards, but can be b ought here on credit at Rs.20 a kg; that is, at prices higher than that paid by middle-class consumers in nearby markets. Rice is sold, but only in the unlikely event that families can afford to buy 10 kg at a time. Husain Bi, a local resident, told F rontline that her family received only 12 litres of kerosene against its entitlement of 18 litres until a recent agitation led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Even now, the ration shop staff sometimes insist that kerosene is out of stock, and sell it at black-market rates.

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that undernourishment is common in Mumbai slums. That is not the only problem. None of the tenements this correspondent visited in Dangarwadi and Gilbert Hill had its own toilet, and the municipal facilities were clogge d with refuse. Drains in both colonies were overflowing, flooding shops and the municipal school in the main market area. Although the slum residents pay for the drinking water supplied by the municipality (at rates, which economist Madhura Swaminathan p ointed out, are higher than those fixed for other Mumbai citizens), they receive it for only a few hours each day. "For the first two hours each morning," says Lalbi Begum, "you only get a filthy yellow trickle. After that, there is barely enough to wash ourselves, let alone our clothes and dishes."

Gilbert Hill has over a dozen clinics. "I spend Rs.500 to Rs.600 each month on medicines for my four children," says Husain Bi, who lives in the Durai Chawl slum cluster, home mainly to Tamil migrants. Tending to sick children means women have less time to work, which again hits family incomes hard. Going to government health facilities at Cooper Hospital means taking time off from work, which is often difficult. Access to Cooper Hospital is also expensive because there is no bus service from Gilbert Hi ll. Municipal authorities are simply uninterested in addressing the roots of the health problems and the poor water supply and sanitation facilities in the area.

Some young people do try to escape the hardship. Early this year, Raushan and her younger sister Yasmeen were approached by a woman they knew only as Shameem to work full time as domestic help in nearby apartments. They took the job and left with her. When their father tried to trace them, he was told that the girls' employer was away on vacation. Increasingly desperate as the weeks went by, he tried to press his case at a mosque gathering. He was told by a small-time Congress(I) politician that he mu st have sold his own children. The police, too, were not of much help. The father faced a community boycott, which forced him out of his traditional occupation of chopping wood.

Recently, when the younger sister escaped from a brothel on Grant Road, the family learned the truth. Two other girls from the neighbourhood too had been forced to work in the same brothel. One of the girls died in November of AIDS (Acquired Immune Defic iency Syndrome). Helped by local CPI(M) activist Mahendra Singh, one of the sisters was taken for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) tests at Cooper Hospital. She tested positive. Doctors at the hospital advised a course of treatment, but her family cann ot afford the medical expenses.

This is the other side of Mumbai, the one that is not made up of spanking new office blocks, multinational banks and upmarket leisure arcades. The story did not feature on newspaper pages, which are full of aspects of Mumbai's supposed economic miracle.


BULLDOZERS knocked down 180 homes in the D.N. Nagar slum in Mumbai's West Andheri area in September. Their residents were moved to a transit camp nearby. If officials are to be believed, in 18 months these people will be able to move back into new homes complete with tiled bathrooms and running water. But not everyone in D.N. Nagar is convinced. Despite threats, residents of 15 houses have refused to move out until they have credible guarantees.

In 1998, Housing Minister in the Shiv Sena - Bharatiya Janata Party government Suresh Jain hit upon one of the most bizarre slum rehabilitation schemes. Slum land, he argued, could be handed over to builders for the construction of commercial complexes , with the builders in turn using part of their profits to build new houses for the residents of the slum. Jain set up a corporation, the Shiv Shahi Punarvasan Prakalp (SSPP), to execute the project. A Rs.600-crore loan to fund the SSPP was extracted fr om an extremely reluctant Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA).

Some of the 180 houses knocked down in D.N. Nagar in September.-

By the time the Shiv Sena-BJP Government was voted out of office in October 1999, not one of the 25,000 flats it had promised to build in September 1998 had come up. But before the new Nationalist Congress Party-Congress(I) government took office, the bu lldozers moved into D.N. Nagar. The idea was evidently to get the dwellings demolished for the construction of the first phase, which involved moving out 300 of the slum's 905 families. Most residents vacated quietly when R.K. Developers, the constructio n company, told them that the houses would be demolished in any case.

Anjuna Nalavare was among those who were less than convinced that the developer's deal was fair. A member of the Sitaladevi Cooperative Housing Society which negotiated with R.K. Developers on behalf of the residents, Nalavare believed that the develope rs were not putting all their cards on the table. All that the residents were offered was a photocopied agreement to sign, not an original document on stamp paper. The agreement promised to provide transit accommodation and a 225-square-foot residence in 18 months, but it was silent on just how many houses were to be built and where the residents would stay if the work was not completed as scheduled.

These were not the only problems. Although clause 3 of the agreement required the slum's residents to confirm that "he/she has taken full, free and complete inspection of the said sanctioned plans, drawings (and) designs" as well as "the booklet and othe r printed material in respect of the said guidelines," no plans or material was ever made available to them. The agreement itself is in English, a language almost no one in D.N. Nagar can read. The residents' society was not represented by legal counsel, giving R.K. Developers an obvious, and unfair, advantage.

In effect, the residents of D.N. Nagar were being asked to give up their dwellings in return for the promise of better houses. They have no guarantee that the promise will be kept. Rajiv Jain, a resident of the colony, claims that when he checked with th e MHADA, he was told that the Authority would not allow the transit camp to be run after 18 months. Moreover, the municipal authorities do not seem to be aware of the new construction plan, for in spite of the demolition, water and electricity connection s to the slum remain operational.

When Nalavare and Jain protested, reprisal was prompt. "A policeman showed up," she recalls. "He took me to the police station and advised me to sign the agreement." Jain received a visit from Shiv Sena workers on November 3, who, according to him, threa tened to evict him forcibly. He alleges that the construction company owner himself showed up on November 7 and spoke in a threatening manner.

Coercion is not the only problem with the D.N. Nagar project. For one, slum residents were not consulted about their housing needs before the building plans were prepared. Experience shows that inappropriate design often forces slum residents to sell th eir holdings and set up new tenements elsewhere. It is also not clear how the relatively high maintenance and operational costs of the high-rise apartments will be met by D.N. Nagar's poor residents. Clearly, the only people with any real interest in SSP P-type enterprises are builders, who would get prime land at relatively cheap rates.

The 15 families that have refused to vacate are fighting back. Jain has met Deputy Chief Minister Chhaggan Bhujbal, who has promised to investigate the affair. But without a review of the SSPP's basic premises and a commitment to make slum resettlement p rogrammes democratic, Bhujbal's promised involvement is unlikely to make a difference. The money being used to bulldoze slum houses and replace them with high-rise buildings could be better spent on improving the living conditions of slum dwellers.

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