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Gurgaon’s jhuggis: Do the poor deserve a life of constant insecurity? Sep 28, 2012

Everything about Gurgaon is unique. It is a city that thrives on being different and often that difference is about a lack of empathy. There is this brazen, wannabe streak here that is disturbing. So many of us live here and continue to not see its underbelly.
Why this sudden negativity? Well, I just spent the evening driving around town touring it’s shanty settlements. Jhuggis that existed a few months ago we found barely a trace of. This was the jhuggi we had helped rehabilitate after a fire burnt it down. Turns out the owners, two brothers, quarrelled and the jhuggi was asked to be pulled down. Another site where a large jhuggi settlement had been disbanded in 2010 before the Commonwealth Games was now the scene of much excavating and concrete pouring. Makes one wonder about how the lives of the poor migrants in this city are putty in the hands of politicians, land owners and builders, a lot of the times working hand in glove with each other. And certainly all on the same side.
How do these people deal with these tremendous uncertainties? Especially those migrants that work as domestic help and I have encountered many families in which the wife swabs and sweeps in homes while the man washes cars or sweeps roads.
The construction labor seem to live in contractor-built shanties. These are dismantled once the building is complete and the workers move to a new site. Even so, there are many amenities they simply go without and they continue to dream a future of prosperity for their children in situations when they cannot even send them to school! Yet, they smile and welcome us into their jhuggis. They apologise for not having chairs, they talk to us with a sense of dignity. These are people poor in resources but scarcely poor in culture or etiquette. They do not deserve to live like this.
How much we take for granted something as basic as shelter. It’s because we have a relatively permanent address and quality housing that we remain largely healthy, our belongings remain safe, our kids go to reputed schools and are able to study well and sleep in peace. Even with our nation firmly rooted onto a path of capitalistic growth, I do believe there are some basic needs the state and society must strive to provide, in whatever way. So the poor have opportunity to exit the trap of poverty and despair.
As the research for my fellowship commences, I find myself part excited and part scared by the many truths I will discover, the many voices I will hear. I hope to, and this is a tall order, find some reasonable ways to deal with migrant housing for a city like Gurgaon. I hope to build a case for inclusiveness.

Jalti Jhopdi update: Some done, more to do; but the poor need to take initiative for self-improvement too!

Yesterday evening was when our efforts to help the residents of the burnt down slum (Jalti Jhopdi project) culminated into the physical distribution of material. Each kit we gave consisted of a bedsheet, a medicinal mosquito net and a utensils kit that included everything a family would need to cook a basic meal and eat it. One matka per house were distributed later in the night.

With the help of Riyaz from the local masjid, we were able to organize the residents well. They formed a line and came one by one to receive the things, each carrying a card the masjid had distributed with details of the family and a list of what they had already got before.

Waiting in line for distribution to begin...

Giveaway items in line as well!

When you go in to do charity, you may hold off from expecting gratitude, but you do not anticipate criticism. It was disturbing for us when the very first recipient in line wanted to exchange her sheet because she didn’t like it! It brought us to reality a bit and we carried on. The real test, however (and a lot of fun) was the distribution of slippers to the kids. Getting a hundred kids into single file height-wise line was the most challenging thing I had attempted to do in a long, long time! Much squealing and squabbling later, we succeeded in giving away chappals in multiple sizes to all the kids in the jhuggi.

After we pulled it off, we saw some of the older kids coming back saying they hadn’t got a pair. Sure enough, the mother was wearing new slippers and had sent the kid asking for another one!

Don’t get me wrong; these are simple people. But somehow their circumstances train them to be greedy. We were clear that the kids would be bought chappals because we knew most of the adults were out working when the fire happened. Presumably, they were wearing chappals. These are all domestic workers; we asked them to request their employers to give them an extra pair of chappals.

The psychology that if you get anything free, you ask for more is ingrained into the poor because they are desperately poor and because they perceive themselves as temporary migrants at the bottom of society’s long heirarchy of socio-economic status. They acknowledge their kids should go to school, but do not send them to the free school the mosque runs down the road! They say only individual toilets will work because there is so much infighting, no one would maintain them! They say they are here only temporaily, so why invest (even just their time) in improving their homes. Offers to provide insulation material that they can install themselves were met with lukewarm response.

It is impossible to help communities that refuse to put in some effort to get organized. It is a huge challenge to help people who do not seem to have a desire to really improve their condition. Is it possible, however, that these people genuinely have no hope for better lives? That they are as impoverished in imagination and aspiration as they are in their economical condition? And that is the real Catch-22 situation- Is it ethical for us to invest efforts into building hopes if we do not have a sustained program to help them truly integrate into a society that is happy to have migrants at the fringes?

I do not have ready answers, but I hesitate to promise what I cannot deliver. Clearly, offering some opportunity for education to children at these temporary shanties is the single-most impactful contribution we can make. Followed by shelter, health, hygiene and political empowerment. If we are able to find 5 motivated jhuggi dwellers who can dream of a better future, something might be possible!

Waiting for slippers

Smiles of childhood...I must add we found kids eating gutka, trying to wangle an extra chappal or two, etc- innocence ends fast in poverty

Jalti Jhopdi: More thoughts on improving shelter for impermanent settlements- April 3, 2012

Coincidentally, as I was wracking my head to find some way we could contribute to better living conditions at the firestruck jhuggi, Global Urbanist posted an article on a shack fire in Cape Town. There too, they are seeking appropriate ways to rebuild; however, it was heartening to read that Cape Town’s municipality had a disaster relief department that provided 3 days of food and basic kit for the poor to rebuild. Here in Gurgaon, the government response to such incidents is negligible. Leave alone failed systems, I feel this is a reflection of a loss of basic human empathy. Jhuggi residents are classified as ‘migrants’ and the local government wants to take no responsibility for them whatsoever. So, as Arti, who is part of the team working on the Jalti Jhopdi project, the only long term solution to get givernment attention to these transient jhuggis is to get migrants on the voter list here in Gurgaon.

