February 08, 2005

Applause of the deaf

(Some of these thoughts are in previous writings I’ve done, but perhaps there’s reason to put it all down again here).

When news of the wave that overwhelmed Marina beach and the hutments there last December 26 spread across Chennai, friends of mine in Chennai Rotary clubs got together immediately and took relief material out. They didn't know till much later that day about the huge extent of the damage (i.e. beyond Chennai). For several hours that day, as far as they could see, all that the tsunami had done was to destroy some hutments, and take a few lives, in Chennai.

Why, I wonder, did they not stop to think, "hey, these hutments were illegal, it’s good they are gone"? Yet when a Municipality destroys hutments in Bombay – till the time of writing, over twice as many as the tsunami managed all across Tamil Nadu – nobody rushes out with relief material. No, people actually applaud the action. The Municipality is doing a good thing, they say, because they are demolishing these illegal hutments.

Why is there no national outrage about these demolitions, no national outpouring of emotion and help like the tsunami generated?

My explanation: it's the poor who are being affected by them, and we have decided that they are the hindrance to our "development." They are ugly, they breed too much, they are dirty, they pay no taxes – pretty much all of that is expressed in comments I’ve had on this blog and in response to my writing over the years. Pretty much all of that is also untrue, but that's for another day.

So because they are poor, it's OK to pull down their homes. Why is it that not one middle-class block of flats has been brought down that I know of, even though so many of those are built flouting FSI and other building regulations, are built paying bribes, are paid for using illegal money, and often have illegal extensions? Would there be national outrage if such blocks of flats were demolished like Ambujwadi was? What do you think?

People who live in our slums are an integral part of our economy. This city generates jobs all the time, a process we all see as desirable. People migrate to the city to fill those jobs, because the jobs are there and because there is no comparable generation of jobs in their rural homes. But to go with those jobs, there is no comparable generation of affordable rental housing in Bombay. So where are these people to stay? After all, all of us want our hair-cutters and eyebrow-tweezers, our cobblers, our bus conductors, our maids, our security guards, our dishwashers, our couriers, our sweepers, our tuition masters, even our policemen. (Yes, the true irony is that many of the cops who accompanied Municipal demolition squads themselves live in slums).

Where do many of these people live? What would our economy turn into if we got rid of them as we are doing? What do you think they will do now that their homes are gone? That’s right: they’ll build homes again where they can. Because they want their jobs, because we want them in their jobs, and because they cannot afford any other housing in this city.

There are only two ways to have slums vanish from the city, it seems to me. One, demolish the hutments, but immediately provide the displaced people reasonable alternative housing so they can continue to be the integral part of our economy they are. Two, generate jobs in rural areas that will keep people there instead of sending them to the cities. (Though it should be said that immigration forms a small fraction of the full growth of the city).

I see neither of those two things happening. Therefore I know: we will continue with the one surefire way to both spread poverty and have slums keep on mushrooming.We will continue to demolish them and do nothing else. Applause please.


annie said...

Glad to have drifted by, sir... Regards and all that. and lovely work here.

Anonymous said...

There one other way to remove the hutments. Pay them what they deserve. Pay them whole heartedly without getting cheated. We, indians, need to learn to respect labour. We still think manaul labour is only for the 'lower' class and they need to be paid as much.
If we get out of this rut and start treating them as equal then things will change. We can change whole of India into Singapore, not just Mumbai.
All this can be achieved only by QUALITY EDUCATION.

Anand said...

Few people show the guts to support the urban poor. I'm glad to see your markedly different columns and blog posts. Btw, just purchased your 2001 book at the Strand fair; looking fwd to reading it.

Sriram said...

Quick question, Dilip. Are these huts actually bought, in any sense of the word?

My views are very simple - no one, including the government, can destroy someone's private property. That is the fundamental concept behind freedom.

But, if the houses are not actually owned by anyone, that is a different story. If I camp out in your lawn, you might not look at my "house" so kindly.

Voice on Wings said...

Quick question to Sriram - what about the 'huts' (actually mansions) that are really bought, but with ill-gotten wealth, bypassing the legal framework, or by force? Do you think your 'fundamental concept behind freedom' should protect those expensive huts, while demolishing these cheaper ones? Since 'private property' doesnt always translate to 'fruits of one's labor' why should it be the guiding principle to protect some, and deprive others? The slum dwellers may not be 'rightful owners' of the land they live in. But they are very much a part of this land, and cannot be wished away, just like you cant wish away the birds, the fish and the animals that populate this earth.

Sriram said...

Dear Voice on Wings, the answer is simple. Anyone committing any illegal activity must be punished for it. Any ill-gotten properties must be returned.

