Slumdogs and the Millionaires

Slums are good news – to a lot of people, except for those who live there, of course.  I would call them a parallel universe, because other than our own universe, we have no idea of any others in the galaxy, or if we do, they are coloured by fantasy and fiction at best. Likewise what we know about slums is gleaned from the outside which put us off, or from films which invest them with a glamour they least possess. When they co-existed with the high-rises sometimes a mere wall separated the two universes. But urban realities and compulsions have made it necessary to relocate them – outside the city, out of sight.

A favela or slum in Salvador, Brazil (Image courtesy: tripwow.tripadvisor.com)

These resettlement colonies are no better than the ones they had been forced to vacate. With little or no infrastructure, no sanitation worth mentioning, sporadic or no water supply, no sewage or waste disposal systems to speak of — these slums are dens of disease, crime and misery.

My maid lives in one of these resettlement colonies and commutes to work every day. I cluck sympathetically when she tells me about the overflowing drains, the mosquitoes and the stench. But what she told me last week, made me feel terrible. Her teenage daughter was suffering from diarrhea. That itself could have been taken care of with medicines and ORS, but it was worse. The girl had to go to the toilet and in a hurry at night. With the toilet complex being far from her house, she accompanied her but the place was dark and some drunken youth were loitering around. Scared to go further, she stood there, the girl in agony, till a couple of more people came along and went with them.

How many of us can identify with this basic need of another human being?  We want them out of sight, but do we think of them as fellow humans? That is why I referred to slums as ‘another universe.’

Call them anything – slums, shanty towns, favela, jhuggi jhopdi or simply ‘colony’ — they are here to stay. Understandably, slums are a byproduct of urbanization and there are slums in many developing countries, some of them bigger than even Dharavi or others of its kind, as migrants pour into the cities in search of livelihood. While some slums are much better off in terms of infrastructure and basic amenities, others wallow in filth. But in India, slums are uniformly filthy and living conditions inhuman.

And yet, these are goldmines for a whole lot of people who live off and thrive on them, much as vultures feed on the weak and the dying. The most important ones among them are the politicians. Many a politician has made his/her fortune by ‘nurturing’ these hell-holes. The sequence goes something like this:

They first allow slums to proliferate and then regularize them — issue identity cards and create a vote bank — come to power riding on their votes — bow down to pressure from the residents of the housing colonies around and relocate the slum, by leasing out the land to them large enough to build a shack, often with just a tin sheet or even a plastic sheet held down by rocks and bricks for a roof — let them fester in the filth till another election looms ahead — make a beeline to their miserable shacks and again beg for votes.  

Slums are the biggest and cheapest vote banks. Minority, caste, regional or the intellectual vote banks come at a price, often a steep one. A slum dweller on the other hand will take a thousand rupees or less and a bottle of booze to press the button on the EVM.  The goons make sure the beneficiaries of this largesse vote for their respective candidates. Though the ballot is supposed to be secret, they can smell the fear in the voters and cash in on that. The illiterate migrants often are too scared of losing their shack, the lives of their menfolk and their daughters.  With such incentives and terror tactics, is it any wonder that there is such a huge turnout from the poorer sections come voting time, who tilt the balance in favour of the bigger benefactor/goon?

Slum tourism is the latest fad (Image courtesy:en.wikipedia.org)

Now, who else benefits from the misery of the slum dwellers? Take a look at the other beneficiaries, notably the various mafia:

  • There is a land mafia in the slums, more powerful and dirtier than that in the other universe. It deals in malba (debris), not land. My friend once loaned her maid Rs.25,000 to buy a one room shack. I was aghast when the maid produced a sheet torn from a notebook where the seller had ‘sold’ the malba to her. My friend told me that she had seen such ‘documents’ where bigger money had exchanged hands transacting such ‘debris’. One can imagine how and illegal occupancy, extortion and such are common in their Universe. Fear and power go hand in hand.
  • Then there is the builder’s mafia — not the five-star builders who high-rise construct condos for the well-heeled, but those that build five storeys on a 10×10 or smaller plot. A feat of engineering, but with disastrous results.
  • The electricity is ‘sold’ by the electricity mafia. A single meter supplies power to dozens of houses for a fee ranging from Rs.200-1000 depending upon the appliances being used. Appliances, in slums? Well, they even have ACs in some dwellings. Remember there are also houses with several storeys?  And sometimes the power is simply ‘taken’ from the power supply pole and then sold. Talk of business sense!
  • BPL cards are denied or given depending upon the ‘connections’ of the slum dweller. Read related news item here. My maid has already spent more than Rs.5000 to grease several palms to get hers. She has now given up in disgust . I am sure this is one way of verifying whether someone is BPL or not. After all, how can someone living on Rs.28 afford to pay so much as bribe? Well done, PC!!
  • There are fixers to get everything done in a slum. You need a ration card? An identity card? A gas connection? They will do it for a price. Any movement against corruption is meaningless when your survival depends on the corrupt and the unscrupulous who feed on others’ misery. It is not the middle class that suffers because of corruption but these poor people.
  • Then there are the industries. Some of them illegal, dangerous and clandestine — they operate from the miserable confines of the narrow alleys. Dharavi is a well-known business hub. It even exports goods worth tens of crores! Namkeens and papads are some of the food items made in these slum homes. One can imagine the hygiene of the places and the workers who make them.
  • And don’t forget the film makers. Where would they all go if not for the slums and the millions of stories hidden in their alleys? No less than two dozen films have been made on Dharavi alone – one of the biggest slums the world, both national and international including the hit film Slumdog Millionaire.
  • I recently read that reality tours of slums are the latest attraction offered by tour operators the world over including Dharavi in Mumbai. Talk of glamourising poverty!
  • And the people who employ them — us. We make use of their labour too and not all of us give them the dignity they deserve as human beings. We only see them, not their life as a whole and so can’t appreciate the colossal misery they live with.