Arti and me went back to the jhuggi today to inform residents about the timing of the distribution we will do tomorrow of utensils, chappals for kids, mosquito nets and earthen pots. One bit of the jhuggi has acquired tin sheets for walls and have built cardboard and tarpaulin roofs. The other half are still struggling, using torn saris etc as walls for now as they wait for the contractor to mobilize more material. Mud kilns (chulhas) have been built and those who had resources have bought some bare necessities and begun cooking, some have created the traditional mud floor, thus leveling the ground to spread sheets or other floor material; but the struggle is still on. Regular life is far from restored and we hope the distribution tomorrow will help. We managed today to get a shamiana tent done on one side to shelter the children from the daytime sun; but the ground underneath it isn’t level, so unfortunately people may or may not sleep under it tonight.

Coming back to the shelter issues, there are a few serious concerns. One, there is not enough space between the jhuggis to prevent another fire. In fact, the only jhuggi that was isolated from the rest was able to douse out the fire and was only half burnt. Obviously, they were the first back on their feet!

Insulation is the next big issue. As of now, cardboard and tarpaulin roofs offer no insulation at all and the tin walls ensure that the jhugis are heat traps. We quizzed them about housing back home in Bengal. In their villages, they said they build mud walls and have now use tin sheets for roofing as opposed to the traditional thatch which is hard to maintain. However, to protect their homes from heat, they create a false ceiling inside with bamboo or thatch, which they fill with mud to create a cool interior. the air gap between the false ceiling and the tin is the insulating layer. They were unwilling to do this for their jhuggis because they perceive themselves as migrants with a transient existence here and are unwilling to invest in their homes. Never mind some of them have been here for over six years!

Clearly, some sort of community mobilization (perhaps in the form of self-help groups for specific objectives) would be needed for life to improve in jhuggis such as this, but this will not be easy in settlements where there is a high turnover of occupants. We need to think about what can be the right interventions for transient jhuggis such as these, where occupants have absolutely no tenure, where there is little community feel, where residents feel like outsiders, have no legal status and no government help is forthcoming; where anything but temporary dwellings will not be built because residents are not interested in investing and because land owners will be threatened by more pukka structures, resulting in eviction.

We need to have solutions for better housing and sanitation for jhuggis like this that exist all over the country and especially in rapidly urbanizing areas like Gurgaon where the need for cheap labour is fulfilled only by migrant populations. Just like governments expect builders to pay development charges for bringing municipal services to their developments, local governments must take responsibility to provide quality temporary housing on rent to migrants who are essential to the local economy. These are people that play a vital role for Gurgaon. We saw during the Commonwealth Games when migrants were chased away, how the city was crippled. They deserve better. How can we help?

In the process of rebuilding

Mud floor freshly made

Life goes in the heat and dust

Purple boots? Seriously? I asked them who would be wearing those and they got the joke!!


Urgent need for appropriate materials to rebuild burnt jhuggi- ideas welcome! April 2, 2012

Pawan Varma’s ‘When loss is gain’, which I just finished reading brought forth an interesting commentary on how many of us view life and especially deal with loss, trauma and sorrow. Some of us withdraw from life’s small pleasures, believing that it was our unquenchable desire that led to disappointment and loss. Others place their faith in a higher being, and yoyo between God and self pity. A few do learn to move on, finding pleasure and comfort in life. From what I have seen, moving on has a lot to do with showing the door to our infamous companion- the ego so that we can try new things, savour fresh experiences and live again.
For the residents of the slum in project Jalti Jhopdi (do visit our facebook page to like and contribute) however, picking up the threads of life at present is all about dealing with practicalities-rebuilding their homes, finding utensils and clothes, food. They don’t talk about the trauma and the sorrow, but it is there just under the skin covered up with all the urgency of the raw needs of human life.
In two days we have seen a mixed response from people to our appeal for help. A few driven individuals have offered their time and taken initiative, taking care to understand needs and mobilising resources. Others have contributed money and things selflessly and with speed. Many are yet to respond, failing to gather the empathy needed for an act of charity.
Our group is focusing on specific forms of help (kiddie slippers, terracotta pots to store water, temporary tenting to give kids a roof over their heads are on their way to being done and we are targeting utensils as well; another group has teamed with the local mosque to provide gas cylinders, food, clothes, etc). We are facing roadblocks in identifying appropriate material for their roofs and walls. We need low cost, safe, non flammable, light sheets of material that can be tied to the bamboo frames that have already been erected on site. If anyone knows of how to do this, please contact me.
Other roadblocks are toilets and sanitation, plus some sort of cooperative banking system that can help them keep their little amounts of cash safe and provide them credit for specific needs. Addressing these is a long term project, but the opportunity to provide them better shelter should be tapped. Ideas are welcome!


Positivity in the face of disaster: Our experience at Gurgaon’s burnt down slum- March 31, 2012

A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday.  When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!

Staring at empty space where their homes stood just a day ago!

Charred remains of things essential

At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.

Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.

The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.

Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.

A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.

There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.

My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!

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