Welcome to our Website !

Print this article

Glimpses of Insecure Lives in South Delhi Slums : Field Reports by Rita Kumari


                                                                                                                                                   Anita Soni

 Slum is where ecological refugees live:     

One of awe-inspiring thematic vistas opened up by SADED for dialogic engagement and academic inquiry is named “Ecology, Dignity and the Marginalized Minorities”. Under this evocative title, a unique research programme has been pursued at SADED since 2009, on the strength of a single dedicated female worker deployed for field studies in selected slum areas of Delhi.  Her work reports unfold a vivid panorama of tension- filled human lives  in the multi-ethnic milieu of migrant working class inhabiting shanty towns and hut clusters of south Delhi’s sprawling backyard known as  the Okhla Industrial Area. 

 In India there is no dearth of field studies on slums, with plentiful quantified data on deprivation and civic neglect of their hapless denizens. The impact of such dry statistics on public opinion is nil.  Several academics and activists prefer to write on evictions and demolitions of slums that provide the dramatic backdrop for tirades on human rights violations and callousness of the judiciary. A fine collection of articles in this category has recently been published by SADED. [The Urban Poor in Globalizing India . Dispossession and Marginalization, Ed. by Lalit Batra, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam Publication Pvt. Ltd., Delhi 2007] ‘The urban poor’ is the stereotype appellation given to slum dwellers by well meaning human rights activists from elite backgrounds, in accord with UNDP and World Bank. SADED’s own vision and method of accessing the social reality of slums stands apart from that stereotype projection. The difference lies in the weightage SADED gives to the fact that slum dwellers are migrants from rural India. They do not shed their peasant identities and thought habits to become overnight, rights-conscious urban folks. The home village remains present in a slum dweller’s psyche. It is the place where family elders live, where money has to be sent for the upkeep of dependants, where weddings of relatives are celebrated, where field labour fetches high wages in harvesting season.

But the village is the place of misery and hunger: slum dwellers come from families of long suffering landless or land-poor peasantry; the contempt and  neglect which the ruling class shows towards them mirrors the marginalization of rural Bharat – still holding the majority of the country’s people – by omnivorous urban India. 

The term ‘ecological refugees’ introduced by Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha in their path breaking treatise Ecology and Equity (1995) most aptly describes the collective  tragedy of slum dwellers. A passage from 1995 publication by TN Khoshoo “Mahatma Gandhi – An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology” sums it up:‘At present… a village cannot support people .They have to leave their hearths and homes  and become ecological refugees. They reach the nearest mega-city and all such cities have in fact become twin cities; the mega-cities per se, and the associated slum cities where ecological refugees live. In slums, these refugees have their own economic and social problems which are hardly supportive of a healthy society”.[TN Khoshoo , Tata Energy Research Institute, New Delhi 1995, p.40]

In SADED’s parlance the slum dwellers are referred to as migrants  --pravaasi in Hindi; and SADED’s ‘emissary’ interacting with them makes sure to inquire about their home villages, and would endeavour to bring them together onto a  ’Migrants Forum’ – ‘Pravaasi Jan Manch’.

The Migrants Forum is a postulated entity which may take time to materialize, but the reports of SADED’s field worker are the best proofs of relevance of this approach.

Rita Kumari can write authentic stories of slum dwelling migrants because she is one of them herself. She knows their troubled world inside out; it is her own world. A plump, charming and voluble girl in her late twenties, she hails from Bihar’s Madhubani district and shows the kind of culture confidence that comes naturally to genteel natives of the region, with its hoary artistic traditions. She is skilled in the symbolic Madhubani drawings. She has a sturdy sense of self worth, and is not at all bothered about her inability to speak and write English, and operate a computer. She dismisses both these skills as fake markers of globalized intellectual prowess without any bearing on the quality of social engagement. Volunteering for public causes and internalizing socialist ideals was part of her childhood upbringing; her father was a respected social worker. That background made possible her transition to full-time social activism after a gap of several years when personal misfortune resulted in her migrating to Delhi and taking up a job with a garment company in Okhla.

Over the past four years  Rita Kumari has been employed at SADED as the junior-most member of the staff, a veritable ‘foot soldier’ to be put to work on odd assignments. Her job description as ‘Field Assistant’  is according to her a misnomer : she has been working all alone without a supervisor, and could only call SADED’s  Convenor or the head of office staff , senior journalist Mr. Rajnikant Mudgal, for help in critical situations.Her routine duties have consisted of doing rounds of various slum areas in all parts of  Delhi State (National Territory of Delhi), as well as attending numerous public meetings, conferences, workshops, protest rallies, demonstrations , both in and out of town – the obligatory fare of a social activist. The outcome of that busy routine has been quite voluminous --pages after pages of work reports, diligently submitted every week at SADED office.

