Abandoned Hopes

By Shreya Sachan and Sujata Sarkar

It’s surprising that for a city where people yearn for a roof over their heads, Mumbai has a fair amount of abandoned buildings, crumbling edifices, and vacant land plots. The reasons are plenty: buildings under legal or other dispute – usually between landlords/redevelopers and tenants and their heirs or the state and citizens; forsaken redevelopment of plots especially when the developer runs out of cash; or abandoned just due to plain old bad luck. For this photo essay, we visited three sites. The first one was a house in Chembur where a sole woman tenant rebuked us for shooting pictures of her house. The second one was a shut-down hospital in Koparkhairane, now a site for petty criminal activity and obscene graffiti.  The third site was a Transit camp for displaced families at Mankhurd.

Chembur 2

Chembur 3

High Court order

Hospital Navi Mumbai 2

Hospital Navi Mumbai

Transit Camp

Transit Camp 2

Silver Screen Dreams

Mumbai’s Andheri West neighbourhood attracts single young women keen to find a foothold in the celluloid city. But this city is not an easy one to call home.

Text by Nayantara Nayar
Photos by Saurabh Kumar

It is 7 pm when I walk into the Starbucks at Infinity Mall in Andheri West. The place is packed but I have an inside man who points me to an empty table in the corner. It has the perfect vantage point as it overlooks the entire café. Undoubtedly, this must be the preferred spot for casting directors on the lookout for the next new face. Or perhaps, this is where the actors perch themselves trying to tell the producers from the rabble. My own goal isn’t very different – I am there to test out a theory: ‘Go to any coffee shop in Andheri after six and every other woman you see there is a struggling actor trying to make it in Bollywood.’

“Andheri became the central point of the production houses only in the 1990s,” says Ajay Punjabi, a real-estate broker with Regal Estates, located in Lokhandwala Complex. “Before that it was mostly residential.” It still is mostly residential but the difference seems to be the kind of residents moving in. “In a day I get about ten enquiries for homes,” Ajay says, “and I can confidently say that nine of those are from young single women looking for housing in Andheri. They’re usually either in media or want to get into Bollywood.” IMG_0648-2 use this

The story of the struggling actor/writer/model/singer/director slumming it in Mumbai isn’t very new – the city has been a beacon for starry-eyed youngsters from all across the country for decades, but today with spiralling rent costs and fewer industry openings, how do young women, who put everything on the line and move to Mumbai, manage?

This is the question I ponder as I watch a stylishly dressed young woman, pointed out to me as a struggling model, order her third round of chai-tea latte. Starbucks is not cheap, and surely if one is struggling the sensible thing to do is avoid coffee at Rs 230 a pop?

“You would think so,” says Chandni, a 23-year-old make-up artist who tried life in Mumbai but found it too expensive, “but image is everything with people here.”

“If you want to get into the industry, you have to make contacts. When I was training at Fatmu we’d get models in a lot, and they were always running off to coffee houses and swanky bars just because someone says, ‘Oh all these big shots from this production house hang out here’ or ‘I saw this actor over there’ so they’d have to be there too. Not being seen at those places means you don’t exist,” explains Chandni, who’s now back in hometown Chennai.

Just then my contact gestures to me. “There’s a man who does casting – in a red shirt, sitting by himself,” he whispers furtively as I approach him, “just talk to him.”Bhavya, a struggling actress from Lucknow, demurs, “I think when people say you have to be seen here or seen there they aren’t getting it correctly. Yes, contacts matter but at the end of the day being in a coffee shop will only get you so far. I’m still new to this but I find I make my best contacts by being persistent and approaching the right people repeatedly. That way you also have time for other things.”

“Not everyone can make it here. Eight or nine of the people I talk to on a weekly basis are women from outside Mumbai who want to become stars or big-shot models.”

The man I am pointed towards is Kuresh, and though he won’t tell me exactly what he does, he is quick to say that he isn’t an agent but more a liaison. He knows producers and casting directors in the big companies, and he knows a lot of aspiring actors, writers and the like, so he simply puts them together.

“I don’t conduct auditions,” he says his eyes constantly flitting around the room, “I take peoples’ profiles and portfolios, and if I hear about a role they might be good for, I tell them.” What he gets out of this is unclear but he bypasses that question and tells me instead of how one of the people he helped is now doing television serials. “Not everyone can make it here. Eight or nine of the people I talk to on a weekly basis are women from outside Mumbai who want to become stars or big-shot models.”

These young women arrive in Mumbai every day, some supported by their families and others not. Those who have family support manage to live in relative comfort, if not in luxury but those women that have no support, work several jobs to sustain their dream.

“They’ll struggle for a year or two,” says Kuresh, “but as they stay on it becomes harder. They need to be able to afford things like acting classes, regular photo shoots, dance or speech training. Eventually some just pack up and go home.”

Bhavya, who moved here in June last year, says “I came with my mother so at least I had that, but it took us a long time to find a home in Oshiwara. No one wants to help single women.” IMG_0693-2 this

Ronak Makhji, working at Landmark Real Estate Agents, agrees, “Only you can’t really blame the people who are in the societies. When women are by themselves they have parties or have men over and drink and smoke – the buildings they are living in have young children, so it isn’t nice. I think mostly they come here because it offers so much more freedom than their homes, and then they lose direction.”

The fact that young single women find it the hardest to get flats is something that no one I speak to denies. To most people it seems a foregone conclusion. “With things like call girl centres being run out of apartments in respectable areas, what do you expect? The societies here are very strong and they don’t want that kind of thing to ruin the neighbourhood,” says Ajay.

Chandni, however, finds that unfair, “It took me some time to find a place and even then people were really suspicious of me, being a young single woman in the film industry, but honestly I was just there to do my work and get out. Most of us don’t have time for anything else. Even the people who come home late and wear these so called ‘indecent clothes’ have to, it is part of the job to be on call all through the day and to present yourself a certain way.”

Andheri and places nearby like Versova and Oshiwara are very attractive to young women because these areas are considered safer. “I can wear what I want here and walk around at 12 in the night too,” says Mithali, a 20-year-old college student and aspiring actress living in Andheri. “I don’t know if that’s true of everywhere in the city.”

However rising prices are pushing strugglers further and further out towards parts of the city that aren’t as safe or easy to navigate. But the call of the silver screen is too strong to let this matter, “I’m here to become an actress,” says Bhavya, “and I knew it was going to be hard. Honestly Mumbai is a good place for us, because even though it rains a lot, the people here are nicer.”

Even as space in the city grows more expensive, young women and men stream in, hoping to get a break in the film industry which is one of the largest and most successful employers of young people. But the industry is also deceptively misleading. “There are a lot of fake auditions,” admits Bhavya, “with people just trying to rope in young girls and get their information to take advantage of their ignorance. You have to know how to tell the difference and only being here and experiencing this will show you how to really survive here.”