We are demanding the safety of our women who can’t go out freely at night or even the day. We cry foul that our women can’t go to the pub for a drink in the wee hours without fear of being molested.  But can we spare a thought for the miserable inhabitants of this other Universe, where women have to dread even going to the toilet at night with their daughters? Are they not women whose safety is of concern? Or does being poor make them less of a woman?

Who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs? More importantly, who is responsible for providing basic sanitation and other amenities to the slum-dwellers? The party voted to power in the municipal elections with their votes? The party ruling the state? The Central government? All of them? None?

(Do read the related post The great Divide)

(Image on Home Page: dharavischool.org)   

90 comments

  1. […] According to a survey conducted by the TOI, not just the politicians who want the slums for their votebank, but even the urban middle and upper middle class want them for the cheap labour they provide. The poor themselves are loath to relinquish their miserable dwellings, because of the freebies they get and for the lack of any viable means to pull themselves out of them. Government after successive government promises them better living conditions while regularising these shanties, well aware that they are helping in the proliferation of land mafia, crime and squalor inside them. (Read post here) […]

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  2. First off. What a title, Zephyr. Slumdogs and Millionaires. Worthy of a book, a film… But also this fantastic post. :-)

    Slumdogs and Millionaires. Two sides of the same coin. And in a city like Mumbai two sides in the same neighbourhood just divided by a wall. Two sides that epitomises the two ends of a continuum of multiple deprivations at one end and multiple excesses at the other end. And in the middle lies the great Indain Middle Class who despise one end of the continuum and and strive to join the ranks of the other end.

    Ultimately, no one cares for the other. Be it the government, the politicians, the comman citizen… out very society.

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  3. a nice post on a serious issue..

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  4. A very gritty post Zephyr. Very true, sometimes it is just a single wall separating the 180 degree worlds and still no one seem to bother. They are relocated just to create another similar dwell someplace else and when the development will reach there, they will again be moved to another god forsaken place..

    The solution lies in everyone realizing that a human being, irrespective of financial status, deserves to have some basic amenities, some basic rights… I don’t know when that surge will happen…

    i am so glad I bumped into your blog… I am coming often now… :)

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    1. Unfortunately in our country humans are evaluated by their status, whether financial or educational or both. And by no means can these people measure up to those standards.So the ignorance and discrimination.

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  5. Fantastic post written by the right person generating the needed amount of dialogue and reflection!!! The post is as hard-hitting as the many comments after that. I hope this post and the comments that have followed will make at least each one of the readers ponder deeply on our roles in exploitation and otherization. Strangely, I read this post after spending a weekend reading Katherine Boo’s book “Beyond The Beautiful Forevers”–a study of Annawadi slums near Mumbai International Airport. This book is a both a heartbreaking as well as a deeply compassionate book that does not preach charity, that does not show pity, but with tremendous grace highlights human life and aspirations and struggles in a globalized world with every increasing inequality and how the same is created in young lives. In the book, two young girls Meena and Manju maintain their friendship by their nightly meetings by the public toilet. When Meena commits suicide by drinking rat poison, Manju is left forlorn and discovers Meena’s name on the wall of the public toilet and the Manju believes “that the first girl born in Annawadi had left some mark of herself on the place”…Thank you for writing this very important post and facilitating the discussion that this topic deserves!!!!

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    1. The book reads like a story but is non-fiction based on facts and documented evidence and multiple interviews. Ramachandra Guha calls it the best non-fiction written on contemporary India in the last 25 years!

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      1. That certainly is worth picking up then!

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    2. It is indeed poignant that the girl had ‘left some mark of herself on the place’. Inequality is indeed increasing with every development that we tom-tom about and the divide is widening simultaneously. It is this gap that makes us immune to the lives of those less privileged and poor. It is easy to shrug this off as being pragmatic. ‘It is their lot, what can we do?’ Sensitivity is something that is going out of fashion. That is what bothers me.

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  6. You have summed up nicely how a cosy liaison of political greed ,middle class apathy and the utter helplessness of the wretchedly poor have made slums the boiling pots of crime, urban discontent and an untreatable malaise that no one knows what to do about.
    The new layout looks really great .The Blogroll descriptions too :) Thanks.

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    1. They have now been swept under the proverbial carpet because in cities like Delhi and Chandigarh, they have been relocated out if sight. when they became large enough not to be ignored, this step was taken and everyone is happy! Sometimes I wonder if the welfare state concept was not better which we junked for the global economy mode.

      Thanks for liking the layout :)

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  7. We in the comfy comfort of our ACed homes where these poor slum dwellers come cook and clean for us, completely forget being humane so many times. The only time we come near these bitter realities is through books and blogs such as yours. Other times we avert our eyes from miles of these ‘dirty’ structures. I will highly recommend ‘The Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry who painted a vivid picture many years back which still holds true.
    Love the new blogroll tab! Thanks for putting mine in there

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    1. I will try to get hold of the book. City of Joy had done it too, but with a missionary perspective. The real estate and the lure of the land is irresistible even for the slum dwellers which is why they cling on to it despite the abominable living conditions.