 Written in a flowing long hand, in Devanagari script, they would be given for  typing (and mindless editing )  by her computer-savvy colleagues, printed, Xeroxed  and stacked in archives for some presumed future use. It became a tough task of this ‘reviewer’ to retrieve, identify and sort out Rita’s original manuscripts from dusty heaps of mixed up spiral-bound stacks. About a half of this material pertains to her field work in slums.

Rita’s preliminary assignment ( in 2009) was to conduct door to door household surveys of a few slum areas near to where she lived, with a ready-made questionnaire.  She duly filled hundreds of questionnaire sheets with names, addresses (including home villages),  information on number of male and female children, and problems faced by the respondents. She recorded identical complaints about acute scarcity of drinking water (supplied very inequitably  by tanks), about lack of sanitation ( the only block of community toilets being closedto the public and used for keeping cattle of some locally powerful bullies), about denial of subsidized food rations ( the earlier issued ration cards withdrawn for corrections and not re-issued).

A similar litany of woes and grievances awaited Rita in other slum areas she toured traversing large swathes of Delhi’s territory. In 2010 the special item on her prescribed agenda was the survey of living and working Conditions of the most oppressed among the dalits (‘untouchables’) – the sweepers of Balmikicaste . She visited all localities in south Delhi with sizeable populations of the Balmiki–GovindpuriBhumiheenCamp, JaitpurKhaddda Colony,KotlaMubarakpur, Chunari LahraBasti,PilanjiHarijanBasti ,BudhVihar (Munirka) , SangamVihar ,Badarpur,  in addition to Harkesh Nagar and Sanjay Colony in her own area.  Her reports on meetings with them reveal bitterness and despair of a community in deep distress, ‘cheated’ of their previous security of job reservations as municipality sweepers, now that sanitation has been outsourced to private contractors, and imported sweeping machines (operated by high  caste people!) replace broom wielding workers in prestigious establishments.  What has remained unchanged for the young generation is illiteracy and stigma of untouchability.

In ChunariLahrabasti, where all 60 Balmiki families own three- or four- storey houses rented to well paying Manipuri migrants, and children play cards or roam in the streets, none of  them going to school, Rita gets rebuked : “Our youngsters are jobless, if you cannot get us jobs then what is your survey for, have you got any authority proof?  Everyday some people come here to do survey. Why shall we tell our house numbers or reveal our problems to anybody?”   [date:  11.3.2010]

The fact that Balmiki children stay away from school education, or drop out early andremain illiterate, is differently explained byfamilies of low paid workers of private contractors   “we cannot afford sending our kids to school , when even food is so expensive”  ( Kiran Devi, Sanjay Colony, 7.2.2010), and by those where both husband and wife still hold their MCD jobs (not made permanent even after 10 or 15 years of service) but have to commute long hours to their place of work : “one has to catch the bus by 5 or 6 in the morning, how can one get children ready for school?”[Ramesh Devi, Sanjay Colony , 11.2.2010].

Lurking behind, there is the bitter reality of caste discrimination : “ if Balmiki children fall sick, the teacher (of municipal school) scraps their names from the roll. Then we submit an application for taking them back, but the teacher refuses. And when the children of  Jats or Gurjars remain absent for weeks together, their full attendance is certified  and they get promoted without any hassles.” [Kundanji, LahraBasti, 11.3.2010]

There is widespread resentment among the Balmiki community against discriminatory conditions of employment. Balmiki workers are selectivelyused by both MCD(Municipal Corporation of Delhi) and private contractors for the hazardous jobsof clearing choked gutters,  while mechanized cleaning  of shining floors has become a caste-less occupation :  “ Earlier everybody knew that sweeping roads and cleaning drains was done by our Balmiki community from time immemorial.  But now the government has taken away our right. In a big hospital or a five star hotel now a machine would do in one hour the work that fifty men did in a whole day. Machine operators are mostly JhaBrahmins(sic) but when it comes to descending into the gutter, then there is search for a Balmiki boy , and he is sent down without a protective gear, without Oxygen mask, and if he dies from poisonous fumes, nobody cares –neither the government , nor the contractor.”  [Mahendr, Jaitpur

KhaddaColony , 3 .3.2010].