(All photographs are for representational purposes only)

The Nightmare that is Lallubhai Compound

If you want to know why Mumbai’s slum dwellers don’t buy the government’s relocation and rehabilitation plan, visit Lallubhai Compound, Mankhurd’s ‘infamous’ resettlement colony.

Text By Rajendra Jadhav
Photos By Arjun Chavah

Till eight years ago, Vinod Narkar used to live in a slum in Parel. Now he lives in a building in Mankhurd and says “life here is worse than the slums”. Narkar, aged 27, is a resident of Lallubhai Compound (LBC), a cluster of 65 buildings which were built under the Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) to resettle slum and chawl dwellers displaced as a result of Mumbai’s zealous development.

Narkar along with some friends and neighbours is part of a ten-member group that has recently carried out a social audit of LBC under the Youth Movement for Active Citizenship (YMAC) project, a program funded by UN Youth Fund.  Their contention is that Lallubhai Compound,  which came into being around 2005 and includes both five-storey and seven-storey structures, has been ignored by the government for the last decade and daily life here is a struggle for food, water, education and cleanliness.  The compound is home to approximately 70,000 tenants and 36,000 residents.IMG_0917 copyc4

The most recent part of their campaign was the creation of a thermacol model entitled “The future of LBC”, an outcome of the community based participatory group research they conducted regarding the housing problems in LBC. The model took into account the current situation there and also showed the future aspirations of the residents. The model reflects the desire of the residents for the compound to include markets, schools, hospitals, social spaces and gardens.  Narkar and his colleagues have so far presented their model to local corporators, the TISS- M ward project and some other NGOs in an attempt to raise awareness about the problems at LBC.

LBC was built under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) with Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Center (SPARC) being the nodal NGO agency to assist in the resettlement and rehabilitation process. There seems to be widespread resentment among the residents of LBC about what they were promised in terms of amenities and services and what they have received. “The rehabilitation of project-affected people should have been within a radius of 3 kilometers from their original dwelling, but we have been brought 25 km away from our chawl. Sarkar ne hum ko phasah diya (The government has trapped us.),” says an angry Narkar.

There the women would meet in the evenings to chat, but here in Lallubhai compound, there is no sense of community. We feel like prisoners here.”

Sumitra Pawar, a middle aged woman, says, “When we were first told that we had to shift from our chawl in Parel to a building, my husband and I were very happy. I had been working as a maid in a building and I had seen what life was like in a flat. I saw that buildings have adequate water supply, lifts, and cleanliness. So we thought that our entire lifestyle would change after becoming flat owners, and we would live with dignity there. But when we came to LBC we realized that buildings could also be slums! The only difference is that our previous dwelling was a horizontal slum and this one is vertical slum.” Pawar feels that her life in the Parel slum was much better than in LBC.

The problems are many in LBC. There are no proper sanitation/and drainage lines here. The narrow alleys between the tall buildings – often barely three metres apart – causes insufficient ventilation in the houses.  People constantly complain of perennial leakage from various pipes in the area making the compound very slippery to walk in and making the entire complex a breeding ground for mosquitoes year-round. The incidence of water-borne diseases is high in the area.IMG_1368 copyc6

The residents of LBC often congregate on the road divider in groups because there are no safe public spaces for them to meet in.  Says resident Alka Patil, “There is no public transportation facility in LBC.”  According to Shila Patil, the residents in her building cannot afford to pay the maintenance fee of Rs 300 Rupees per month and as a result many common services that are shared by the residents don’t exist in reality. Such as many of the buildings don’t have an elevator facility and even where it exists, most lifts are totally out of service.

The families in LBC get water for very limited periods in the day. Some get water for only 10 to 12 minutes every day and some for about 25 to 30 minutes on alternate days. Garbage collection and disposal is also a major issue in LBC and mounds of garbage piled up is a common sight.

To date, there are no branches of any banks here and the only ATM just opened a few months ago. As a result, there is a thriving jewellery loan business in LBC. People routinely mortgage jewellery to take loans – at interest rates as high as 36 per cent a year – at the 12 to 15 shops that have mushroomed here.

_MG_1356 copyThe lack of services is appalling in the least but most of all residents of LBC complain of feeling very alienated here. Alka Patil lived in a chawl for 20 years before she was forced to shift to LBC eight years ago. Reminiscing about her life in the chawl, she says, “There the women would meet in the evenings to chat, but here in Lallubhai compound, there is no sense of community. We feel like prisoners here.”

She continues, “In the chawl, we used to celebrate many religious and cultural events such as haldi-kunku. We used to exchange bhaji (vegetables) and help each other with the cooking. When someone in the family got sick, the whole chawl would help out.” She gestures towards the lack of community feeling in LBC by describing an incident when a resident died and the neighbouring families didn’t even reduce the volume of their television sets as there was no communication between them.

It’s time someone paid attention to Lallubhai Compound, a nightmare of a resettlement project.

No Home for the Third Sex

Though ‘transgender’ is now an officially recognised category in India, people who identify as such still find social acceptance and housing tough to come by.

Text and Photos by Radhika Agarwal

Chandrakala invites me inside her pavement home. Supported by a roadside railing on one side, with walls of hay and an orange plastic sheet as its roof, the space inside is lit by a solitary lamp offered to Goddess Yellama, the deity worshipped by transgenders who follow Hinduism. Thirty-year old Chandrakala belongs to the transgender community and lives alone on a pavement near Elphinstone road. Her parents live two huts away with her brother and his family. “My parents have not been able to accept my sexuality even after so many years,” she says. As I look at some of the spaces inhabited by members of the transgendered community in the city, I discover that many transgenders have not been accepted by their own families and have in fact been turned out of their family homes. Not having a home, a space to be yourself, is one of the many heartrending troubles that the transgender community faces.

Transgender, according to the U.S. National Center for Transgender Equality, is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behaviour is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. In India, transgenders received legal recognition only in April 2014 though they were counted for the first time in Census 2011. The official count of the third gender – an umbrella term for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female – in the country is 4.9 lakhs, though gender activists estimate the number to be much higher. In Maharashtra, the census count is 41 transgendered persons per 1000 people.

The glow of the oil lamp is the only source of light in the miniscule space that Chandrakala inhabits. Earlier she stayed in slums nearby and when they were demolished, she moved under a flyover, which has now been sealed off for ‘beautification’ purposes. She fears that she might be removed from this pavement too. Chandrakala, who survives through begging on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays – collecting not more than Rs 250 to 300 per day– is not afraid of dealing with her poverty.  What she fears instead is being moved to some other space with different people who might exploit her sexual vulnerability. Here, she has adjusted with her neighbours. With new people she will have to go through the trauma once again.IMG_6569

For instance, she talks of her experiences of going to the toilet.  Before the public toilet in her area was built six years ago, she was forced to defecate in the open which would often be embarrassing as a few women would end up staring at her genitals. In that respect, having access to a public toilet has been a relief. She prefers using the ladies washroom but often gets awkward stares from other people around.

