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Archive for June, 2008

The Idea and the Practice of a Slum

June 30th, 2008

“Right there, right there!”
“Where? I can’t see the damn station. Where is it?”
“Right there, you walk past that little lane, you will hit the station.”
Grudgingly, I walked through the lane and lo and behold! I was at the platform of Govandi railway station. It just took me a little row of settlements and some open drains running by them to get to that wretched Govandi station (not to forget to mention, passing by some of the children playing around and that sole bhaiyya woman sitting idly).
Did I say wretched? Yes, wretched is the feeling I get when I am at Govandi station. Perhaps in my life, I must have been to Govandi station exactly six times. Of the four of those six times, I have traveled in the east of Govandi, towards the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But the last two times, I have actually experienced the wretchedness of Govandi station, when I have had to get off platform number 1 and then go past all the squatter settlements, till I eventually get to the infamously famous Lallubhai Compound.

Wretched, Unpleasant …
Wretched, that wretched Govandi area! Yes, I can feel the skin on me … I can feel the anger and irritation rising in me, a feeling that I have rarely gotten as I have traveled the insides of some of the squatter settlements in Mumbai. It is not the squalor that produces that feeling of unpleasantness in me. Yes, there is squalor and squalor of the worst form that can be seen and experienced. The proximity of the squatter settlements to the city’s only functional garbage dump and to the city’s only abattoir makes the open drains and sewage in these slums the worst of their kind and nothing compared with the reasonably better off sewage facilities in most of the other slums in the city.
Squalor, yes! Squalor! But that is not the cause of the unpleasantness within me. Then, what is it?

Cut to Lallubhai Compound, between Govandi and Mankhurd:
Lallubhai Compound, here it is, or should I say there it is. Yeah, there it is, so much of what I was trying to imagine it to be and so much of the reality that I could see and tried to fathom. I was not sure what I should feel when I see the rows of cement buildings that make up this Compound. Housed in these rows of buildings are slum dwellers from various parts of Mumbai City – those whole lived near the railway stations of Kurla terminus, Chembur and Matunga; those who once had dwellings along the pavements of the famous P. D’Mello road near VT station; people from Byculla, Dadar, Parel, you name it – they are all housed here.

“That minister Nawab Malik got us to come here. He said that if we did not move here, we would even lose this house. Hence we came here.”
“We were living near the railway lines. Government decided to expand the railway lines and so, we moved here.”
“It was crazy when we first moved here. Felt like we had come to a village. My family was shunted out of Matunga and then we were made to live in the transit camps in Mankhurd for five long years till we eventually came here. There was initially a hill here. People went up on the hill and jumped off. They could not tolerate the loneliness. Only now, more people have come to live here and there seems to be some development.”

About 1.5 kilometers away from Govandi station is situated Lallubhai Compound, that infamously famous rehabilitation colony. For a moment, I almost think of the chawls in Parel area when I see the built environment here. The same noise, running around, tamashas on the street, shops below the buildings – it’s just so much Parel. And yet, it is not Parel. There is hustle and bustle, lot of activity on the roads, but it seems like Lallubhai can only be a world within its own self (but for now!). Unlike Parel where the self of the chawl is intermingled with the multiple selves of the city that manifest in various forms – the industrial estates, the media offices, the traffic, the locality of Lalbagh – in stark comparison to all of this, Lallubhai is isolated, despite being so close to the row houses just across the bridge which house the wealthier residents of Govandi.

“Lallubhai is a clear instance of the US housing projects for the poor. The poor were evicted from the city areas and placed at the outskirts of the city. Complete ghettoization.”

Could I say that Lallubhai is an instance of ghettoization, another import from the Americas into the urbs prima indis? Undoubtedly, Lallubhai is a ghetto, almost like people are being brought from the city and thrown away into some form of confinement. And yet, I would be condemned and damned if I were to say that people have been confined. Ground floor houses have been converted into shops, beauty parlors, English teaching classes and STD-PCO booths. People go back to the older neighbourhoods for work and for reaching their children to schools. Some of the residents have given up their homes for rent and have begun to live in the nearby squatter settlements or in and around their original places of residence.