At some point during 2010, Rita was advised to focus her field work on one contiguous  spread of slum population. Okhla Phase II, where she has been based since 2001, became the obvious choice.

Okhla is the collective name for a number of localities that have come into  existence  around the historic Okhla Village on the Jamuna river bank, with an old dhobi ghaat and a barrage built in late 19th c. After India’s Independence, the Okhla Industrial Estate was notified here to boost development of small scale industries.  By the turn of century the whole area, divided into three phases, got transformed  into a prime industrial and commercial suburb occupied by thousands of  companies -- ready-made garment and leather garment exporters, pharmaceutical manufacturing units, plastic and packaging industries, printing presses etc.

The number of skilled industrial workers – especially  tailors – runs in tens of thousand. They are predominantly migrants from Bihar and West Bengal, toiling long hours for miserable piece-rated wages. The absolute lack of labour welfare, in terms of housing, work safety, medical aid, even drinking water—reduces them to human wrecks before they reach middle age.

Rita’s investigation  in April 2010 revealed the extent of cruel exploitation of the labour force by the company owners.  Only very few favoured employees get the stipulated minimum wages and permanency benefits. Others are intimidated into keeping quiet : they have to sign a resignation letter along with their joining letter. Most have to work under contractors without any written proof of employment.

A barbaric method of squeezing the workers dry is reported about  the company ‘Boutique’ at  4/3  D Block, Okhla Phase II, fully managed by a contractor .Here the workers, employed  for serial production of garment pieces in chain system /assembly line, are not allowed even a few minutes break unless with severely restricted permission,  and must rush upstairs to the fourth floor to drink water. Scared of abuses and threats when a piece gets ‘stuck’ , they stay thirsty till the end of the shift.[date:02.04.2010]

The living quarters of those workers and all other migrants inhabiting the area lie at a distance from the wide roads and tall boundary walls of company compounds. It is a dense maze of streets and lanes forming diverse neighbourhoods – urbanized villages like Harkesh  Nagar and Tehkhand, long established slums like Sanjay Colony, and miserable clusters of huts typically bordering the railway line or canal, with generic name ‘camps’ : Priyanka Camp, Priya Camp, Indira Camp, Raju Camp, Jagjivan Camp . All these place-names come up in Rita’s reports, confirming their authenticity. Also importantly present in her reports is the Police Post at Sanjay Colony and the Railway Line which is crossed every day by thousands of people going on foot from Harkesh Nagar to Mathura Road.

It did not take Rita more than ten minutes to draw a delightful little map showing the contours of the scenery of her reports, and the specific locations. All details are etched  in her memory. The mode of Rita’s functioning in the field, and her public persona, have significantly evolved since her earlier days of conducting surveys.

Her reports in past two years show that she has found her own way of engaging with social issues on the ground by reaching out to individual persons in  distress, volunteering to render help in every emergency, and intervening boldly in defence of justice.  Thus her reports become real-life stories with gripping plots, suspense and denouement . They are about people and situations she has been actively involved in. She writes about her proletarian friends with sympathy and politeness, always adding the respectful suffix ‘ji’ to their  names [like the Japanese ‘san’]. And she gives her stories quasi-journalistic headings indicating topicality of their themes. The themes are varied, as the following examples may show : “The rag-pickers’ travails ” [14.9.2012]  is the story of Mukesh ji, a docile Bengali boy  who took to collecting and selling recyclable waste as the only available livelihood option. Brutalized by a police constable  as an alleged ‘Bangladeshi’, he becomes a  cripple  when a private doctor puts a plaster on his wounded broken arm. Getting him a government dole for disabled is all Rita can do now .

“ Elders not cared for by families” [4-5.11.2012] presents the sorry fate of Shivkumar ji,  an ailing old labourer from UP  turned beggar after 30 years of hard work in Delhi, as his three  sons, educated and well-to-do, would not keep him in the house he had built and bequeathed  to them. A policeman requested to mediate is told that Shivkumar ji is mentally unsound,  that is why he begs at the temple and sleeps in night shelter. Rita brings him a blanket  and self-cooked food.

 “The witch” [17.10.2011]  is how a poor widow, Mira Devi, becomes vilified by her greedy  daughter- in- law who forces her to leave the house, and spreads rumours  all around  about Miraji’s ‘evil eye’, so that nobody would give her a room on rent.