Even though the public toilet here charges Rs 3 per use and some more for taking a bath, making a huge dent in her meagre income, Chandrakala feels it’s a better option. Of course, what she dreams about is a house of her own with an attached toilet. Till then she will contend bravely with people’s stares and rebukes. “Sab logon ka soch to ab hum badal to nahi sakte? (Now, we can’t change all the people’s thinking, can we?)” she asks.

Sarita*, a 27-year-old transgender who works as a sex-worker, also lives on the street. “Ghar kya hota hai hamein kabhi pata hi nahin chala (What is a home, we never really got to know),” she says while eating her dinner at a roadside hotel. She would prefer to cook her own food but all her utensils were lost during the rains when she was out for work. With no family to look after her belongings when she’s not around her jhopdi, she feels the need for a permanent roof over her head. She has a sister and her children, but she says, “They harass me a lot, so I prefer living on my own”.

Humare community ke logon ke pass option hi kya hai?” says Shri Devi…“If I have to live in this house, I will have to listen to what they tell me”…She is not allowed to wear clothes which are ‘feminine’ nor put on make-up. Simple desires of having the freedom to express oneself through one’s clothes is denied to Shri.

“It’s most difficult to survive during the rains,” explains Sarita. Work is difficult to come by especially when water fills up to the knees and it becomes difficult to walk to the areas where she solicits her clients. Besides, finding a dry space to store clothes, mattresses, food materials and cooking items is the toughest.  All her neighbours face the same problem, but as they live in families they learn to do things for each other. During the rains, many of them suffer from dengue, malaria and other water borne diseases. Sarita says she cannot afford to fall sick as she earns and lives on her own and also supports her sister.

What Priya, a 33-year-old transgender who works as a make-up artist, finds particularly annoying is that many people assume her to be sexually promiscuous just because she identifies as transgender. Thus, she prefers to always have a male friend with her when she has to meet a new person. IMG_6687

Priya came to the city when she was in Class 8. It had become difficult for her to stay at home with her parents. The family was ashamed of her, neighbours would ridicule her, and in school other students would tease her for being ‘feminine’. For her, everything about home was bleak, and suffocating. She liked to hang out with girl-friends but was forced to play games that supposedly boys play. Thus she preferred to run away to Mumbai. “Bohot suna tha ki Bombay sabko apnaati hai (I had heard that Bombay accepts everyone),” she says. She started looking for jobs in the film line and ended up as a make-up artist. She lived in an assortment of slums but was regularly abused and teased. Therefore she constantly moved in and out of several slum colonies and in between took shelter at a few friends’ houses. Recently, a dancer friend abruptly asked her to leave her house. She is now living with another friend but the insecurity of not having her own home always haunts her. To find a room in a building society has proven an impossible task. People judge her, assume her to be involved in sex work and often exploit her. Some landlords have even tried to take advantage of her by asking her to engage in sexual relations with them.

A real-estate broker in Chembur, who did not wish to be named, explains that “we do not rent houses to hijras as their presence in a building society causes property rates to fall.” The brokers if approached either completely ignore their request, or send them away to places on the outskirts of Mumbai to find flats. Here too, they are forced to pay higher rentals due to their third sex identity.

Priya has lived out of a suitcase and vanity box for most of her life yet she refuses to give up her dreams: of finding a partner to spend the rest of her life with, of buying her own house and of opening her own make-up training academy.IMG_6481

Humare community ke logon ke pass option hi kya hai (What are our options)?” says Shri Devi, a 31-year-old make-up artist on being asked why she doesn’t wear sarees more often when she enjoys it. “If I have to live in this house, I will have to listen to what they tell me,” says Shri who lives with her parents, grandmother and three brothers in a one room-kitchen house in Parel. The flat was allotted to her parents under the Slum Rehabilitation Act, 1995. She is not allowed to wear clothes which are ‘feminine’ nor put on make-up. Simple desires of having the freedom to express oneself through one’s clothes is denied to Shri. Recently friends and neighbours have been asking her to move away from her family and begin a life for herself. “They tell me once my brothers get married, who will be with you but I ask, who will look after my mother if I go away,” says Shri.

Triveni Kendra in Malad is a non-profit organisation that is run by transgenders for increasing awareness and help for HIV and AIDS among hijra sex workers. Vashi, a worker says, “Even under MHADA (Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority), we don’t get houses. This is why we end up in slums.” She thinks there should be separate housing societies for hijras and the government should help them provide a better standard of living and more protection against exploitation. Shri and other transgender women are hopeful that now that they have been recognized as the third gender in India by an order of the Supreme Court, things will change. They are looking forward to welfare schemes for their development, better job opportunities, reservation in education institutions, protection against sexual and mental harassment, allotment of houses under government schemes and a separate board – with at least fifty per cent transgender community members – to look after the interests of transgenders.

Will India’s third sex finally get its dues?

*Name changed on request

(The photographs in this article were shot in Kamathipura during the 2014 annual festival of the Goddess Yellamma, traditionally worshipped by devdasis and transgendered Hindus.)

North-East Yes! ‘Chinkies’ No!   

Even as the Mumbai makes room for diverse people from North-East India, it needs to learn how not to stigmatize and stereotype them.

Text by Aditi Saraswat

When identities and  histories of an entire people are ignored, and their geography and rich culture conveniently gets relegated to the margins of our books and memories – as is the case of the North Eastern states of India – then stories of exclusion and racial discrimination spring everywhere. Naga youth Nido Tania’s murder in Delhi in 2014 because he was ‘dressed differently‘ and the mass exodus of North-Eastern people residing in Karnataka and Maharashtra in 2012 fearing attacks on themselves are stories screaming of intolerance and irrationality exhibited by ‘mainland Indians’. Though Mumbai has largely been untouched from such a taint, and young people from North-East India are thankful for this city’s welcoming embrace, finding a place to call home here is still not the easiest task for them.

Church and Region/Tribe based associations like Assam Association Mumbai and the North East Catholic Association do their bit to let the newly arrived take root in the new city. Many find Mumbai much better than their experiences in other cities like Delhi. Padmaja Swargiary, is an Assamese housewife living in Navi Mumbai. She and her husband bought their home in an apartment complex seven years ago, and have not had a single complaint since. “I think Delhi makes you aware that you are an outsider like no other city does. Mumbai on the other hand has been an easy ride, but I do not think we can rule out the fact that I am a married woman. The respectability that having a family brings you makes the brokers/landowners view you differently. We also now do not have to deal with the monthly rent-hounding by landlords and our neighbours aren’t too nosy.”