      I am glad you liked the blogroll :)

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  8. Shocking but so true !
    How is one to break this vicious cycle of vote bank politics, corruption, exploitation and the like ? It’s too deep rooted and few people are ready or willing to set it right !
    A hard hitting post with the right tone…Bravo to you !

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    1. I know how hard you had tried to open a bank account for your maid. There are so many blocks to their progress and improvement in life that it is mind boggling how they even survive. It is not in the hands of a few people or even the NGOs, but our political masters who will only keep them in that state so that they can benefit.

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  9. It is not the middle class that suffers because of corruption but these poor people.

    So true. In this parallel world, rules operate within themselves, forming a mini-setup of its own. It’s scary…. and heart breaking both…

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    1. Like some who have pointed out here, it is the ignorance and illiteracy that keeps them where they are. And it suits the vested interests of several people to keep them that way for their own selfish ends by making the acquisition of knowledge difficult. If it had been the caste factor which had impeded this in the past, it is money and power that is keeping people ignorant. It is sad. Very sad.

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  10. We all have at least one story that we can relate to with this post. My maid’s daughter (much younger than me) worked with the railway station and didn’t get paid her meager salary of Rs 800 / month for over 3 months. After which she left the job. Who is to fight for these rights? This section of the society neither has the will nor the way to go about trudging the battle. We live in a parallel world. The world that my maid belongs to and the one that I belong to are vastly different. Yet our paths cross everyday. And that’s the irony.

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    1. How true that we cross each other’s path and yet are unaware of the plight of each other! When they are individual cases, we certainly can fight them, but when it concerns a bigger issue or it is something that needs a policy decision or collective action, we feel helpless because vested interests can sabotage any effort by individuals or even groups.

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  11. Harrowing state of affairs, indeed. The fundamental streak of humanity is fast fading into oblivion these days. We all are so busy in our own lives and day to day activities that we hardly ever take notice of the alarming nature of the struggles faced by the so called people of the ‘other universe’. My heart goes out to all them who ‘have to’ live in such appalling conditions, each day of their lives. Its only when we read stories like these that really make us want to go out there and do something, at the same time filling us up with appreciation and gratitude for all the things that we are blessed with.

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    1. I keep asking my maid about the living conditions and try to make it slightly easier for her — a mosquito net, some tortoise coils, fresh water to take home….but it is too small a help. Not all are illegal distillers or run clandestine industries but poor self respecting people who are looking for a window to fly the coop. But when organised gangs and political bosses are ruling the roost, what can anyone, even NGOs do? They are also reduced to doing cosmetic work.

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  12. This post made me cringe – it made me feel guilty of the post vacation hangover, the various times I cribbed when things were not going my way.

    But this time I won’t blame the political class, knowing that I am part of the apathetic system as well.

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    1. Bravo! Well said! If only everyone thought like you, there won’t be any need for posts like this one :)

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  13. That your maid’s daughter had to be accompanied to the toilet is a sad reflection on the state of affairs- not only on the lack of infrastructure but also on the lack of humanity of the drunken youth. I did not know so much politics is involved in ‘developing’ and then ‘relocating’ the slums. Though the primary responsibility is that of the local government, these are generally ruled by regional/ national parties ruling the State or the Centre. In that respect even they have a moral responsibility.

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    1. Moral responsibility is so alien to our rulers that the less said the better. The original slums were small enough, but now they each can tilt the voting in one candidate’s favour if they are promised the right things. And that is what is happening election after election and we have our governments coming out with populist schemes to sidetrack people from real issues and show ‘development’ work. Slum dwellers are human too and would look for benefits like anyone else, wouldn’t they?

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  14. You hit the nail on the head with your last para, zee. Our fight for the freedom to wear what we want, to venture out at any time of day to any place to party etc sounds so frivolous and meaningless in front of these “real” struggles. What a pity it is to not being able to relieve oneself in the middle of the night especially when you are not well! I really don’t know what to say – do any of us have any solutions, I doubt it :( We all have just questions but no answers…

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    1. But those rights are our ‘fundamental’ rights too, aren’t they? So what if we are well-to-do? We have our own ‘problems’, don’t we? :P

      It is a shame that there is no mass movement for sanitation in our country of 1.25 billion people. Shame on us!

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  15. G.N. Balakrishnan · · Reply

    Really disgusting, but absolutely true. The slums are the monstrous creations of vote bank politics, exploiting the credulous , illiterate poor migrating from villages for a living , to the city and land up in such shandies. As you have rightly concluded, these are manifestations of the collusion between the municipalities, corporations, state governments and also the center. Even after six decades after independance, the law makers have made not even a millimeter of progress to fulfill , the constitutional guarantee of literacy . Far from it, they have now concluded that it will be to their advantage to sustain and promote such inconsistencies to thrive in eternity, as otherwise, they stand to lose the invaluable vote of these credulous masses. So long as illiteracy prevails and and accountability of the elected representatives is not guaranteed by the Constitution, we can only sympathise with them, as those living in such slums are themselves to blame to a great extent, owing to their perpetual loyalty of these residents to their representatives in the municipalities, state govts and Central Govts. They are a blot on civilization and also on the conscience of these politicians.

