In this sub-human realm of decay, dying and decline, bloom a million dreams of a better and beautiful life. Will this ever be possible?
Akash Bisht Delhi, Hardnews
New Delhi symbolises the modern face of ‘superpower India' with its glitzy malls, expensive pubs, Page 3 parties, multiplexes and socialites dressed in the likes of Guccis and Armanis. Amidst the glamour lies the rapidly growing underbelly of this massive city that is routinely ignored and marginalised to avoid any confrontation with the ‘new New Delhi' of shining India. This underbelly constitutes a huge mass of Indian people who live in abysmally inhuman conditions fighting for survival and a little dignity that usually eludes them. These are the slum-dwellers and the homeless of this city who brave nature, government officials, police, traffickers, organ traders, rapists, extortionists, murderers, gangsters, real estate goons, et al with a dream that their children should not be condemned to live and die like them.
In the slums of the arid, dusty and backward suburb of New Seemapuri in east Delhi live such dreams, festering with rage and desire, dying and dead, to be re-born again. They are not deterred by the brutish forces that push them to surrender their hopes of a better future in a democracy, usurped by the rich and powerful. Life goes on relentlessly in pulsating rhythm, despite the subhuman realism of their lives. The nearest pucca road is brimming with children, women, locals, rickshaws, cycles, old scooters, cows, carts -- selling fruits, vegetables, patties, Amritsari kulche, very cheap ‘per plate' biryani, bangles, nail polish, synthetic sarees. However, unlike the ‘new New Delhi' there are hardly any cars or SUVs, the rare ones are the Maruti vans ferrying people and kids. The rickshaws make the most of the traffic that snake out through bylanes causing no traffic jams.
A Reliance Fresh outlet has a board that reads in English -- Onions Rs10/kg, Cauliflower etc -- in a colony that constitutes a large illiterate population. No wonder the retail chain is reportedly going through high losses. Doctors, real estate agents, lawyers, dhabas and biryaniwallahs, shops selling pre-paid cards and small tea joints make for most of the ‘business' on both sides of the road. Uncannily, there are hardly any buyers.
So where is the slum? A ‘gentleman' in white kurta-pyjama and white sports shoes, shows the way: "Keep walking straight and the moment the smell of shit and filth takes over, that's your destination." A few metres ahead, a small gully on the left has hoards of children playing naked on huge piles of accumulated garbage. An unbearable stink pervades the entire colony. Men dump the waste while women segregate the scrap out of these huge dunes of garbage. Numerous tiny by-lanes that allow only one person at a time cover the colony's geography like a labyrinth.
In one such gully, men and women are boiling huge quantities of freshly cut chicken in large vessels before selling them in the nearby market. The stench of dead chickens in synthesis with the smell of garbage, filth, shit and stagnant water chokes the air. For the people working here this is routine sense and sensibility. "Come here during summers and you won't dare to visit us again," smiled a slum-dweller, impishly, sitting on a heap of garbage, smoking ‘Red and White'.
Much of the slum is a garbage dump. The plethora of open drains and sewage nullahs run right between the dingy one-room ‘homes' where children play and occasionally fall into them. They are mostly blocked and full of black shiny sludge. Women gather around hand pumps to collect ‘toxic' drinking water in knee deep slush flowing out of these drains while children run barefoot all across these inner-lanes covered in kichchar (decaying wet mud), domestic and human waste. A large group of women talk about the issues that "haunt" them and their families.
Parveen, a housewife, lives with seven members of her family in a tiny room -- this would suffice as a storeroom in posh south Delhi. She told Hardnews: "There is no place to live so how can we build a toilet? The public toilets are choked and overflow with filth most of the time. But what options do we have as human beings or citizens of this country?"
Several other women gather to share the daily condemnations of their life. Azra, a beautiful 18-year-old girl in salwar kameez with shining ear rings and high heels, steps forward. She has passed her 12th standard and wants to study further to help her family. "Financial problems" dissuaded her from realising her dreams. With lost hope, she rues, "I, too, wanted to be like one of those city girls, working in big offices, dropped by cabs; but we slum people shouldn't dream as we are the untouchables of this mega city." She says that though she has passed her 12th she won't even get the job of a salesgirl or a housemaid. "The moment people come to know that I am from this slum, they ask me to leave," she says.
Despite this, Azra hasn't forgotten to smile; she giggles like a little girl while she shares her "tragic stories". "We are the people of slums and no one wants to come near us. But that's okay, we also don't want to go near them," she says with a hearty laugh and rest of the women join her.