Zingkhai Nathan, a Tangkhul Naga, carries a bit of his land in the tie he wears with his suit. Photo Credit: Kiningkambe Riame
Zingkhai Nathan, a Tangkhul Naga, carries a bit of his land in the tie he wears with his suit. Photo Credit: Kiningkambe Riame

Mercy Kamkra, 23, stays with her working professional brother in Kalina, and has a happy picture to paint about Kalina, the Santacruz-East locality now ironically famous as ‘China Town’ because of the many North-Easterners who make it home. Even as Kalina boasts of a predominant Naga presence, this Manipuri girl cannot stop gushing about the warm experience that the city of Mumbai has proved to be after her experience in Shillong. “The landlord here has been extremely considerate; my landlord in Shillong was extremely strict. He did not allow boys to enter the apartment and was against partying too.”

Real estate brokers in Kalina vouchsafe for the easy exchanges and mostly peaceful environment there. Maybe it is the strength in numbers which makes the youth confident, or the long history of them living here which makes the locals more receptive to them. According to Santosh Shahane, who has been running Raien Real Estate since 2007, “I have never faced any issue in this business and many of my clients have kept in touch because their friends or cousins from the North-East keep pouring in year after year.”

“I think Delhi makes you aware that you are an outsider like no other city does. Mumbai on the other hand has been an easy ride, but I do not think we can rule out the fact that I am a married woman. The respectability that having a family brings you makes the brokers/landowners view you differently.”

Mercy’s thankfulness to the accepting culture of the city does have a rationale with respect to the young from the North-East who like to let their hair down at the end of a hard day’s work. Niglun Hanghal, a young journalist from Manipur who has written about the discrimination faced by North-Easterners on many platforms, has an interesting insight to share. “Boys and girls from our region are politically more aware, so when there is a problem, they rise and make a noise. So when they have parties, landlords might have a problem with it, though this is an issue with young people from all ages,” he says. “Additionally, while boys get beaten up or get into brawls, the nature of discrimination against women is more sexually charged.”

While young people from states like Manipur and Nagaland run away from insurgency and unstable conditions, there are also states that do not see a lot of people move to bigger cities. Lalrinmuana Ralte, a Masters student from Mizoram studying Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, testifies to this observation, “My state is peaceful and there are opportunities, hence you will not find many people from my state in these big cities. So I do not have the same extended network of people that an average Naga or Assamese person will have, and hence my support systems have to be my mainland India friends, who have never let me down.”

While young people from states like Manipur and Nagaland run away from insurgency and unstable conditions, there are also states that do not see a lot of people move to bigger cities.

Single women struggling to make a name for themselves in the big city usually find themselves facing the wind from all sides, including when trying to find a home. Nika Chhetri, a BPO employee from the small district of Geyzing in Sikkim who now lives in Khar, says, “I did not settle on this space, I jumped at it because it’s owner was the only person who did not look at me suspiciously when I insisted on living alone. True, they would not expect such a thing back home but I had imagined a different treatment from Mumbai when I first arrived here.” When asked about why she did not take up accommodation in a friendlier place like Kalina, she rues that her office is close by, and her salary allows her only so much that she can pay for her two room shelter in Khar.

Chyau Chyi Naw (second from left), or 'Ting' as he is called by friends, from Burma enjoys a happy moment with his friends from the North-East on his 25th Birthday in Mumbai.
Chyau Chyi Naw (second from left), or ‘Ting’ as he is called by friends, from Burma enjoys a happy moment with his friends from the North-East on his 25th Birthday in Mumbai.

Rents are notoriously heavy on the pocket in metro cities, and Mumbai tops the charts in this department. Students and young professionals make up most of those migrating to the city from this region, apart from skilled and unskilled labour who end up becoming the backbones of the numerous ‘Chinese’ Beauty parlours’ and ‘Chinese’ food joints. This racist stereotyping perpetuates due to resembling facial features and it manifests itself in certain racial slurs and abuse.

David, aged 24, ran away from home in Nagaland seven years ago. Having worked as a glue paster, a battery mechanic and now as an employee in a small catering service in Santa Cruz East, he has developed a perspective on the city, “I have slept under the buses on the station and inside abandoned toilets. I now live in a chawl and I am not proud to give you that address. But I can tell you that not many days go by before I am called ‘Chinky’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘red nosed’. On those nights I miss home the most.”

(Cover photograph courtesy Chyan Chyi Naw)

Battling Cancer from the Roadside

Every day hundreds of patients make their way to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, the nation’s premier cancer treatment facility. An acute shortage of hospital beds and lack of funds forces many patients and their families to live on the streets around the hospital during the course of their treatment. This is their story.

Text and Photos by Tanvi Khemani

It has been nine months, but Shiv Shankar Yadav vividly remembers the day he and his starry-eyed wife Savita Devi first landed in Mumbai, hoping to get her cured of cancer. An acquaintance of his had described the sprawling Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) as a complex spread over seven floors and surrounded by swanky offices and high-rises in Parel. But Shiv Shankar, an acutely poor daily wage-worker who used to earn only Rs. 100 per day in his village in Bihar, made sure he brought along a panni (a thin black colored plastic sheet) and a mattress. He knew that they would have to live on the pavement outside the hospital while she received treatment there. Just like hundreds of other patients and their families belonging to the low-income group Shiv Shankar and his wife migrated to Mumbai, the city that never sleeps – only to sleep on its pavements.

Usha moved to Mumbai in August to battle cancer. Even as she faces daily hardships living on the pavement, her children Sagar and Sonali are just worried about befriending children from other pavement-dwelling families so that they can play games together.
Usha moved to Mumbai in August to battle cancer. Even as she faces daily hardships living on the pavement, her children Sagar and Sonali are just worried about befriending children from other pavement-dwelling families so that they can play games together.

