Age of Zinc is proud to present the ninth installment in the memoirs of an Indian slum dweller.
For about 20 years I was only doing “toyi-toyi”. Police would arrest me almost every month. But eventually I became so strong that they arrested me only on paper. They would sign my arrest warrant in front of the crowd but would never actually arrest me, because I was always with a crowd of women, always around 5 to 10 thousand women. Police would come to arrest me and the women would open their blouses. Police would be too embarrassed and would go away and I was safe. That is how we used the women and I mean really how we “used” them. Even though they were the ones who took the most risks, we the men were always the ones who made the decisions.
Even then I was really arrested more than thirty times, being in and out of jail. And in all those 20 years of fighting, fighting, fighting, I did not even build one toilet, not even one house, but I became a very big leader. Yes I became a very, very big leader but people got nothing. There were headings in the newspaper, television, radio. Everything was “the leader, the leader, the leader.” It did not matter that I, the leader, spoke about people’s power all the time. The people still got nothing.
After 20 years I changed myself. I aligned my organization to the women pavement dwellers of Byculla, Mumbai and their professional support organization. Out of this partnership came a new way of action and a new formula for dealing with slums. It is simple and it is powerful. The state must provide free land, or land at subsidized cost. The Municipal corporations must provide basic services, like they are meant to do for all their citizens, while communities must get organized to design and manage their settlements – spearheaded by the women. This all comes from dialogue and from engaging the Government, not as victims or lackeys. We take the struggle to the negotiation table.
Since that change 20 years ago I have enabled my movement to build over 70,000 houses plus millions of dollars worth of communal toilets. Today I can go to any city in India and in many other countries and the movements there are building hundreds of thousands of toilets and houses.
When I was fighting I was on the street begging, literally begging. Today my movement is producing development in the millions of dollars, and I still live in a slum. But I am a far better leader because my movement produces real results that people can see and touch and feel.
But that does not mean we are always happy with our government. Just now very recently in a very big settlement in Mumbai called Dharavi, the government tried to impose their plans on the people. So we decided to show them our power. We organized 50,000 people to demonstrate and shut down the whole city of Mumbai for a day. But we did not do it just to demand a solution from outside. If we have the solution, government has no choice but to work with us. Governments will come and go. We are not going anywhere.