Financial capital fails to shelter the very people who power it at minimum wages.

Noor Jehaan Ansari, a 38-year-old slum-dweller from Ambujwadi, in Mumbai, ushered in 2013 by marching in the company of 15,000 people from various shanty towns.

After walking more than 30 km over two days, the group set up camp in a corner of the sprawling Azad Maidan in south Mumbai. This was how the new year dawned for these protestors in the country’s financial capital teeming with hundreds of thousands of homeless people.

The camp was a scene of much deliberation. As speakers talked about basic rights such as water, electricity and housing, the gathering listened, occasionally raising slogans, and spent the night in the open. Many Mumbaikars grumbled about the disruptions, but others helped by donating food, says Noor Jehan. Organised under the banner of the ‘Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao’ (Save Home, Build Home) movement, the protestors also demanded an investigation into scams involving several slum rehabilitation schemes. Social activist Medha Patkar and others are supporting the movement in a city where the plight of urban poor has only worsened.

Under the Maharashtra Slum Areas (Improvement, Clearance and Redevelopment) Act, 1971, all slums built in Mumbai after 1995 are illegal and denied basic services, including water and sanitation. According to the 2011 census, 78 per cent of Mumbai lives in slums.

The march had a significant presence of women, even though it was not easy for the labouring poor, most of them in the unorganised sector, to participate. The loss of a day’s work often means not just loss of income but also the threat of unemployment. Noor Jehan, a domestic help, lost her job. “But I had no option, I promised I would participate. Where we live, we don’t have toilets. We have to defecate in the open, and are constantly harassed. Men follow us all the time, but we have no choice,” she says. Ironically, even as the protest was on, 1,410 hutments were demolished in the western suburb Dahisar. “Oh, they time their demolitions very well. Our homes were razed on World Human Rights Day! The municipal chaps wanted to make a garden on the very spot where 300 families lived. Where do they expect us to go?” says Alima Sheikh, a resident of Malvani.

Sitaram Shelar of YUVA, an NGO working with the homeless in Mumbai, says, “It is a misconception that the poor are asking for free homes. All they ask is for affordable houses. Since the State has fixed minimum wages for the poor, we demand that it provide houses as per the wage. It is the responsibility of the State to provide homes for the poor. They are not criminals. They contribute to the economy like anyone else.”

Despite the large number of people at the protest, there was very little media attention, except briefly when social activist Anna Hazare came out in support of the slum-dwellers’ demands. Finally, the State Government agreed to “look into” the issue after about 500 demonstrators stormed the administrative headquarters Mantralaya to press their demands.

Although no one knows yet what the Government will do to help, the fact that it paid some attention was cause for celebration. “If the Government goes back on its word, we will be back again,” shouted one of the protestors, as the demonstration drew to an end.

(This feature is part of a National Foundation of India fellowship.)

© Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on February 14, 2013)
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