I walk around the area. A thriving women’s hawker market has come up on the roads. I am told this is an “illegal” market because it is not certified by the municipality. The drains and rats between the buildings remind you of the house-gully situation in Null Bazaar where the settlers are harassed by the overflowing sewage between two buildings.
There are groups of unemployed boys loafing around the area. I am told that these have become frequent lately.
The rickshaw drivers make their killing each day – five rupees a seat for a one-way ride between Govandi station and Lallubhai. The local autorickshaw fellas seem like another socio-political group emerging in the area, they being camped around the naka which is their adda.
Then there are the various forms of groups and organizations that abound within Lallubhai – the women’s savings group, the hawkers’ federation, National Slum Dwellers’ Federation-Mahila Milan-SPARC – all housed within the same office premises of what is mentioned in bold as the Public Information Center.
There are financial networks woven within the social and political fabric of the area – the grain merchants, the jewellery shops which double up as lending and borrowing institutions, you name it.
There are social and political organizations that I am unaware of but which likely exist – the very networks that existed in the squatter settlements and that formed an important aspect of the everyday practice of a slum.
Isolated – ghettoized – confinement – sorry to disappoint, but the space of Lallubhai is only unfolding with time. The self is emerging …

Rethinking the Idea and Practice of a Slum …

“It’s good that people have been moved into these flats. They will learn to live in a sanitized environment. They will learn to live with dignity and respect.”

“They get more space than what they had in their little slums. This rehabilitation is benefiting the people.”

“It will take a while for the slum dwellers to learn to live here. They are not used to the vertical way of living.”

“The community has to learn to accept one and all. The lepers’ rehabilitation colony in Oshiwara is placed away from the rest of the rehab housing. People don’t want other groups to live around them. The community will have to learn.”

“Now, there are a lot of Muslims coming into this area as tenants. The Maharahstrians are reducing in numbers.”

By now, I have been going to all those areas in the city that I did not ever venture into while I lived here for 25 odd years. There are times when I pass through those unevenly lined row houses and I ask myself – why is this labeled a slum? By what standards are these well furnished houses within this apparently uneven settlement classed as slums?
It would be highly banal on my end to state that the idea of a slum is quite different from its practice. But let me state what I felt as I experienced Lallubhai compound. That visit to Lallubhai has made it clear to me a slum is not merely a physical structure as it might be projected in policy and media. The slum is a network and simultaneously many networks and several circuits – all these networks and circuits connected with the space of the city, with the locality and meshed into numerous scales of statedom and nationdom and globaldom. When people are “rehabilitated” into flats and built structures, some of the circuits and networks are severed but at the same time, other connections become stronger and some connections become even more oppressive than they previously were.
Consistently, I also hear remarks of how the slum dwellers had occupied the lands and have now gotten flats in return for free, that they are now living in sanitized conditions and their lives will improve and that they should learn to live in the flats rather than escape from there. The stories in Lallubhai betray all these notions. While some of the more upwardly mobile among this misleading category of “urban poor” benefit with the receipt of the house, for many other individuals and families, the receipt of the home could not be a greater curse. These have been families that have been in the bottom rung among the poor and that the house in Lallubhai for them is a liability more than an asset. For these groups, the monthly payment of electricity bills and maintenance fees coupled with increased transportation costs and the loss of their jobs or the lack of increase in salaries but rise in expenses, all of these factors lead us to rethink whether the house is truly a marker of improvement in their lives. And then there are several among those who never made it to Lallubhai despite living among the same populations who were to be ‘rehoused’ – the process of rehabilitation and the political dynamics are in no way equal for all – some get the house, some decide to move out, some are deprived, and much more than what I can know and tell … And as for the sanitized living, the more seen, the better – the poor garbage lifting facilities, the overflowing drains between the buildings, the lack of water until water is fought for as an entitlement, and the teeming rats – yes certainly, sanity and sanitation have to be rethought as much as the idea and practice of the slum have to be reconsidered.