Most women prefer to sit at home rather than take up any work; many of them feel exploited. As soon as the employers come to know about their slum status they drop the wage rates drastically. "We do stitching and get Rs 15 for a frock that needs a full day of hard, skilled labour. If we work hard and spend more than 14 hours then we can finish two frocks," Sajida tells Hardnews. It's the agents who make merry from their misery. "They know that we desperately need the money to survive and would do anything pushed by hunger; so they exploit us to reap profits," says Azra.
Meanwhile, a woman starts abusing her neighbour: "Don't throw your filth in the drain, it goes through my drain near my house as well," she screams. They hurl abuses at each other while the rest of the women laugh their hearts out. "This is what slums are all about; we laugh, cry, celebrate, fight, live and die together despite the hardships that we face everyday," says Aamna, a mother of three. She seems happy to be living here since "there is no place like this" in this big, impersonal city where her children "can knock their neighbours' doors for food even late at night". "They won't be shooed away. Instead, they would be given food. Is this possible in those high-rises where you live?"
People here know that the "quality of drinking water" is toxic, dangerous; children succumb to waterborne diseases, epidemics are common. Most small gullies have stagnant pools of water with mosquitoes breeding; malaria is routine. Locals clean the drains that flow outside their homes as ‘government sweepers' arrive only once in a month to collect Rs 20 from each household. They scoop out the filth and leave a pile to rot outside every house. "We have to clean these stinking piles of filth manually as nobody would do it for us. During summer, if these piles are left out even for a day, then an army of maggots takes over the entire colony. Children are most vulnerable," says Subhan Shah while he cleans the choked drain that runs outside his house. For him, a clean surrounding is what he dreams about, because he loves his children and doesn't want them to fall sick. Sometimes, he even cleans the drains in the neighbourhood so that the community's kids are safe.
The one room his family lives has a TV, stove, utensils and neatly stacked glasses and cups. A curtain separates the bathroom from the main room and clean clothes are stacked over a trunk. His three-year-old daughter keeps wriggling around him and fondly calls him ‘dada' while his wife sits in a corner preparing lunch. "My foremost priority is that my family eats two square meals. I don't have too many desires, but I fear for my little daughter's future. I will see to it that she studies. I want her to have a good job, a life of dignity. She should be able to get out of this slum. I will die in peace if that happens," he said to Hardnews.
As for Azra, she is studying the basics of computer software at Pardarshita, an NGO helping slum-dwellers secure their rights. She wants to be like the other ‘city girls' who wear jeans and hang out at McDonalds. "Kaash hum bhi aise hote, aur kaash humari family main itni problems nahin hote... (Wish I could be like them. Wish we didn't have so many problems in our household)" she says. A dandy boy, wearing tight jeans, denim jacket, pointed leather shoes, sunglasses and cap, stands in a corner. He laughs when Azra mentions McDonalds. So where does he live? He seems offended. "I don't belong to this slum," he says and walks off.
There are routine power cuts in the colony. High-tension power cables hanging from a tilted pole kiss the roofs while children play around them. Locals complain that these poles might fall any day and cause a disaster. They have complained repeatedly but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. A woman informs that they had to make their house ‘pucca' (concrete structure) because children would often burn to death when fire broke out. "We had to spend a fortune but this is nothing compared to our children's lives," she says. Most other families living in make-shift tenements across the city do not have the money to build a pucca roof. "We don't get anything from the government and we don't need it. We work hard and earn our living. I don't dream big because my fortunes won't change just by cribbing. Instead, I work hard so that my children can study and change their destinies."
Things don't come easy to people living here. Every penny they get as ‘government aid' is siphoned of by ‘shareholders' of pimps and parasites. "Government officers are in collusion with brokers. Once an amount is sanctioned to a family, the official informs these brokers who in turn contact the family and demand their share. People here lack awareness of their fundamental rights; they are thus exploited," says Ritu Mehra of Pardarshita. She informed that free forms are sold ranging from Rs 20 to Rs 100 depending on the amount of money. Corruption is rampant but people have accepted it as an integral part of their lives. "If we don't pay bribe we won't have electricity or water supply. We bribe to live," says Subhan. "Even the non-existent sanitation facilities are a result of bribes."
The slum population of Delhi is estimated to be three million. A huge majority living a life of abject despair and destitution in one of the fastest growing cities of the world. None of them can even touch the faintest glimmer of the shine, wealth, fame that has cast a hallow around Slumdog Millionaire. But they are survivors, their spirit is not dampened by the hardships and bitterness they endure, and they have modest dreams, as humble and honest as their eyes, hands, their poor, hardworking bodies. As one of them puts it, "We live in poverty but that doesn't take our right to dream. And that's why I dream. For a better life, a better future. For our children. Because we too, they too, have a right to inherit the fruits of democracy, don't they?"