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    1. Sir, if I may point out, conscience and politicians sound like an oxymoron! IF they had one, we would not be in such a state. And yes, literacy is the best weapon we can fight this with, but true to its colours, the government is intent on continuing with lip service and populist policies. The latest is the RTE in private schools. If it had been just a little serious about the whole thing, it would have cleaned up its own schools and made them good enough not only for the slum-dwellers but also other poor students. But no, they have to make grand gestures and bring in laws that they neither have the resources not political will to see through being implemented. Or if they did, it would be creating another pocket of corrupt middlemen who would get BPL certificates for the well to do too, much like the caste certificates.

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  16. Really a hard hitting post. The question of demanding safety for our women at work and the silence when we know what our maids are going through really made me feel ashamed as i am not able to do anything about it. We can just hope that the next generation learns new things and make enough living to come out of those hell’s holes.

    Politicians breed slums for various reasons. There are lot of illegal activities going on when kids let alone women and girls have any security. Each slum is a hefty vote bank for the politician in that place who seldom allows police to crack down their whips and bring some regularities in place. When TN gov offered to build complexes in slums those people still rented their allocated apatments to live in a slum in another area just becUse they cant continue their shoddy business there.

    But hats off to the children who come from such places and score marks to make them eligible for higher studies in premium institutions.

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    1. Nice to have you back after a long time, Prasanna! It is not just asking for safety for working women and students, but even to those who want to go out alone at night for a drink! Isn’t it a fundamental right too? :P

      Even Magiceye has pointed out this anomaly in the Dharavi slums. But it applies to only those who value their clandestine business and money more than their lives and self respect. For every such slum=dweller there are 10 who would like to get out and live decently. But the politician-mafia nexus would not allow that to happen, for their own vested interests.

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      1. Yes. People would love to get out of there and if they really do then there is no stopping them. I have seen few people in Chennai coming out of the slums and living in a better place obviously with higher cost of living. About what Magiceye talked about. There is a series of these things. When the slum clearance board offers something immediately or even before the policy gets ruled out politicians and their men pounce on the dwellers and lure them with booze or something else.

        All said and done.. when we dont live in slums we can never even have a glimpse of their plight.. *Sigh* is all we can say.

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  17. Its so so depressing..everytime we pass Dharavi, I feel so awful for the naked children running here and there, hardly any light inside the small gullies of the houses, and yet nothing is happening there..whose responsible, politicians, the people who live there themselves or the officials :(

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    1. Dharavi is one of the more ‘evolved’ slums which has a structure to it. there are thousands of others that lack this and are just a collection of disorderly shacks and other unsafe structures. And all those you have mentioned are in part responsible for the plight of the inhabitants — including themselves.

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  18. AlkaGurha · · Reply

    Slums are precious vote banks. And they all are responsible..the state, the cent re and the nature of our polity. Politicians of all hues nurture them disregarding issues of hygiene, health and education. For if the slum dwellers become educated, they will stat asking questions and demanding more. So it is in their interest to muzzle and exploit them.
    For the middle class, slums are great ( the maids keep coming) as long as they are not in sight. True, slums are a minefield for exploiters.
    A detailed relevant post.

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    1. We are equally guilty if not more in the banishment of the slums because we can’t have them spoiling our neighbourhood. and you are right, as long as their misery is not visible to us, we can push that guilt to the back of our minds. But how I wish something happened to shake the collective conscience of our leaders so that they stopped exploiting their ignorance and abject misery!

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  19. I have no answer to your questions. In a country, where those in government or municipality and judiciary seem to have no accountability, I don’t know any longer who is supposed to do what. I feel that definitely politicians who have the power and the money to better their lot turn a blind eye to the situation. They just go to them when they need votes. Most of these people live in abject misery. It is appalling the misery the poor lady and her daughter had to suffer to use a public toilet. But, it is not as if common people are not aware of it or are not responsible for it. We underpay our maids, drivers and servants. We don’t give them a weekly off. We know that they live in a miserable environment yet we turn a blind eye to their living conditions as long as they continue to provide us cheap labour at home. That is the reason why slums thrive in the first place. We treat them shoddily, throw them out without notice, and there are many many things that we do. How many of us really treat them as human beings? And, this includes 99% of us. Our feudal mentality of treating them as slaves still thrives. Oh yes, we don’t allow them to use toilets in our homes too. So, it is time that when we take up for their rights, hum apne girebaan mein bhi jhaank kar dekhe. A little empathy, some compassion and better pay scales might do wonders for them. My father has this lady employed in his house who has purchased a house in far-off Meera Road. My father has been helping her pay the downpayment as well as other payments. She is paid handsomely, has much less work, lives like a family member, uses the toilet in the house, eats the same food and really is so loving and caring. My kids call her aunty, and she lovingly prepares besan ke laddoo and sends for them. She now has a roof on her head because of my dad. I admire my dad in such things. He has single-handedly bettered her lot. And, she has been a real gem to the family. I guess, if each of us could do a little bit, it will not only increase our karma but will also help improve the lot of those living in these slums.

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    1. We really have no answers Rachna. thank you for pointing out our role in the exploitative chain. Actually I had written it but while editing and copy pasting the post from my word document, it got left out :( I have added it now. Yes, we look for cheap labour too and there are so many in my apartments who don’t give them the leave they are entitled to, no raise and no bonus. I give them a raise every year and a bonus for Diwali too. Like your father, I pamper my maid too. She is given a hot cup of tea when she comes in early in the morning with something to eat with it. We try to do what we can in an individual capacity, but it is not enough. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that these poor women need more safety than us who can afford to pick and choose our mode of transport or even stay away from dangerous places including pubs and bars. But how can they stay away from a toilet for heaven’s sakes? Media can play a great role in helping them, but where do they have time from doing the bidding of their political masters to look at the poor? The poor are not good copy or bring in those eyeballs.