I am not sure what prompted you to read my reply in any other sense.

I don't see any conflict in your statements and mine. Wrongdoers must be punished; private property must be protected.

sudeep said...

(to the guy who raised the question of property rights ? ) but what if the property is public, in the sense it belongs to the govt. :-D

besides, at least the way its enshrined in the Indian constitution, the right to private property is not absolute. The state can, and does take away your property. (Its a different matter that if the state snatches a landlords property, that will be applauded as land reforms by the "progressives", and if it chucks out slum dwellers, they'll yell bloody murder.)

I think people need to appreciate that the dwellers in these slums are an integral part of Mumbai. Contrary to what you might think, they are not all ragpickers, thieves, and beggars. They are taxi drivers, "4th grade" govt employees, private security guards, bhaji wallahs, casual labourers working in construction and so on. The city *can not* function without them and as such, the city and the govt. cant deal out stepmotherly treatment to them. Imagine, if the Ambanis, the Kapoors and the Thackreys decided that the dwellings of clerks and peons in Mumbai were an eyesore, and hence they would not be allowed to stay in mumbai. This decision of the govt to convert mumbai to Shanghai (and India to China ?) by demolishing slums is as illadvised as the fantastic idea of chucking out clerks and peons. Also, these people have been living there for 10-20 years.. Try hammering a nail into your bedroom wall and see if your dad doesnt hammer one into your head :-D If one nail in the walls of your new house can hurt so much, imagine what a complete demolition of your house of twenty years may cause.

Great cities can not be built human anguish on such a scale. I dont/would not like to live in a home constructed over the ruins of someone elses.

btw: Dilip, if it had been the NDA govt doing this, you would have been spewing venom and Vajapaye and RSS.. how come the CON-gress party and the Deshmukh govt escape your vitriol ? :-D Or is it that its just the faceless Brihann Mumbai Nagarpalika that is doing the demolitions, and Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh dont know about all these things..

my bad.. !! for a moment I forgot that you are a "committed" journalist :-P Sonia and Manmohan are busy innocent lily white souls upholding the flag of secularism, they cant be expected to know about all this low level crap !!

Vasanth said...


Though I don’t want to go into the merits of the demolition drive unleashed in Mumbai, I just want to clarify one statement made by you.

Most of these hutments in and around Chennai you are talking about are not illegal settlements. These are all fishing hamlets which are there for centuries. In fact Chennai was only a fishing town before it was discovered by the British. Only issue which was raised in this regard was the closeness of these hamlets to the sea and how would the government allowed them to live very close to the sea. For god sake, all these guys are fishermen and where would a fisherman live? Some 10 kms away from the sea?? Every occupation has its own hazards and risks. Fishermen face this problem on a daily basis like any other person in any other occupation.

Voice on Wings said...

Sriram, no one is returning ill-gotten properties, nor is anyone going after them. On the contrary, we only see slums of the poor being razed to the ground and notions of freedom used to justify such actions. I felt compelled to respond to you because you sounded like (correct me if i'm wrong) it's ok to demolish the huts if/since they're not 'private property' of the dwellers.

Sudeep, maybe the government owns those lands, even though it din't create them, nor did it buy them - the basic criteria for ownership, I guess. It just came to power on the very mandate of the likes of people whom it is evicting. I leave the question open on whether it has the right to do so.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sudeep: You're right, the slums are an integral part of Bombay. Thanks for saying so, especially when the vocal opinion seems to be, get rid of them.

I don't see how you conclude that the Congress and DEshmukh escape "my vitriol" (such as it is). First of all, I've been writing since 1994 about slum demolitions, criticising whatever government was in place -- Congress or BJP, Vajpayee or Joshi or Deshmukh. Second, I've done the same with this spate of demolitions too. Every party has taken the same half-baked attitude towards the slums.

What that has to do with secularism or being "committed" (whatever that is) is beyond me.

Vasanth: I'm going by what my Rotary contacts in Chennai told me. In describing how they went to the help of affected people in Chennai that Sunday, they referred to some of the hutments being illegal. IF they are not, thanks for correcting me.

Sriram, I don't know quite to answer the question of whether the huts were paid for. I mean, the land is likely not paid for, but people pay to buy a hut in a slum just like they would do anywhere else.

Wings has got it just right: this govt came to power on the mandate of people whose houses it is now demolishing. Which is exactly why they have approached the Election Commission to take these people off the electoral rolls. The other thing Wings has right is the contrast between what happens to slums (demolition) and what happens to other illegally built structures (nothing). Slum residents themselves ask that question. If legality is the issue, then why is it selectively applied?

Karthik said...

