Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A street for a home & the sky for a roof

When I first started travelling to Mumbai on work, the biggest shock I encountered were the number of slums & shanties even in the most upmarket areas of the city. There were other aspects too of the city that I didn't particularly like - the hordes of people, the infamous traffic and the sultry weather (coming from Bangalore, weather's always a point to be noted), but these didn't bother me as much.

My only experience of Mumbai until before the work trips, was a short vacation a few years earlier where the sights and sounds of the city had been fairly distant given the antiseptic nature of holidays.

Now, when I commuted to work and back to the suburbs where I stayed at that time, the shanties along the roadside were the ones that troubled me the most (and continue to do so). The more fortunate ones have a one room shack of board or asbestos, these are lined up side by side in one long row. Cooking, cleaning, the children's play area are all outside the one room, that is literally on the road. The less fortunate ones have a plastic sheet over their heads as protection or nothing at all. For them everything they did - cooking, cleaning, washing, sleeping is under the open sky and literally street side. In both cases children, especially toddlers, not more than 4-5 years old play on these high traffic roads, sometimes without supervision when adults are busy or at work. The older children are rarely to be seen, I hope they are in school and not going to work themselves.

Most often I've heard from residents & visitors alike, "Oh, the population in this city is growing uncontrollably" or "I don't know how the government can allow these slums to develop in the middle of the city, they are vote banks so they get all sorts of facilities." Which are all valid points of view in themselves but do we really make an attempt to see the reasons behind the migration & the squalor?

I asked my help one day why she migrated to the city. She's a second generation migrant and her response was "Employment, there was nothing for us in our village... It's not like we like to live in small airless huts, we don't have a choice." She pays a rent of Rs. 2,000 a month for a one room tenement where she lives with her adult son, is sometimes joined by her daughter & grandson too. I then asked the young man in the office canteen why he left his home in distant Rajasthan to serve tea/coffee/snacks to people in this city. His response too was similar. "There was no way to make ends meet at home, so I came to the city to help my uncle in his catering business."

This seems to be the common reason why each day there are thousands of people entering the cities from far flung corners of the country - survival - for themselves and their families. They hope to send some money back to their families or save enough to go back to live better lives.

Think about it, most of us too have moved or are part of families where previous generations moved to the city for a better life, for better opportunities. We have been fortunate that our circumstances have been different and that made a world of a difference to the way we live, think & perceive life around us. Why should we then deny the immigrants in the slums a chance to make their dreams and aspirations come true.

While I am not advocating that slums, shanties & the homeless be given encouraged in urban areas, I just wonder how narrow can our outlook be? Obviously, life is a struggle for them. I am sure no one, no matter how unfortunate our circumstances, wants to live 5-10 ppl to a room or in shacks made of tin & asbestos or literally on the footpath.

If we can't directly help, the least we can do is to empathise with them and if possible support civic agencies in what they do. Don't you think so?


  1. Mumbai has the largest slum population no doubt. It's really sad to see them struggle and trying to survive each and every day of their lives. It's a pity that Ambanis have one of the richest houses built in the same place where people don't even know if they'd have a roof on their head the next day.

  2. I agree, UB. There are other economically well-developed countries too with such a difference between the rich & the poor but India is certainly one of the few countries where this gap is fast widening. While we all welcome the economic growth our country is going through, I think we should pay some heed to what the implications of such a huge disparity will be in the near future.