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      1. And oh, about the letting them use the toilet, I always do. But this one is not comfortable with the western one and so doesn’t. :( My earlier one used to regularly and would vary her time of coming to work depending upon her need :)

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        1. And, I am proud of people like you. Believe me, I know of a lot of people who would do anything to prevent their maid from using their toilet or eating in their utensils, bonuses and leaves are far off. Most of the food given might be stale. You did make a very valid point that media should highlight their plight. But, like I’ve felt, we hardly stand for even our rights. Imagine us supporting those of our maids etc. For most of us, they are an unnecessary bother marring our beautiful colonies with their horrible shanties. Ideally, we would prefer for them to be invisible. No one actually cares for them, and so they do not make good copy as you rightly pointed out. See it like this, we would actually be uncomfortable if we hear too much about their misery. We are not dhoodh ke dhule either. This discomfort will ensure that we close our soul to them.

          I hope you have read this article. I also shared it on FB:
          http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?280558

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          1. I did read it. I had also written a post on domestic child workers. I think it would be a good idea to repost it. I refuse to allow my maids to send their children to work when they take leave, but others have no qualms in making them work. But Rachna, the realities of life for the poor are so grim that we are helpless in the face of it. :(

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          2. Kudos, Rachna, for stating upfront the way we exploit labour!!! Loved this line “We underpay our maids, drivers and servants. We don’t give them a weekly off. We know that they live in a miserable environment yet we turn a blind eye to their living conditions as long as they continue to provide us cheap labour at home. That is the reason why slums thrive in the first place.”–Yes, we have to change, we have to change. We have to take responsibility that we do not treat some people as humans!

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          3. Murlidaran · · Reply

            I recently understand that there are government aids available for unorganized workers especially for those working as servants at home. These include PF, insurance etc. I am working on getting the details. I am not sure if it is applicable only in chennai or the whole of India, but let me try out a bit and let you all know.
            Bhavna, can you please remind me on this in case I do not respond on time?

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            1. Hi Murlidharan, there are unions and organisations working for domestic workers even in Mumbai which are very active. There are such schemes as free insurance to BPL families for Rs.30000 also. These are handed over to NGOs for processing and they go by the recommendations of the local body heads. Suffice to say that they are all not going to the beneficiaries for obvious reasons since the discretion lies with the head identifying someone as being bPL. You would already have read the link that explains about the conundrum of the BPL cards. But do share any info on bodies working for these things in other cities too if you can find it. Thanks for reading!

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          4. Thank you Bhavana! And, yes the organizations are there as Zephyr pointed out, but the poor are vulnerable. They are prone to be being exploited and rarely get what is their due. My maid had to go to the Tehsildar’s office to get her BPL certificate and had to come back on many occasions because he was away during office hours! Such is their plight, and who do they go to?

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  20. I got goosebumps on reading this post and then rage…

    I don’t know what we can do about the politicians other than killing them but then if I kill one, there are still 100s of others.
    Is there any way we can do something Mami.
    When I was in Mumbai, one of my tele girls forced me to come with her to her place in Santacruz west, a legalized jhuggi. I was scared and took the largest handkerchief that I had.
    There was stench no doubt, outside but inside it was all neat and clean with AC, TV fridege. The steel utensils all lined up in a side, a ‘mori’ on the other. All in a space which will not be enough for even a sofa to be put.
    All the neighbours came to meet me and I felt like royalty.
    All I could do then was to give the girl some good recommendations so that she got a promotion and enrolled her in a night class for furthering her studies. Today I don’t know what to do

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    1. That is what we aim to do as individuals, Bhagya. Try to make at least one life better. But we can’t do much alone with our resources and the mafia is scary. One can fight politicians and businessmen, but not the mafia. Even goondas, but not the mafia, because their arms are long and we are just ordinary people. So unless there is a media outcry and a mass mobilisation, it is not possible to fight the slum lords and mafia.

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  21. This is a very sad state of affairs..and no one wants top take the responsibility..educating the people is the only way out..may take some time but it will..

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    1. As I said in one of my replies here, the resettlement colonies are so far removed from all amenities that even if the slum dwellers wanted to send their children to school, they wouldn’t be able to. And in the absence of any adult supervision, children tend to go astray and get into bad company. the pathetic government schools are no patch on good schools which are out of bounds for these children, RTE or not.

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      1. have seen the same thing happening anywhere, they7 just make the resettlement colonies at a a far away place,how would people people commute or they dont need anything?.the result is that not many settle there, they remain in slums..

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        1. The idea is to push them out of sight. ‘dekha jayega!’ is the attitude. But today it is not possible in a city like Delhi to start a slum without the implicit permission and connivance of the powers that be. And in this, they all come together — the local, state and central governments. Who knows who will be in the chair in the not too distant future and might need these votes?

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  22. You have beautifully brought out the naked & ugly truths of the slum world. They are going to stay as long as Politics & Mafiasim remain.Another beneficiary of these slums left out are ‘The pleasure seekers’.

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    1. I have mentioned those as the ones taking up the tours of slums. Voyeuristic and disgusting to say the least. And the inhabitants of the slums would be preening too, I am sure for being the centre of attention albeit in a negative way.

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  23. We are all expressing sadness, regret and helplessness. Individually no one can alter the situation. But, the people together , from nearby colonies, take up issues with the administration, things might get better.

