Monthly Archives: May 2012

“Many thousands gone”
— folk song

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Age of Zinc is proud to present the fourth installment in the memoirs of an Indian slum dweller.

During the 1960s with the support of various pro-poor Christian organizations, I travelled to different cities in India meeting slum leaders and housing activists, who were all struggling to check demolitions. We decided to band together and create a National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) with me as president. Today, NSDF has around two million members across 72 Indian cities.

Meanwhile my ideas were changing. I was coming to the conclusion that large-scale improvement in the lives of the urban poor was possible only if strong community organizations worked with the government. But that didn’t mean the poor simply accepted whatever the authorities did. That was why so many development projects had failed. The poor had to have a major say in the design and running of such projects. Moreover, they had to prove to the authorities that they could acquire—despite their poverty and lack of formal education—the skills to oversee projects that affected them.

This strategy was no magic bullet either. The journey would be long and arduous. Infinite patience would be required. But given the government’s unmatched power and resources, there was no other option.

In the beginning the Bombay Slum Dwellers Federation was an all-male organization.  But pretty soon I discovered that women were the key to developing communities. To me women meant three things: communication, information, and money. These are the ingredients that make development possible. Women talk sense. In India they are like human money purses. They keep their change in their sleeves, in their saris. Their whole body is their pocket. You shake them, the money will fall down. Money is very close to the hearts of women. You put some money and ten women together. They will take care of it. Once you convince women to save money, they will not stop supporting one another. And money is the starting point for women’s conversations with other women, as well as with men. Once they discuss money, they soon discuss all issues of importance.

“Tradition, tradition, tradition…, you bawl on the floor for the tree that loses its leaves, as if the leaf was the root!… Leave tradition alone, son, and watch the root…”
— Patrick Chamoiseau

Age of Zinc is proud to present the third installment in the memoirs of an Indian slum dweller.

Early in my career as an organizer, I realized that politicians, officials and planners had no grasp of how the poor live and what they want. For that reason alone we could not depend on government to solve our problems. The incident with the school children and the garbage made me realize that change could be achieved if there was a critical mass that demanded change. Authorities, I learned, were not inclined to deal with individual communities or disempowered groups. I also learned that as a slum-dweller, as opposed to a professional I did not need money to be able to organize people. All I needed was people.

I quickly became one of Janata Colony’s key youth leaders, well known for activities ranging from community cleanups of municipal toilets to arranging illegal water connections.

Then in the late 1960s, the municipality ordered the colony’s residents to leave their homes and move to a site a couple of kilometres away, saying that the land was needed by the Government’s Atomic Energy Commission to build 700 flats for its employees. The residents protested, pointing out that, unlike most Mumbai slums, which were built on illegally occupied land, Janata Colony had been established by the municipality 20 years earlier. But the authorities were adamant.

A prolonged struggle ensued, with me in the thick of it. I organized road barricades, public meetings and demonstrations. I lobbied top political leaders, and filed court cases against the government. I was arrested dozens of times—though I also occasionally managed to evade capture by concealing myself in the midst of large groups of slum women. The situation turned serious when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a personal interest in the Janata Colony case. I went to New Delhi and demanded an audience with her, but she made me and my followers wait for twenty-nine days. I refused to return to Mumbai unless the Prime Minister met with me. I was not successful.

When Mrs. Gandhi eventually gave the signal for the demolition, I circulated pamphlets and leaflets warning in bold red letters that we would bomb the houses of the scientists.  The day before the demolition, I met with the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, arguing that me and my people were not contesting government’s right to evict us but demanding that due process be observed. The chairman told me, “Even God will not be able to stop it tomorrow.” At 4:30am the next morning, while I was knocking at the chairman’s door with a court order for a stay of eviction, about 13,000 policemen, six hundred trucks, and five thousand municipal workers arrived on the scene. Our actions attracted considerable international attention. But it didn’t matter. In May 1976, bulldozers flattened Janata Colony.