Beyond …
That pervasive feeling of wretchedness and disgust continues within me until I reach Govandi station. It persists beyond as I pass Wadala, Chunnabhatti, Sewri, Dockyard and even further, into the passing days … It travels within me and beyond me. I am still thinking what the city is and how the city is continuously accessed, both symbolically and physically, from time to time …

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Fort, Bombay – 400 001

June 23rd, 2008

Fort,
Bombay – 400 001.

Clean footpaths,
Spic and span,
Bombay – 400 001.

Clear,
Smooth,
Walkable,
No hindrances,
Bombay – 400 001.

But vendors operate,
Surreptitiously,
With their plastic thelas,
Wrapping up the bright blue plastic,
And running away with their wares when the municipality van comes around,
Bombay – 400 001.

“Three to four times a day,
the van comes,
these days.
Have to watch out
And then …
Bhag bhag bhag, abe bhag, gaadi aa gayi”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Is that not ruthless?
Three to four times a day?
What do they get by denying people the right to earn a decent living?”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Traditionally, citizenship has always been linked with property,
And more so in the recent times,
When you are a valid citizen only if you are own property,
And all those encroaching space are violators of the law,”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Wow, this area is all quiet, all empty,
and what time of the evening is it?
Only 7 PM?
The vendors would shut down at 9 and go back to their homes!”
Bombay – 400 001.

“But I remember,
When I was working here,
A decade ago,
There used to be these hutments on the footpath,
And we would come down in the afternoons,
And during the slack evening hours,
To watch TV,
Because the pavement dwellers were the only ones who had a public television!”
Bombay – 400 001.

And we walked,
“Hey, look there!
The TV is still there,
There,
Exactly there!
Just where it used to be,
Ten years ago!”
Bombay – 400 001.

And then as we walked further,
“And look there,
Can you see the squatters?
Their shanty homes still there,
In that walled little compound,
They used to be there when I was working in this area,”
Bombay – 400 001.

Hidden, yet evident
Those shanty hutments!
How people access the city?
How people make their claims,
On space,
To determine their livelihoods?
Political society – civil society …
Yakka yakka do!
Bombay – 400 001.

So what happens when a space is cleaned of its numerous claimants,
And clear owners of property are established?
Are the contests completely removed?
Does the space become irreversible?
Does clear, titled ownership reign supreme?
Bombay – 400 001.

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Of property, claimed spaces and accessing the city

June 6th, 2008

It is strange to feel a sense of communion with Bangalore city. In recent times, someone mentioned how he found Bangalore to be a flat city while Bombay was a city thick with stories. Perhaps those stories abound in Bangalore too, but I have isolated myself enough not to recognize them. One such story has been surfacing since the last two days and has gotten me thinking, once again, about space, about accessing the city, about urban land, and about the notions and practices of property.

It is indeed strange to feel a sense of communion with this city, this city which has since sometime been labeled as the epitome of fast paced and messy growth. “It is S. M. Krishna’s fault,” I am told, “He has brought the city to be the way it is today. He sold it to the real estate sharks and to the global land developers.” I wonder whether the story of today’s Bangalore is as simple as this. It is rhetorical to even make such a statement, but what needs to be stated is the fact that the story of this city is yet to be told, in all its thickness and richness. The story of this city is not all flat; it is the story of our times. I will try a little now …

So, it is absolutely strange to feel a sense of communion with this mad city called Bangalore. The airport has moved to 40 kms away from the city. The traffic is as bad as it could be. The city’s drains are already overflowing even with the wee bit of heavy showers. What is becoming of this city? That is the plaint with which civil society movements and organizations started in Bangalore, the city which is overflowing and teeming with the good governance and fight-corruption organizations. But that indeed is a flat paradigm of the city. I am confronted with the question of how do I understand and frame the notion and process of change?