The hospital is part of the Tata Memorial Centre, a comprehensive centre for the prevention, treatment, education and research in cancer. It is estimated that 70% of the patients at the TMH are from the low-income group and most of them are migrants into Mumbai. The hospital’s Handbook for Patients states that the two categories of patients from the low-income group are the Not Charged (NC) patients who only pay for their medicines and the Charged patients who have to pay for their consultation and investigations as well. However, the 576 beds in the hospital are not enough for all. A volunteer working with a non-profit organisation in the area, who did not wish to be named, estimated that there are currently 400-500 patients living on the pavements outside the hospital. She claimed that the number of poor migrant patients to TMH has increased sharply in the last ten years. This is partly due to the shortage of adequate medical facilities in the country, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

No attempt has been made by the medical fraternity, social sector or government to tackle the housing problem of these patients. The patients and their families occupy half the pavement across the hospital in a seemingly endless row of makeshift tents. One can see their clothes drying on the railings and feet protruding from under lots of ‘pannis’ (plastic sheets used as roofs). Even though they live on the streets, they try and keep their dwellings clean. “I sweep the floor thrice a day and we dispose of garbage in plastic bags. This pavement and panni is going to be our home until the treatment is complete,” says Sunaina Devi, wife and caregiver of Anandi Shah, a patient from Bihar. She has tied their tent to the railing of the pavement on one side and has secured the other side using some bricks she found nearby. She stores drinking water, spices for cooking, and utensils in small cardboard boxes inside her makeshift home. She said, “We brought clothes, a lota (glass) and a stool when we came from our village and begged for other things here. The mat we are sitting on is on loan from another patient who has gone home.”

The hospital authorities claim that TMH allows these patients to fill drinking water and to use the toilets on the hospital premises to help them stay clear of infections. But many of them have to use the ‘Sulabh Sauchalaya’ and drink tap water found nearby. The toughest time of the year for them is the monsoon, when the panni proves powerless against the constant rain and their mattresses get soaked.

Volunteers manning the NGO desk inside TMH said that there are some free dharamshalas such as Gadge Maharaj Dharamshala in Dadar, which charges Rs. 50 per day and also provides meals. Anandi Shah had tried his luck there first. “At the Dharamshala they told us that we would have to stay on their open ground under a panni till our turn for a bed came so we decided that if we had to live under a panni anyway, we’d rather live near TMH,” he said.

According to information in the ‘GLOBCAN Project 2012’ report published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under the World Health Organization (WHO), there were over 1 million people living with cancer in India in 2012. In contrast to the survival rate of 50% for cancer patients in more developed countries, patients in less developed countries like India have an abysmal survival rate of 33%. To match the standards of care for patients set by the WHO, India will have to add 1.7 million hospital beds and double its medical manpower, given its current population.

There is a need to reform the health sector itself. Dr Nitin S, an MD in Clinical Pharmacology at Sion Hospital said, “The hospital may provide subsidized medicines and radiotherapy or chemotherapy for the patients, but this is not enough. Factors such as diet, hygiene, exercise and counseling are equally important in the treatment of cancer.” He added that interventions aimed at decreasing the loneliness and isolation of migrant patients are needed to supplement their treatment.

Shiv Shankar is the sole earning member in his family of ten people. He had saved Rs. 60,000 from majdoori (daily wage labour) over many years, which has already been spent on his wife’s treatment. Like many other patients, he has borrowed extra money for the treatment at a very high rate of interest.

TMH has made arrangements for free meals for these patients on its premises. However, there is a catch: some medical officials at the hospital believe that this food is not sufficiently nutritious for the patients, and they urge them to eat homemade food instead. Savita Devi said, “The doctor told us that I should not eat the food distributed by the Sai Trust as my chemotherapy treatment has made me very weak.”

The hospital authorities claim that TMH allows these patients to fill drinking water and to use the toilets on the hospital premises to help them stay clear of infections. But many of them have to use the ‘Sulabh Sauchalaya’ and drink tap water found nearby. The toughest time of the year for them is the monsoon, when the panni proves powerless against the constant rain and their mattresses get soaked. Living on the pavement renders them especially vulnerable to contagious diseases like influenza, malaria and dengue at this time. Shiv Shankar recalls, “During the monsoon we sat in knee-high water all night, on this pavement.” The mosquitoes are another menace.

The inside of a typical tent ​occupied by a patient on the pavement. ​Besides luggage, patients bring along utensils from their villages to cook food for their families. Their first acquisition in Mumbai is often some plastic bottles, used to store water filled from nearby taps.
The inside of a typical tent ​occupied by a patient on the pavement. ​Besides luggage, patients bring along utensils from their villages to cook food for their families. Their first acquisition in Mumbai is often some plastic bottles, used to store water filled from nearby taps.

Shiv Shankar is the sole earning member in his family of ten people. He had saved Rs. 60,000 from majdoori (daily wage labour) over many years, which has already been spent on his wife’s treatment. Like many other patients, he has borrowed extra money for the treatment at a very high rate of interest. “How can my uncle, who was a daily laborer, pay Rs 2.5 lakhs for his surgery which the hospital is quoting?” wonders Shabir Ahmad, a young mechanic who has accompanied his uncle Kallu mian to a session of chemotherapy.

Bangali Yadav, a 50-year old thoracic cancer patient from Bihar, sits with Shiv Shankar and they watch the traffic thunder past them as reminisce about their villages. They miss their children and hope to bring them to Mumbai one day to see this majestic city. Bangali says, “I had never even dreamed that we would come to Bombay sheher (city) in this lifetime.” Anandi’s love for the city is palpable as he says, “I have roamed many cities, but this is the best city. We are able to survive because of the generosity of big companies and hotels. This doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

“They are very brave”, said Bhano Subramaniam, a social worker who has been working with the patients for over a decade. Chandra, her colleague at the Social Welfare desk in TMH, marvels at the indomitable spirit of these patients. She says, “We’ve seen some patients come, stay on the pavement for months, eat paav bhaji and whatever else they can find, and go home fully cured.”


You Can Get Help Here

During registration at TMH, each new patient is provided with ​an identity card ​which allows repeated entry into the hospital and access to food and help from NGOs affiliated to ​the hospital.
During registration at TMH, each new patient is provided with ​an identity card ​which allows repeated entry into the hospital and access to food and help from NGOs affiliated to ​the hospital.

1. Helpline for patients at TMH: +91 2224177099/ 2224177000
2. Medical Social Workers Dept. of TMH https://tmc.gov.in/medical/departments/as/as.htm
3. Indian Cancer Centre (Parel): 022 2413 9445
4. V Care Foundation helpline: +9198219 49401/02 toll free 18002091101
5. Dr Ernest Borges Memorial Home in Bandra (accommodation through TMH): 02226591404
6. St. Judes Centre for Children (accommodation for children): 022 2417 1614


Cover picture: A row of temporary housing structures set up by outstation patients directly across the road from Tata Memorial Hospital.

A House for Mr and Ms Khan

Increasingly Muslims have a hard time finding houses to rent or buy in Mumbai’s mixed neighbourhoods. Is cosmopolitan Mumbai a dream gone sour?

Text By Akshat Jain

When Misbah Quadri was thrown out of her rented apartment in central Mumbai for being a Muslim, the only support she got was from her two Hindu flatmates who left with her in solidarity. While some real estate brokers were polite enough to refuse to show her any flats because she was a “Muslim”, this particular broker took things up a notch by first getting  her the house and then evicting her within a week. In another case, Zeshan Khan, an MBA graduate was denied a job because he was a Muslim.  However unlike others before them, Misbah and Zeshan refused to stay quiet and took their individual stories to the media in May 2015.