    The reactions usually is pointing fingers at someone else and feel, ‘ the administration is not bothered,politicos do not want development, “. we shrug out shoulders and feel sorry.
    .
    It is not that every issue needs to taken up with RTI alone. If the citizens in the nearby areas take up the issues and get together, a relentless peaceful campaign with the media, with the local officials , might bring some life into development of better living conditions?

    In some ways, the small paper( Dainik Jagran – city Plus), is taking up civic matters in small pockets of twin cities of Hyd-secbad. I do not know their motive, but it has made small impacts, to the citizens and to admn

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    1. Media taking up civic issues in a sustained manner is indeed commendable. But most of the media is busy pandering to political parties to take up issues related to the poor. Middle class, yes. Defence pesonnel, yes. Crimes, yes. But poor? When I was researching for this post, the results threw up foreign papers and magazines talking about issues even in Indian slums. As for NGOs, the focus shifts to creating ‘awareness’ by spending money and effort in garnering publicity and making reports in triplicate. But actual change is not commensurate with the efforts. The volunteers find their way out of the slums, leaving the rest behind in the same condition. It is like the reservation issue where those who have made it with reservation hardly bother to do anything worthwhile for their suppressed brethren. Look at the statues and parks created by Mayawati and we have the answer.

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  24. Pratibha · · Reply

    I always thank God that he gave me what I have today. Forget night, I am petrified of the idea of using common toilet far from the house or open space as toilet. My heart goes out to the slum dwellers who are deprived of the basic need of a proper toilet.

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    1. I am collecting materials for a post on this specific issue, Pratibha. From the time I used to suffer due to the lack of proper toilets while being in the field when I was working, till today, I have thought day and night about the poor who have to squat anywhere and everywhere. I even highlighted the work of Dr.Bindeshwar Pathak in this respect.

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  25. this parallel universe is cultivated and nurtured by politicians with the able assistance of the underworld who feed off each other…. tragic..

    the redevelopment of dharavi slums is stalled due to the reluctance of the slum dwellers to accept what is being thrown to them, 20 ppl live in a multistoreyed 10×10 hutment and most even have workshops in there. The builder is offering them a 300sq ft apartment in exchange for the 10×10 which is obviously not acceptable to the residents. And the tragic story continues….

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    1. No Deepak. the builders would not be giving them the space in Dharavi, as they do for demolished flats where they built multistoried buildings. Maybe these places must be somewhere far off which is why the slum dwellers are resisting it. I am not aware of the exact situation, so it would not be right on my part to comment. But I am sure that if the builders are indeed offering them the flats in Dharavi itself, they would be grabbed. Can you clarify about this? It seems intriguing.

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      1. They are being offered space in the same area but not enough. As I said that most of them are multi storeyed slums and the builder is not offering them apartments as per the number of storeys but just one apartment per hutment whether it is a single storey or multi storey, In some areas of Dharavi the redevelopment has already taken place though the redeveloped apartments resemble an area of concrete slum. It is a very complex issue. There are also reports that after redevelopment, some of the residents have sold off their apartments and returned to the slums where their overheads are very low.

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        1. This sounds like the Slum Development Board story in Chennai in the early 70s. They got proper flats in the place of their tenements but they converted them into slums soon and then as you have pointed out, rented or sold the spaces to squat in a new place. Dharavi, as I said in another reply is a mini city and a lot of white collar workers who have lived there for more than two generations. It can be technically called a slum but in terms of economy and prosperity of the inhabitants, it is leagues ahead of the others, except maybe in the sanitation department. Thanks for the info. I will read up more on this :)

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          1. Deepak and Zephyr, Yes, flats have been given to the slum dwellers in nearby places. In fact Suketu Mehta beautifully writes on the transition of the slum occupants to these apartment blocks and speaks of how just standing and waiting to fill water from community tap and how public toilets are places where they form their brotherhood and sisterhood and how outside this space, they actually feel restless. He documented these reactions through a series of interviews and ethnographic study. From an outside perspective, slums may seem demeaning, but it is also how the citizens there interpret it.

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  26. What a shocking state of affairs. Sad thing is we all know it happens and still the individual stories leave us feeling upset, angry and helpless all over again. The people who benefit will obviously not do anything about it. Wonder what we can do. As for people going for conducted tours it is nothing but poverty porn.

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    1. No, it is not poverty porn since that is done with a view to raising funds for the slum dwellers. What is being planned by tour operators is more voyeuristic and reprehensible. I personally know of a lot of visitors who want to see the poverty and the filth — if only to feel thankful for their good circumstances.

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  27. Sad sad truth! Still talking about slums or the Slumdog movie offends many Indians!

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    1. But movies tend to glorify poverty and misery. At least I had objected to them because of this reason. How can one glamorise poverty and misery? Look at the slum tour operators! :(

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      1. True, Zephyr. I know enough Americans who have started to visit India and then want to see Dharavi as their taste of Indian reality. But, I beg to differ from you about Slumdog Millionaire. The reason is: when SM was released, many Indians reacted that it was showcasing our poverty–they prefered movies where our Taj Mahal and pretty Rajasthan Palaces and women with kohl-lined eyes would be portrayed. That makes me angry. I prefer to see the brutality as well as the courage within the slums–their hopes, their dreams and their struggles with as compassionate an eye that S.M. did have.

