Voices of the women of slum resettlement in Mumbai

Ramya Ramanath’s book dives into the everyday transactions of slum resettlement and rehabilitation through the eyes of a diverse set of women.

For a majority of the population, moving homes is typically a voluntary decision made with great deliberation, taking into account the impact on education, employment and health. However, for the millions of slum residents in Mumbai, the same exercise is a result of routine eviction and demolitions. If these families are fortunate, they are moved to slum resettlements.

Consider the case of one of the largest slum resettlement drives in Mumbai, documented through the eyes of women by Ramya Ramanath in her book, A Place To Call Home: Women as Agents of Change in Mumbai.

An associate professor at DePaul University, the author first encountered the slums at the periphery of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in 2002, at the cusp of their resettlement. 22,000 of the slum homes were due to being moved 10 km away to apartments in Chandivali, sandwiched by hills at one end and posh Andheri and Powai homes at the other.

Through conversations with 120 women of different ages, levels of education, types of employment, marital status, ethnicity, caste, religion, and household make-up, Ramya follows the different stages of the slum resettlement process; from their initial doubt at the state’s promise of free housing, their first steps as owners of a 225 square feet apartment in a high-rise, and their eventual adjustment to the new landscape.

The delight of Ramya’s book, which began with a field trip for her dissertation in 2002 and was published in 2019, is the wealth of experiences and opinions the diverse range of women bring to the table. From the slums to a colony named after struggle, Sangharsh Nagar, the women attempt to make the houses dealt to them into homes.

Two crammed buildings standing in opposite other on a narrow road in the slum resettlement site of Chandivali
A quick search on Twitter reveals a lot of problems – poor bus frequency, no gas supply – still plague the residents of the slum resettlement site in Chandivali. Pic: @ansariakram950

Slum resettlement projects do not favour slum residents

The long and arduous journey began in 1995, when the environmental NGO, the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), filed a petition in the Maharashtra High Court against the SGNP’s Conservator of Forests. They alleged the park’s slum dwellers had an ecologically disastrous effect and were the cause of deforestation. The state’s forest department chimed in, stating that 772.82 hectares of the 10,309 hectares of forest cover were encroached upon; 75,000 to 86,000 hutments were spread in different slum clusters around the park.

Demolitions began in 1997. By 2002, Ramya’s book details, 48,000 of the slum homes were demolished, leaving their 3 lakh occupants homeless. 22,000 of the homes were allowed to remain, as they were eligible for resettlement.

Meanwhile, the state in 1991 had begun to actively encourage private developers, builders and landowners to take upon slum rehabilitation projects. They were offered an additional floor area ratio (FAR) (now floor space index (FSI)) – meaning more construction – and the ability to transfer those perks elsewhere, through transferable development rights (TDR). Mumbai’s booming housing market made this a very lucrative offer.

Enticed by this, the developer appointed the architect in the NGO, P K Das, to design the rehabilitation site in 2001. His vision was for a model site; buildings not more than five floors high, plenty of open spaces, playgrounds, markets, commercial space, schools, and even places of worship.

But with the drop in housing prices starting in 2003, said Ramya in an interview, the developer’s financial incentive to invest much money in the slum resettlement site disappeared. He veered off the plans decided by the NGO and appointed his own architect.

The site built instead had a world of a difference, meeting only the minimum requirements for slum housing. 200 buildings stand in a close formation, some only metres away from rocky cliffs. 150 of them are 8 storeys tall, while the others are 15. The first slum residents that moved in found many amenities missing, such as drinking water, electricity, elevators, paved roads and street lights. They felt, Ramya recalls, like they were still being treated like slum dwellers.

Slums are not just homes, they are livelihoods

The slums around the SGNP – especially the well-established ones – were thriving. Many small and medium-sized industries, like pickle bottling, making jewellery, copper, surgical masks, etc, functioned from the ground floor of the self-built houses. Some women worked as domestic workers, while their husbands worked as drivers.

This informal job market, despite its poor pay, made the area attractive for families, for they could look after their homes and livelihoods in close proximity.

Unsurprisingly then, the lack of employment options was the biggest complaint from women after the slum resettlement. Few buses and a distant railway station, 30 to 40 minutes away by rickshaw, limited opportunities and increased time and costs. Home-based businesses faltered, as transportation costs ate into profits. Child-care work at the neighbouring posh localities was preferential to those who knew English.

Read more: Possible alternatives for Mumbai slums in a post-COVID-19 world

All slums are not equal

There were 54 slums around the SGNP, at varying degrees of elevation and proximity to the park. Even between the slums, there are disparities between the slums at the lower elevations and slums at higher elevations, around the park. Ramya notes this.

Those who had settled earlier had formed chaalis (a group of slum residents) with ten to thirty houses. Collectively, they availed amenities like municipal water connections, electricity, toilets, sewage lines, garbage collection and even paved roads. Youth groups and women’s groups had formed among them, who would organise festivals, events and savings-and-credit activities.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were those at the higher levels of the park. They made do without the amenities, as they were usually poorer, recent migrants and lived on steeper inclines in houses made of temporary material. The monsoons meant leaks and water mixed with garbage entering their homes. Long hours of waiting for water and toilets were softened by the company of friends, but ate away into their time for work.

For the women from these areas, the physical conditions of their homes had a huge bearing on their lives. Resettlement from the slums meant a substantial upgrade and new comforts.

Slums afforded women freedom

For many women, the slum resettlement meant the loss of freedom and community.

Many women mourned the open doors and the communal nature of slum life; of neighbours walking in at the news of sickness, of grouping together for daily tasks like queueing up for water or toilets, and an informal network at their fingers. Separated by doors, floors and buildings in the slum resettlement site, they no longer had their community of care.

Women who had grown up in the slums had enjoyed the proximity of the forest and the freedom it provided. Even as they grew, their familiarity with the place, as well as the many small alleys and routes that accompany the layout of a slum meant they could escape the scrutiny of neighbourhood boys. The resettlement site proved a 180-degree shift.

In the end, what eased the move for many of the 120 women was the number of earners in their families and their external networks and community. Many Hindu Marathi-speaking women had developed strong informal networks, often through savings-and-credit groups, called bishi, or haldi-kumkum ceremonies.

Today, the very slums cleared through demolitions and resettlement are flourishing again. Over 500 slum resettlement and redevelopment projects have been in limbo for over five years. The SRA passed an order on May 23rd to bring the cut-off date for approved slums approved for redevelopment to 2011 from 2000.

As the attempts at slum clearance and resettlement continue, the experiences and suggestions of the slum residents go unheard. Ramya Ramanath’s A Place to Call Home gives voice to their multitudes, but until they are heeded, the residents pay the price.

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