Victimisation of widows , and also of unmarried daughters with inheritance rights, by relatives taking advantage of the superstitious belief in witchcraft,  is according to Rita very common in Delhi , so much so that the state government enacted a law against it in 2001. But alerting the police about such case in Harkesh Nagar was in vain : “it is a matter for society to tackle”

“The hardship of single woman” [28.4.2012] is a narrative about Asha ji, an unmarried working woman  from Bengal who when fell sick became the mistress of a caring neighbour, Dinesh ji. He paid for  her treatment and neglected his family obligation in the village . Asha ji  got hounded by local community when Dinesh ji’s  aggrieved wife with children arrived from the village. Rita alone gave compassion and shelter to the hapless woman. 

“Inter-caste marriage” [16.3.212]  is an ironic tale of Jaydevi ji, an Adivasi working girl from Jharkhand who got married to Chhattar ji, a truck driver of Balmiki caste, a widower with two daughters. Jaydevi helped to marry off Chhattar ji’s daughters with her own money, but  her own marriage ran into trouble when she gave birth to a girl.  Son-obsessed Chhattar ji took another wife, a widowed mother of four sons,  from his own community, and Jaydevi  instead of serving as provider to the expanded household, devoted her whole income to pay for her daughter’s education in a hostel.  

‘Pregnant woman raped by relatives of party leader” [20.4.-5.5. 2012] is the case of Baby,

 a newly wed  bride from Bengal brought to Delhi and abandoned by her husband.

She got noticed by rowdy cousins of a powerful local politician from the Gurjar community, and cruelly gangraped by four of them. Neighbours who rescued her knew the culprits but did not dare to speak out. RIta after taking the traumatized victim for medical termination of advanced pregnancy tried valiantly but in vain to  get police case registered. 

Dues to daily wager  not paid for months” [23.7.2012] is the case of Anitaji, a labour  from Bihar, mother of three little children and wife of a TB patient. Her employer, a building contractor, had delayed paying her wages for four months and manhandled her when she came to demand her money. Rita called a panchayat (conciliatory court) of the  locality and negotiated full payment with arrears. 

“ Labourer crushed to death at work in packaging company” (30.8.2011)  is a chilling account  of Rita’s intervention in the case of Ram Praveshji, her neighbor, who was killed by 800- kg cardboard roll that fell on him when its holding line snapped. The company owner attempted to hush up the monstrous  accident  and stall enquiry by bribing the police and taking away the dead body.  Rita,  undeterred by 16 constables standing guard  outside the compound and a menacing SHO(police station in-charge ) sitting inside,  barged in,  made calls to the press and took took photographs of blood-splashed floor, using her mobile phone. After getting the dead body delivered to the family from the morgue, she skilfully negotiated with the company owner a high compensation amount and a permanent job for the widow.

“Newborn girl rescued from railway tracks” [6.6.2012]  is the latest, though certainly not the last, In  Rita’s record of saving lives. ( Two earlier ones were saving a little girl stranded on the same railway tracks [6.5.2010],  and taking to hospital the bleeding victim of a hit-and -run road accident [18.4.2011]). While crossing the notoriously dangerous unguarded railway line near Harkesh Nagar Rita spotted two dogs fighting over a bundle of cloth and licking blood; she rushed to the spot on hearing an infant cry and reached in time when the dogs started devouring the placenta. A small crowd followed her, and a childless wife of a jeweler made a plea that the girl be given to her. Rita called the policeman on duty at the nearby booth  to register adoption case, and got it confirmed there and then at the Okhla Police Station. The girl now lives happily with her foster parents.

Rita’s sparring exchanges with police functionaries have been quite frequent  and make for an interesting part of her reports . She claims to be the feared visitor at eight police stations. ‘‘I am not afraid of policemen, I make those uniformed braggarts bow down at my feet. If one is to survive in Delhi, one must not fear the police. In fact nobody is scared of them, it is only their harassment and loss of time in being summoned many times over as witnesses, that people fear, so that victims of accidents and crimes are left unattended.”

 It may be an attractive proposition to publish a collection of  Rita Kumari’s reports, stories and essays as a book, richly illustrated with photographs and carrying bi-lingual Hindi and English versions on opposite pages.

Anita Soni is a Polish-born indologist and social anthropologist  (initially associated with The Institute of Orientalist Studies, University of Warsaw), since 1978 permanently based in India and working as independent researcher and grassroots activist, especially among  nomadic tribal communities  faced with ethnocide. In the recent few years  she  has been preoccupied with the question of Constitutional recognition of tribal self-rule. She has now joined SADED with a view to work on a Campaign for Tribal Autonomy

Write A Comment