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        1. I am not hypocritical enough to highlight the beautiful dancers and the Taj Mahal while hiding away the sordid realities from visitors. I have myself talked about these things to our foreign friends/visitors much to the disgust of the tourist guides. But when the curiosity becomes one of clucking sympathy or of voyeuristic pleasure it sticks in my craw. The reason why poverty porn was started was to garner support for the cause of the poor in terms of aid, but it has now deteriorated to simply glamourising poverty. Courage comes from having no other choice Bhavana. I want to quote the Mumbaikar’s anger at their ‘courage’ being held up as an example. What is the choice for the common man than to pick up the pieces and carry on?
          Another thing: Dharavi might be a slum but it is a highly organised one with its own economy with the residents sometimes staying there for lack of affordable housing. By comparison there are thousands more which are mere hovels with pigs sharing road space with the children.

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  28. I went to India, not wearing rose colored glasses, but aware of the poverty and corruption that exists. It is heartbreaking to see people surviving in a village of tarps thrown together on the side of roads, children playing close to barbaric traffic and others begging in the streets, during rush hour. Of course, it isn’t just India..but many parts of the world, including the USA. I went to nursing school in New Orleans ( I am from the South ). Louisiana is one of the poorest of our states and Charity Hospital served primarily the indigent poor, those who only sought health care as a last resort, when they were too ill or their disease had progressed to the point that they could no longer function. While people didn’t leave in the situations I saw in India, the housing projects they did call home, were filthy, in disrepair, gang ridden, and unsafe. After a student nurse on a home visit was killed in one, we were no longer able to do home visits.
    After hurricane Katrina wreaked its devastation on the state, more of the world became aware of the agonies of the poor in Louisiana – and the political corruption. Even, years later, when I went back for my 45 year nursing school reunion, I was overwhelmed by what I found. Charity Hospital, its huge bulk ( almost 1000 beds under one room ) was closed and not serving the poor. Housing projects were boarded up as were more prosperous homes in other areas. People had fled New
    Orleans, families were ripped apart, monies sent by various agencies and even the Federal government fell into corrupt hands and did not reach the people who needed it. And we were off fighting wars on the other side of the world while our own citizens suffered.
    There is such a disparity in this world between the rich and the poor and there is so much absolute waste and bureaucracy in reaching out to help. As a registered nurse for nearly fifty years now, I have seen massive budget cuts which affected my own position as an employee of 21 years for the city and county of San Francisco, decimating services to the elderly and the poor – while the politicians only added to their bank accounts. It seems we are not so different from India.

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    1. Oh Carmen, you make one despair with your recounting of the terrible state of affairs in even a developed country! And to think that Americans are rushing hither and thither fighting other battles than their own. I remember the movie ‘No place like Home’ which deals with homelessness in the US. It was such a grim story and I remember it nearly 20 years after seeing it. It is shocking to hear about the funds getting siphoned off by the intermediaries before it reached those it was meant for. The same story that happens here too. Thousands of millions are lost ‘in transit’ with the Central government claiming to have sanctioned the funds and the state governments claiming to have disbursed it. But to whom?

      One feels helpless in dealing with the corrupt politicians because they have the support of the mafiosi and ordinary people and even NGOs are wary of entering the scene. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences here, Carmen.

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      1. I saw that Carmen when I visited New Orleans last November–lower 9th ward still had such a ghostly look and I saw so many houses still boarded up and schools unbuilt and pain and politics–of keeping poor folks away from Louisiana by not facilitating their return, of those lands being sold to the rich…the lady who showed me around was a Katrina survivor herself and I could see she was still in the grips of the trauma–the world is the same Zephyr, all around. Only some images hit National Geographic and the likes and others are not “allowed” to.

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  29. Who benefits from the misery of the slumdwellers? Far too many people, as you have shown in the comprehensive list you’ve given here.

    I sometimes think that upper-middle clas people would love to simply sweep this huge problem under the carpet, and pretend it did not exist.

    I wrote a post a few years ago on some of the reasons slum-dwellers vote the way they do- do have a look- http://manjujoglekar.wordpress.com/2009/02/03/a-tale-of-two-cities/

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    1. I had written about us, who use their services too, but somewhere in editing, it got lost. I have restored it again. Yes, even we use their services but many of us do so with a heart. Even while I hear my maid complain about others who shortchange her, I make sure I pay more than what they do and also try to make her feel comfortable. But puny individual efforts are of no use to fight such a gargantuan problem perpetrated by so many political parties. You have worked in Dharavi too, haven’t you? I remember the first time on your blog when I read one of those posts. It is just their spirit that keeps them going. Unlike the Mumbai migrant who are more militant and aware, the Delhi slum dwellers are illiterate and easily subdued by the goondas. I will read your post. I am sure it will be enlightening.

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  30. debajyoti · · Reply

    that’s a grim story. i was appalled to know that someone was frightened to even go to the toilet. i don’t think much can be done about this unless we have a clean system with trustworthy administration, which looks highly unlikely. we have seen the fate of some of the RTI activists. so, who is going to bell the cat?

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    1. It is indeed a grim story. But like the anti-corruption movement some movement should take shape to make the people rise up to fight for their dignity. When so much is at stake for so many people, how can slums get dismantled. Like Rachna says, even we are part of the system. And the only way something can come out of it is to join hands and fight it.

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  31. Your words are full of sad truths. It’s a disgrace for humankind that we let these parallel universe exist without even the slightest thought for those who suffer in the miseries of the slums. Used and not cared for – how did we get to this? Not only politicians and those thriving directly on the people in the slums, but every one of us who are not confined to fear and fight. Thanks for bringing up this very important issue.