Unfortunately, it’s a sad reality that increasingly many realtors and landlords in Mumbai deny houses to Muslim clients, especially in neighbourhoods and building complexes dominated by Hindu and Jain religious groups .  This religious discrimination is also not limited to the aam janta.  Actors like Saif Ali Khan and Emraan Hashmi  have spoken out about the difficulty of renting or buying a house due to their Muslim last name. Actress-turned-social activist and former Member of the Rajya Sabha, Shabana Azmi too faced problems getting a house in one of the most sought after areas in India. This news, while arguably a case of sensationalism, is useful in that it opens our eyes to the much deeper discrimination going on behind the aegis of the law. This was pointed out by Shabana Azmi herself in a television programme, “If Shabana and Javed Akhtar cannot find a house in the most cosmopolitan city, you can imagine what must be happening to ordinary Muslims elsewhere”.

Fatima Mirza*, a 24-year-old IAS aspirant, currently working with the customs department in Mumbai says that she has accepted this kind of discrimination as the norm. She grew up in Dubai where she had no such problems but her last six years in India have been an eye-opening experience. “I had to look in hundreds of places before I found a house,” she says. She used to live in Bandra but made a move to Chembur about a year ago. “My experience in Chembur was much worse than in Bandra,” she says adding that she had similar problems in New Delhi as well, where she was living before this, but not in Bangalore where she went to St. Josephs College.

The secretary of a housing society in Deonar, a self-confessed Shiv Sainik, says that people feel comfortable in their own cultures. “Muslims do things differently and cannot fit into a predominantly Hindu housing society. So I try to keep them away but if someone is adamant, I do not refuse,” he says.

She finally found an apartment in Saraga Co-operative Society*, after her friend, who had been living there for some time, vouched for her. “Even though this is farther than what I would have preferred, I feel like I cannot complain. I am just happy to have gotten a place to stay in after my harrowing experience over multiple weeks,” says Fatima. Mr Albert Pinto*, the owner of her flat, says, “One has to be careful with bachelors and especially bachelors from a minority community”. He says that Mirza was able to inspire confidence in him about her ability to not cause problems for others. Interestingly, Muslim couples often find it easier to find a house compared to single Muslims. This view is echoed by Pinto. “Housing societies that are predominantly Hindu are not able to trust the presence of a Muslim male in particular very easily,” he says.

On talking to the general secretary of a housing society in Deonar, one learns  that politics pervades these societies as well. The secretary, a self-confessed Shiv Sainik, says that people feel comfortable in their own cultures. “Muslims do things differently and cannot fit into a predominantly Hindu housing society. So I try to keep them away but if someone is adamant, I do not refuse,” he says.

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Denied housing in mixed neighbourhoods or buildings, Muslims are often forced to seek accommodation in older Muslim dominant mohallas such as Bhendi Bazaar. Photo By Sameera Khan.

Conversations with a few educated upwardly-mobile Muslims reveals that many of them do not want to live in Muslim dominated areas – for as one Muslim woman said, “When you live with different communities, you learn to not overly emphasise your religious identity and you learn to get along with everyone. Also you escape everyday policing by your own community members.”  While the law abets such discrimination, nothing deters civil society to practice it. A report in Scroll.in talked about a case related to the Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society Limited, when a Parsi owner of a bungalow wanted to sell the bungalow to non-Parsi developers but was challenged because society bylaw didn’t allow selling or renting plots to non-Parsis. The owner went to court but lost the case. The report said, “The court emphasised a particular group’s right to preserve its culture, but failed to balance this by acknowledging that such attempts at preservation also led to acts of prejudice. Further, the court ruled that because a society was a private body, it was exempt from having to honor constitutional tenets.”

I cold called a few brokers as Hamzah Iqbal, a young Muslim professional trying to look for a house in Chembur or Sion. The brokers were helpful and did not mention any problems that might occur due to my religious identity. Only when I prompted them saying that I had heard about the challenges that Muslims face regarding housing, did they mention that a few housing societies and owners preferred to have people of their own religion.

“All kinds of people live together in slums. The poor don’t care about religious identity. When there is no money in the pocket, who has the time to look at such things.”

Mazahir Hussain, a student of social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Chembur said that he did not have much trouble finding a house. But he was not spared. He was the only one out of his flat-mates, who are all Hindus, whose identity was verified by the police at his permanent address. On asking other Muslims on the TISS campus about this, they related the same story. Even though there might not be overt discrimination, things like these are a sign of a much deeper mistrust that hounds Muslims in our society. Sunil Gupta*, another broker in Chembur says, “It is much easier to find houses for Muslims associated with TISS because of the institute’s reputation. The options for Muslims in Chembur are otherwise very limited, especially for bachelors.”

Shaukat Ali Khan, an old migrant from Darbhanga and a long-time resident of a slum in Panjarapole, Chembur said that he had never faced any problems because of his religious identity. “All kinds of people live together in slums. The poor don’t care about religious identity. When there is no money in the pocket, who has the time to look at such things,” he says. This was echoed by Rehman Bhai, a taxi driver I encountered while filming a documentary. He has lived in Dharavi for close to 30 years now and the only time he faced any problems due to his religious identity was during the 1992-93 riots, when his taxi was burnt down.

A lot can be attributed to the negative representation of Muslims and Islam in the media today.  We are so dependent on the stereotypes of Islam that we refuse to actually look at the person beneath the religion.

Evidently, the middle and upper classes are the ones discriminating more. While conversing with a Jain couple, Rajive and Shweta, who live in a posh housing colony in Jogeshwari East, about what they would like their building society to be like, they mentioned that they were okay with sharing their housing society with people of any religion. They did mention a reservation against meat eating but as long as people did that within their homes, they were okay with it. “India is a secular country and we should be able to live with everybody in peace,” they said. When asked how they would feel about their daughter dating a Muslim, they said they would not be comfortable with it because of the difference in culture between Jains and Muslims.

Islam in India has not always been so maligned, points out Javed Anand, general secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy, “I have faced this problem myself in the early 1970s in the then ‘cosmopolitan Bombay’. And I know of a few others from back then who had a similar experience. It’s just that communalism was not so much in the air then as it is now while majoritarianism is today a new ‘common sense’,” he says.

A lot can be attributed to the negative representation of Muslims and Islam in the media today.  We are so dependent on the stereotypes of Islam that we refuse to actually look at the person beneath the religion. The result is that we have people like Misbah and Zeshan, homeless and jobless, only because they are Muslims. It’s time Mumbai evoked its cosmopolitan creed.

