Kane Ryan of Dirty Wall Project and the people who live in India’s Saki Naka slum watch helplessly as part of the slum is bulldozed to make way for something people call progress.
Sidestepping Haadrik, I (Kane) grab the man by the back of the neck and push him forcefully away from the two women. One woman clutches her yellow sari, dabbing at her bleeding nose while the other disappears in a flash of blue fabric only to reappear seconds later with a large club. A crowd is gathering along the pipeline and the man is yelling and trying to push his way by me. I’m momentarily distracted by a small child who toddles by unaware, and in my moment of lapse the man surges and grabs a clump of the women’s hair. I yell and rip at the man’s back as a tuft of black hair falls to the ground amidst the screams.
Physical altercations are far from uncommon in these communities, but tensions are running unusually high throughout the area today. The presence of police and earth-moving equipment beginning to assemble above the main road are making everyone nervous. By the end of the day, 200 slum homes will be demolished, leaving the families who occupied them homeless.
Some of the kids who attend the Balwadi in Saki Naka are now without homes. Jyothi was pressing suds and water out of clothing when we noticed her. She invited me in and offered me a stool to sit on. I looked at the clock hanging by a small nail by the side of her door. It was after 10 a.m. The bulldozers and the police would be arriving at 11. From a recycled fertilizer bag full of her belongings, she fished out a pot, some tea, a bag of milk and some sugar and made me chai. We sat and talked and drank our fragrant chai and I watched the clock. She wanted to show me her new home, a few laneways away. We meandered through the serpentine layout of the slum, up a narrow, steep set of stairs, overlooking a putrid, black stream filled with garbage to find her husband sweeping out their new home. They will live in this eight foot by ten foot room with their two children. They are lucky.
Over half the population of this mega-city lives in slums, which accounts for about eight million people. They come from all over India, hoping to find jobs, moving from villages where life is even more precarious, malnutrition is a threat, and education and medical care is non-existent. In the city, government-owned land on which to build a hut is available between the billboards and highrises.
In Mumbai, children have access to education, there is always food to eat, even if it has to be scavenged, and menial labour jobs are available. The slum-dwellers are the engine that run the city. Without them, sewers would remain stagnant, bricks wouldn’t get hauled, buses and rickshaws would be at a standstill, layers of grime and dust would pile high in office towers and homes, tanneries would grind to a halt, and packages would remain undelivered. However, slums are illegal (although many people have lived in the Saki Naka slum for over 20 years) and the slum dwellers are squatters, exercising a right to land to which they are not entitled. The government and the BMC make the decisions regarding which slum homes to bulldoze based on assumptions about land use and other city issues. The threat of terrorists melting into the population of a slum, giving easy access to infiltrate and sabotage water pipelines, is a concern.
The slum dwellers on one side of the laneway, who would be spared, watched as their neighbours only four feet away, hurried to get their things out of their tiny homes. Children played as if nothing was happening. Parents heaved their goods into the laneway and piled them against their neighbour’s wall. Some homes had already been stripped and abandoned days before and stood as a poignant reminder of what was to come. Pigs were carried on men’s backs and strapped to a bicycle to be moved. Barefoot children carried what they could, following their parents like little soldiers up and out of the slum and into horrendous traffic to find a new place to sleep. Men and women pulled wires, piled bricks, threw asbestos roofing sheets into the laneway and stacked metal piping, taking anything that would be of use to them when they found somewhere else to build.
The bulldozers perched on the roadway above the homes like primordial monsters, hungry for a meal of metal and brick, while police and BMC officers patrolled the laneway making sure homes were cleared of their occupants. Hawkers and vendors plied their trade with baskets full of fabric, sponges, kitchen tools, and kerosene stove fittings through the bereft crowd, needing to make a living and hoping for a sale from those people whose homes would still be standing at the end of the day. Like a centipede with it’s tail cut off, slum-dwellers keep moving, keep surviving, even when their disaster is man-made. Dogs licked water from sludgy puddles laced with oil paint. Some in the crowd of people who would lose their homes were excited because they believe the government will provide SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) flats to them if they have the correct paperwork. By the end of the day, only 40 families out of 200, with everyone claiming they have the right paperwork, would be moving to the flats.
The first deafening crunch of the bulldozers teeth sent debris flying and filled the air with choking dust. The police were ready with their batons should the crowd become unruly, as they did a few weeks before when they came to give a warning. Like an efficient military operation, the machines marched down the laneway, gulping home after home. When the dust settled, the families marched back into the rubble, where they just cooked their breakfast only a few hours before, to see what they could salvage.
We met a girl of about 10, who hovered near us for the next two hours. Her parents left their home in the morning to go to their much needed jobs, knowing they would leave their daughter to fend for herself while their home was destroyed. She was excited to talk to us, asked us our names and seemed oblivious to the tragic consequence that had just been bestowed upon her. She knew her parents would be back and they would be living with her grandfather on the other side of the laneway — three more people living in a closet-sized room with no sanitary conditions. When she wasn’t peppering us with questions, she would comb through the rubble, looking for something she wouldn’t find.
The next morning we arrived at the demolished neighbourhood before the sun was fully awake. Dust still hung in the air, small fires burned, and people behaved like zombies. Some had swept the sharp debris from a flat surface and wound themselves in blankets for the night. Others continued to pick through the rubble. Behind a hastily erected, flimsy tin barricade, a man found some privacy for a bucket bath.
Dirty Wall Project (DWP) hired a slum family who owns a small food stall to make breakfast for the homeless. The family, whose “kitchen” is the size of most beds, provided dal, idlis, pakoras and sambar for over 200 people. The slumlord family looked on approvingly and helped manage the crowd, while their daughter served chai to those sitting quietly in the ruins, and their son passed out paper plates. Lunch was provided by a Kulvir, a Sikh priest, who had an enormous pot of rice and vegetables prepared at his temple and then trucked to the site. The women in the Saki Naka slum, peeled, chopped and stirred giant pots of vegetables and rice to provide them with dinner.
The people have now moved on, at first hanging on to the belief that the government would provide a flat to them, and then discouraged but stoic, they gave in and marched slowly out of range, looking for a new place to set up a home, or at least to sleep for a few nights. Some will go back to their villages, most will rebuild in another slum area. They are not going to disappear and the city should be thankful for that. Newspapers will be delivered on time, lunches will magically appear in a tiffin, laundry will be collected, washed, pressed and returned, ditches will be cleaned, bricks will be hauled, domestic chores will be attended to, offices will be cleaned, and construction of the mega-highrises will continue with those on the bottom handing bricks loaded on their head to those at the top. One can’t live without the other.
This was a moving day.
Over 200 plates of food served – 2600 INR – $59.10 CAD
NOTE: This slum is very large and the projects that DWP have built (garden and school) remain intact, well-used and are safe from the bulldozers for years to come.