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    1. you are right, Otto. We each one of us, is responsible for this sad state of affairs. If only we just peeped into their world once and saw their life for what it is. But the stranglehold of the politicians who have their tentacles into everyone’s life is so strong that it requires a major revolution to do something about it. Puny efforts by individuals and NGOs are of no use. And this is the case in South America too. You surely must have seen several favelas there?

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      1. Yes, I have seen and visited the favelas in Latin America, as I have seen slums in all other parts of the world. And despite the sadness of the condition in the slums I often find the people to be amazingly friendly and open – of course not all of them. Maybe that says even more about us on the outside living our carefree lives – and not by that not ignoring the fact that many struggle without having to live in slums.

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        1. How true that many outside the slums have to struggle equally and sometimes more. The spirit is there, but at some point it breaks — health, age, mental condition and even sex do that to people. That is when our conscience needs to wake up and look at them as fellow humans, or as has happened over the centuries, the widening gap will only give rise to hatred and crime.

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  32. This post hit so close to home. My household help , “s” about whom one has blogged copiously, has a grown up daughter who had this same problem of using the toilet. I get to hear every week about some episode or the other about cheaters, drunks, eve-teasers and local dadas. And also the sudden advancement of someone in the material world. Slumlords, as a phenomenon is almost taken for granted by those in power, and is a necessary item for every politician.

    When Slumdog Millionaire happened, I was so cheesed off, I wrote a post called Villacat Threadbare. which was a bit along the same lines as yours . Read http://kaimhanta.blogspot.in/2009/02/villacat-threadbare.html

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    1. This mafia is so entrenched that it is not easy to dislodge them from their positions of power and fingers in crime. And the illiterate masses, whom as Rahul pointed out are kept that way so that they remain faithful vote banks for the coming elections. Otherwise, do you think we couldn’t have got them educated and brought them on par with the rest? And I am a great fan of your S too :)

      I am hopping right over to read your post. Knowing your repertoire, I am sure it will be a great post.

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  33. You have poured piercing light on the slum-cum-hell-hole-cum-vote-bank-cum-political-goldmine industry. Sadly, it is only a microcosm of the macrocosm that has gripped us today. That lone example of the dysentery-struck daughter of your maid is a slap in the face of humanity. Where does it leave the much-touted ‘Indian civilization’? Almost anywhere we can put our finger today is swarming with maggots of corruption, right from the lowly peon in the smallest unit of the legal system to the highest functionaries in the gilt-edged corridor of power. The question is, are we still living? Or are we already dead as a people? You may hate me for towing a Churchillian line, but do we deserve that luxury called democracy any longer?

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    1. Sad, but true. Looks like people like us , who can’t change any thing, are the ones who feel most. The bigger the city, the worst the conditions. It is the politician bureaucratic nexus too, playing its part in these pathetic affairs.
      A thought provoking post Zephyr. Hope it catches attention of some people in power who (still has a conscience) can make a difference.

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      1. For it to catch the attention of people in power, it needs powerful people to publicise it. How about doing your bit? :) We don’t just feel, but also do our best to help in our small ways. But as Deb has pointed out, who will bell the cat when the condition of RTI activists is so vulnerable?

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        1. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110387,00.html
          “With Google Earth, India Can No Longer Hide Its Shantytowns and ‘Slumdogs’”
          Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110387,00.html#ixzz1tRuLnrVU

          I chanced upon this article just now, and am glad that somewhere some people are trying to help.

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    2. Right you are! Microcosm of the macrocosm. How apt a term! That is the worst kind of indignity for a person. To pay to relieve themselves and be scared on top of that! We lament about women’s safety. We scarcely think about these women and their safety when we do it, though. We are slowly descending into barbarians. What civilisation? That is long since dead. We now have ‘development’ and a western model at that. Carmen’s comment amply illustrates the kind of development model we are rushing to follow. As for democracy, what we have is an elected dynasty or rather monarchy and there seems to be no respite from it.

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  34. Zephyr it is the people who rule the country who are aware of all these things but choose to ignore once voted in power as these are the crutches that bring them to places where they are! Sadly, no one propagates educating them as it would diminish the vote banks in times to come! Very pathetic !

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    1. Keeping them poor is indeed the best way to keep them under the thumbs of politicians and other vested interests. These resettlement colonies have no schools or other facilities and when the parents have to commute at high costs, how can they afford to pay for their children’s commute in addition to school fees? So they let them loiter and grow up into anti-social elements and petty criminals.

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  35. Heart-breaking. Our building helper lived in a slum adjoining the great Mantri Mall (Bangalore’s largest and some raise it status even higher). One fine day, some goondas just landed up there (don’t know whom they represented – in Bangalore politicians and goondas look the same) – and demolished the entire place. So, when these people returned from work, what they saw was rubble piled high, with their meager household goods mixed/buried in it and the sad ones who had stayed home, standing by the side, scared, shivering. Everything lost. Of course, for this lady, our building residents kicked into gear to help in cash and in kind. But what about the others? They had just lost their homes and belongings and were on the road with no place to sleep. Some were smart enough to squat in the nearby constructions – but that is hardly a solution.

    This is only one instance. There are so many like this. And all those people you listed who take advantage of these folks…..phew. Makes the blood boil.

    Eye-opener post.

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    1. We all do our bit to help the individual person, but when an entire system is conspiring against them, it is too paltry. Earlier they razed the slums but now they relocate them outside the city and make them come all the way to clean and wash for us. When an organised mafia is active, unless there is an uprising, nothing can be done. And we know how uprisings are dealt with.

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