Moving this from my blog to yours ....

"As far as they could see for several hours that day, all that the tsunami had indeed done was destroy a few hutments in Chennai. Yet their reactions were based on their humanitarian feelings. They didn't stop to think, as we seem to do in Bombay, hey, these hutments are illegal, good the are gone."

"My explanation: it's the poor who are being affected. We think they are the hindrance to our "development", they are ugly, they breed too much, they are dirty, they pay no taxes - pretty much all of which is untrue, but that's for another day. So it's OK to pull down their homes."

Don't you see the contradiction here? Why are these same humanitarians (by your own admission) not too concerned about what is happening in Bombay? Is it that all the good people have decided to converge on Chennai? Or maybe unbeknownst to me, there is a strange Jekyll and Hyde thing going on in India, where people oscillate between intense love for the poor when there is a giant wave and hatred otherwise.

Perhaps, the truth is the obvious thing : that most people - even diehard Vonnegut fans like me - realize that this is not a battle between the rich (aka Maharashtra Government) and the poor. It would be very convenient to paint it thus, but unfortunately it is not all black and white.

While I can appreciate your anguish about people being uprooted from their homes, I am also pragmatic enough to realize that in the end something drastic had to be done in this situation. The ideal thing would have been to prevent encroachments, but that didn't happen, so this had to. Sooner or later. If everyone that decided to encroach on someone elses property is entitled to it because they are poor then there will be no concept of private property anymore. What will prevail will be anarchy. Being poor does not entitle anyone to own what is someone else's. Would you react the same way if someone had built a multi-storey office building at the same place on encroached land?

About the effect on the city's economy - it is more resilient that you think. At the risk of sounding callous, I will say this : People will struggle a bit, but in the end things will work out for them. That is the beauty of a market-driven system. The middle class that you seem to loathe will end up paying a bit more to their barbers to take care of the commute, and learn to wait a little longer in the morning before their maids arrive. A painful transition, but one that will have positive consequences in the end. Here's wishing for the best.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Moving this from my blog to yours ....Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Karthik of the thoughtful blog +: etcetera:+.

Don't you see the contradiction here?Actually, no. What’s happening, as I see it, is this: with the tsunami, people react as they do because they think: “that could have been me.” (I hesitate to use “there but for the grace of god go I” because that phrase has caused some literal-minded people some heartache in these pages in the past). With the slum dwellers, people react as they do because they think: “those guys deserve what’s coming to them, they are on illegal land, they are filthy and messy, they are all Bangladeshis and a threat to national security.” Etc. (Don’t laugh, I spent half an hour on the phone with a very articulate, very well-known Bombay personality this morning listening to exactly these phrases).

Of course something drastic had to be done. But I wonder why it wasn’t one of these other drastic things. One, get rid of the Rent Control Act that has essentially killed the rental housing market in Bombay. Two, build alternative cheap rental housing for the people who need it. Three, stimulate job creation and opportunity in the rural areas. There may be more.

Why is it that the only drastic thing that ever happens is the tearing down of the homes of the urban poor?

I have no loathing for the middle-class, and I don’t see how it furthers your arguments to make out that I do. But I do think we in the middle-class in India don’t fully understand what’s going on with slums and our urban condition. That’s why we choose the easy option: destroy slums. Too bad it is also the futile option.

sen said...

Iam with karthick on this.You guys are trying to talk as if some innocent peoples who were not aware of the consequences of staying in a illegal property where evicted.

#Don't you think they were not aware that this thing might happen one day.
#Don't u think the government never notified them about the encroachment.
#Is everybody a poor person in the slum.There are filthy rich guys in the slums.There are guys who rent houses in the slums.
#A middle class guy has to work his ass off to buy a small piece of land 100 of kilometers from the central city and waste half of his life travelling in the train, but all it takes for a slum dweller is to pitch a party flag and oola he has a house in down town.

Well i will definitely kick out a guy if he pitches tent in my backyard illegaly and so should the govt.Would your bleeding heart support a guy pitching a tent in your cubicle at work.

Drastic measures of sanjay gandhi made delhi a beautiful city.Nothing was lost, the city survived.so will bombay.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Drastic measures of sanjay gandhi made delhi a beautiful city.We have here a Sanjay Gandhi admirer. Be still my thumping little ticker! What's next, an Eichmann admirer?

sen said...

"Drastic measures of sanjay gandhi made delhi a beautiful city."

I dont understand how you can interpret this line as an admiration for sanjay gandhi.The context here is clearing the slums in delhi.My stand on approving the slum clearence in bombay does not mean iam a Vilasrao Deshmukh admirer.
Take good care of your little ticker.