*Names changed on request

City of God

Ishwar Nagar, a slum in Borivali, represents one of the many clusters of people being left behind as Mumbai makes its tenuous claims to global cityhood.

Text and Photos by Sujata Sarkar

Leelabai Anumangta was a young girl when she came to Mumbai with her husband. She had dreams of a comfortable city life but the bubble soon burst when she realized that all her husband could afford was their one room in the slum. In the 66 years of her life, she has seen many changes around her but the one thing that has never changed is the fact that she still lives in Ishwar Nagar, a slum in Borivali. She looks longingly towards the sky hoping that the incessant showers of rain would abate giving them a little respite from the leaking roof. Shalini, who works as a domestic help, Ranganath, a taxi driver, and Sunita Rathore, a stationery shop owner, are her immediate neighbours with whom she has to share the limited amenities provided.

DSC_0007A closer look into Ishwar Nagar and its neighbouring colony of Abhinav Nagar in suburban Borivali, situated 18 kilometers from the airport, reveals that there are still raging issues regarding housing which include the problems of segregation, legalizing land and illegally constructed structures, connectivity, water issues, sanitation and drainage. In most instances the problems are highlighted only prior to an election and forgotten as soon as the local councilors, MLA’s and MP’s are elected. “We only see them
during election time. They give us assurances and then they disappear. Every time before voting we hope that they will do something but we are disappointed every time. We are under the municipal responsibility of Shilpa Chogle, an MNS leader. We have never seen her after she has been elected,” says Ranganath the taxi driver, who is also secretary of the Ishwar Nagar Rahivasi Sangha housing committee. The block they live in is a series of rooms interconnected by a common passage through which both humans and rodents scurry by and sadly even on a scorching day, sunlight never filters through into their dark homes.

“Often we all, and especially the kids, fall ill because of the mosquitoes. The gutters are not cleaned, waste is dumped around us. The municipal fumigation squad comes on its rounds but to bring them here is an additional hassle for us. They only come after repetitive calling and pleading. But that does not help much because the breeding grounds of mosquitoes and flies are not being cleaned regularly.”

The affluent Abhinav Nagar and the derelict Ishwar Nagar exist side by side, separated only by a boundary wall; the wall almost reiterating the fact that proper housing and living amenities are available only for those who belong to the so called ‘upper class.’ Ironically the slum at Ishwar Nagar exists as a paradox of our times where on the one hand there is talk of India ‘cleaning up her act’ and moving on to become a power to reckon with and on the other hand, we see three-fourths of the population still struggling to live in better conditions. In fact for a long time, Ishwar Nagar did not have proper toilets and open drains were used by inhabitants for their daily ablutions. The local municipal corporation turned a blind eye and it was up to the residents to make their own arrangements for improved living. “We have built a toilet ourselves without any help from the government. We also pay for its maintenance. Not just the toilet, the entire colony’s roads and houses have been constructed by us,” says Ranganath.

Monsoon is a time of heightened struggle with the added challenge of keeping their belongings and homes dry and habitable. In most cases, there is waterlogging, the roofs leak and there is an increase in both water and air borne diseases. Clogged gutters with breeding mosquitoes are yet another cause for worry as both children and old people are vulnerable to diseases such as dengue and malaria. “Often we all, and especially the kids, fall ill because of the mosquitoes. The gutters are not cleaned, waste is dumped around us. The municipal fumigation squad comes on its rounds but to bring them here is an additional hassle for us. They only come after repetitive calling and pleading. But that does not help much because the breeding grounds of mosquitoes and flies are not being cleaned regularly,” says Sunita Rathore who runs the stationery shop. When the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation inspectors were contacted to comment on the situation they refused to specifically comment on the matter. The general idea conveyed by them was that though the basic civic amenities are provided, the population and unplanned habitation are a hindrance to proper management.

DSC_0013

The journey through Ishwar Nagar is synonymous with struggle and as one walks along, one cannot help but feel anguished at seeing the living conditions in which these slum dwellers reside. While some of them like Sunita Rathore own their own small business establishments and can afford to send their children to school, most of the others such as Shalini are domestic workers who are employed in Abhinav Nagar.

Shalini, Sunita, Ranganath and Leelabai are just a few of the faces which represent the agonizing helplessness and desperation that comes from facing tough circumstances, where everyday life is a battlefield. A new battlefront has now opened – the local government is eyeing the land for further development. As Leelabai says, “We have been living here for decades and each one of us has a voter card, an aadhar card and ration card! Why did the government give us all the cards if they want us to leave now? Yes, we do not get all the facilities but no one can ask us to leave overnight and that too without compensation.”

The struggle to retain their living space and at the same time to make it more habitable continues for the residents of Ishwar Nagar, who hope for better times even as they continue to combat a city that denies their very right to exist.

‘Abudana dhoondta hai…’

Even for middle-class Mumbaikars, a house of their own is an almost unaffordable dream  

Text By Rameshwar Jirwankar

Rajender and Vijaya are happily married and have been living in Mumbai for eight years now. They moved from Nashik, which is about three hours away from Mumbai, looking for better opportunities for work and education. “Life here is fast but it gives us opportunities for learning. The cost one pays for it is to compromise on our house,” says Rajender, who after working for several years is now studying for a master’s degree. “In Nashik, living is very comfortable but in Mumbai, finding a decent flat at an affordable price for common middle-class people like us is next to impossible. Moreover, most rental agreements here allow only an 11-month lease. So, there is a lot of instability.”20150902_142300

The island city of Mumbai has always been the dream destination for those from the hinterland. However its high real estate prices has made it next to impossible for most to own a home here. While for the poor, access to housing and infrastructure is especially challenging, in reality even for middle-class families, earning an average salary of Rs 40 to 50,000 a month, owning an apartment in the city is an unaffordable dream.

In the past Rajender and Vijaya had to change several flats because the brokers would often ask them to leave as getting in new clients would enable them to earn fresh brokerage. They had to often go through the same process year after year – of house hunting, rent agreements, brokerage and even then not finding an ideal place to live.

“We cannot even decorate the house properly as we are not sure if we will get to stay in the same place after the expiry of the eleven month lease,” says Vijaya. Car parking is another important problem as they have to park their cars outside on the side of the road. Rajender says that often the owners as well as neighbours in the society insist on verifying caste, class and religious aspects of the tenant. “Tenants are made to feel as if they are secondary. We have often been looked down upon by neighbours who owned their flats,” he adds.

“We cannot afford a rented house as it takes a huge chunk of our money. If one has a regular salary, then it might still be easier.”

Kundan, aged 23, lives with his family in Mulund. They share a 2BHK flat between eleven members of the household. The family does not only share space but also expenditures and duties. They earn about Rs 30,000 altogether and collectively contribute to run the household. Since it is difficult for so many people to sleep in two rooms, one of his uncle sleeps in his friend’s empty flat nearby. “His friend lives in Dubai, so till the time that flat is empty we use it by paying a small rent,” says Kundan.