Yes, it is indeed strange to feel one with this city, this city that is usually seen as a flat and a doomed-to-fail city. But it is not. It is a city which is at the crossroads of very important trajectories and what defines these trajectories are the contests and conflicts over accessing urban space. I was watching the Majestic area through the windows of the BMTC bus – every nook and corner of Majestic is occupied, legally and illegally. Sometimes, the illegal don’t even know that what they are engaging in is deemed illegal by law and planning. Everyone needs access to space – space, both metaphorically and physically. Booksellers on the footpath, pirated VCDs and pornographic material, bags, shoes, clothes, security services, banking services, pawnbrokers, jewellers, restaurants, hotels, malls at the side of the roadside messiness and occupied spaces – in Bombay they call this cheek by jowl. In Bangalore, I would say that the different times of the city co-exist in Majestic area and beyond. Different groups of people and individuals have occupied space, some nook, some corner, some cranny. And there are occupations and professions that exist in this area which are hidden from the eye but very much located in this geography. Majestic reminds me of a different time in the city. Yes, there are plots on which malls are being constructed in Majestic too and in a few years, the malls will be there unless something drastic happens. But what you see in Majestic is the existence of all kinds of time streams – yesterday, today and tomorrow. That yesterday is not disintegrated from today and tomorrow; it is intimately connected. And that yesterday will be shaped by today and tomorrow just as much as today and tomorrow will be shaped by yesterday. The physicality and the mortality of yesterday may disappear, but yesterday itself cannot disappear. Majestic says this to me as I observe the hectic and frenzied pace of urban space in this part of Bangalore.

As I move from Majestic into Rajajinagar, I am further surprised. Rajajinagar appears much more insular than the Richmond Town area that I live in. It appears that Rajajinagar is living in a time of its own. Photographs of Dr. Rajkumar, the famous cinestar whose death rocked the city, abound in this area. Rajkumar seems absolutely alive and kicking in the spirit of Rajajinagar. Perhaps, his presence even defines the locality of Rajajinagar and marks this space as distinct from other parts of the city. A strong feeling of Kannadiga-ness envelops you if you walk carefully through the area – the sounds, sights, smells, scenes- they strongly remind you that you are in the state of Karnataka of which Bangalore is an important geographical party and symbolic aspect. A subtle sense of the Kannada nation grips you as you walk preceptively, a feeling that is distinct and particular to this area. Now, with the Bangalore Metro expected to run through this area, one will have to wait and watch to see what processes the notions and practices of modernity, locality, community, urbanity, nation and globalization will generate.

Clearly, what has been most interesting about this form of participant observation across the Western parts of the city is the ways by which people have occupied urban space. At Magadi, as we see the hectic and frenetic construction of an underpass, we also simulataneously note that under the trees, there are people who are making and selling bamboo curtains. At Majestic, one notices fruit-cake kind of constructions that were certainly not planned, but created over time, through various networks of politics, graft, deception, illegality, identity and finance. Rajajinagar abounds with spaces that are known in our parlance as “neeche dukan, upar makaan”, again a form od practice that planning defies as illegal and that is increasingly coming under scrutiny with the construction of the Metro Rail. These are spaces which are being practiced variously and in ways that may not be recognnized by urban planning and law. They exist and yet, there is a strong feeling that runs through a large number of us that eventually, these spaces may be destroyed, taken over, annihilated and subsumed. Urbanity is being conceived as this process of the big fish eating the small and the small eating the smaller. The question is whether the current stream of urbanization requires much more intense attention to the processes that are taking place, irrespective of outcomes, if we are to nuance our understanding of change, growth, future, ‘development’?

As I moved into Nagarbhavi, I noticed that virgin properties which were once rocky lands, are now being constructed over. The pace of construction in the area is tremendous. I realized that the potential construction of the Bangalore Metro Rail around Vijaynagar will lead to property prices rising in and around the interiors of West Bangalore. I recognize that this is one of the ways in which property markets develop. The question that arises is whether the growth of property markets, the conversion of multiply claimed spaces into single ownership and title deeds that can be traded between people ‘legally’, is an irreversible process? Are the trajectories of cities defined? How do we conceive of the future? How does one draw on the past to understand and conceive the future? I begin with these questions and many more …

It is absolutely strange, yet wonderful, to feel a sense of communion with the city. It is an enabler, one that allows you to see the city as an organic entity that has life and is not a determined/controlled mass of space …

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