To keep the household expenditure at the minimum, Kundan’s joint family does not separate. They want to be there for each other and also they cannot afford to separate. Sometimes, his father does not find employment. At such times, his larger family supports them. “One of my aunts left my uncle as she wanted to separate from the joint family and live in another area. But my uncle did not want to live elsewhere,” explains Kundan.

Buying a 3BHK for the family of eleven is a distant dream as it would require a lot of planning and savings. Renting a 3BHK would affect their monthly budget tremendously. “At least this house belongs to us and no one else can lay claim on this. Owning a house saves a lot of money which would have otherwise gone on rent. So we continue to stay here inspite of living in such a limited space,” reflects Kundan, who earlier worked and is now pursuing higher studies full-time.

The city has failed most of its residents on the promise of affordable housing and services. It relentlessly takes your sweat and labour and gives back not even a decent roof over your head.

Professor Subrato Bakshi* teaches in a well-known Mumbai institute. He lives in a rented apartment in Khar and commutes 20 kms every day to reach his workplace. Five years ago, he took a housing loan to buy an apartment in Vashi for Rs 60 lakhs. Though the building is still under construction, he still has to repay his loan every month. Between rent, loan servicing and daily costs of living, he manages to save very little for other expenses including his son’s higher education expenses.20150915_084504

Vaishali Gite lives with her family in Sion. Her father is an assistant surgeon in a hospital and they live in the staff quarters provided to him by the hospital. But as her father is retiring this year, they need to buy a house almost immediately. “We cannot afford a rented house as it takes a huge chunk of our money. If one has a regular salary, then it might still be easier,” she says. Her father has booked a flat in Panvel and though it is much further from Sion, on the outskirts of Mumbai in fact, Vaishali says that in all their choices “affordability is the first factor.” They consulted relatives who had moved to Panvel earlier and decided that they would just have to adjust to longer commutes.

The city has failed most of its residents on the promise of affordable housing and services. It relentlessly takes your sweat and labour and gives back not even a decent roof over your head. Then, why do millions aspire to make it their home, I wonder. Or is it truly a ‘sapno ka shehar’ (city of dreams) where we are compelled to live more in our dreams just in order to escape the everyday harsh reality of being so dispossessed?

*Names changed on request

Rich City, Poor Women

Life is tough for everyone in the slums but the burden on women is greater, given the precarious nature of housing and lack of basic infrastructure for water, sanitation, and fuel. Here, they tell their stories.

Text by Arjun Chavah
Photos by Akash Basumatari

I was born and brought up in a Disneyland in Hyderabad, or at least 25 years ago it felt like Disneyland to us. We would play kabaddi and football in the maidan, go fishing and swimming in the lake, and dance to the beat of the dholak on Ganesh Chaturthi every year. This Disneyland happens to be a slum called Errakunta.

When I was about 13-years old, I realized that all was not right with this Disneyland. This realization struck one day when I was playing cricket with my friends. Someone screamed, and when we got there we saw that a young woman, about 23-years old, had immolated herself as her three-year old baby lay crying besides her. When she died a week later, the police arrested her husband. He went to jail for torturing and mentally harassing her but no one seemed to know the whole story. As I listened to people speculating about the tragic event, I realized that the lives of the women in my slum basti were filled with violence and stress.

photo 1 for article
“Look, we are living in these slums with no light, water, or medical facilities. We take hours and hours to cook one meal on the chulha by blowing and blowing the fire, which fills the room with smoke,” says Shibli.

I now live in Mumbai and when I speak to women in the slums here, I realize things are not very different for them even today. Women living in the slums of M-Ward – the city’s poorest and most disadvantaged ward in terms of infrastructure and services – are plagued not just by everyday problems relating to housing, sanitation and water, but are also more vulnerable to violence and oppression. Balancing responsibilities at home and outside becomes especially difficult for them, and the lack of basic public amenities and infrastructure makes completing everyday tasks a painful and exacting struggle. Thirty-year old Shibli Ansari works as a domestic help and also takes care of her two children. She gestures towards the hardships in her slum as she tells me, “Look, we are living in these slums with no light, water, or medical facilities. We take hours and hours to cook one meal on the chulha by blowing and blowing the fire, which fills the room with smoke.”

I realize that even when these women are earning as much as their husbands, their socio-economic position is lower within their families. Their lack of access to education is also a hindrance. Shibli earns Rs 3000 a month and her cobbler husband earns an average of Rs 3500-4000 per month. Her job is more secure than his, which she attests to when she says, “My employers are very understanding. They pay me on time each month and never threaten me with pay cuts. They don’t ask me to stay back and do extra work as they know I have to return to my family in the evening.” But she has only studied up to class nine and her education was discontinued when her parents decided it was an unnecessary expenditure. As I talk to her, I wonder – if she had continued with her education, where would she have been today?

photo 2 for article
Vimal Gaikwad says, “The drainage system is a joke. When the monsoons come, the gutters overflow with rainwater mixed with putrid garbage.”

Shibli lives in the Baiganwadi slum, where there is only one pipe for drinking water. The women all line up every morning to get water from this pipe. Shibli fetches water for her family every morning in one matka and has to make multiple ten-minute trips to the pipe. She explains how important this chore is, “When I wake up every morning, my first thought is that I must get enough water so I can cook for my family.” The older women find these repeated trips very demanding. Middle-aged Vimal Gaikwad told me, “I end up walking 3-4 kilometers to and fro to get enough water for the day, and my legs and back ache.” According to the Mumbai Human Development Report 2009 published by the state government, Mumbaikars on average get 200 litres per capita per day, while slum residents get only 90 litres.

The defunct sanitation system in slums places additional burdens on the women. Vimal told me, “The drainage system is a joke. When the monsoons come, the gutters overflow with rainwater mixed with putrid garbage.” When this water becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and dengue attacks paralyze the slum, the onus of taking care of the sick inevitably falls on the women. Shibli tells me, “The municipality doesn’t allow us to build our own toilets here, because there is no drainage line in the slum.” Women have to pay Rs 3 every time they use the government toilet, which is usually so dirty that fungus grows on the floor. While trying to access these public toilets, women must also guard against being abused, harassed, stalked, and physically assaulted. “Going there at night is particularly unsafe as there is the additional threat of drunk men who sexually harass us on the way to and from the toilets,” Shibli says.

The women from these slums were unanimous in their demand for the creation of adequate infrastructure. As for a change in mindsets, they are already teaching their sons to stay away from violence, alcoholism and so on. They hope that this will improve the lot of the younger women, who will not have to suffer like they did.

Cover photo by Arjun Chavah

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