WHY MIGRATE TO THE CITIES?
India's urban population, at present around 155 million, is likely to rise by the end of the century to 350 million. As this happens, the percentage of those living in slums and shanties will rise. During the UN International Year of Shelter, the Slum-dwellers Federation of India undertook a census of the slums, the counting being done by the people themselves. Thousands of slums were covered in twelve major cities, including Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Ahmedabad, Bangalore. Two representatives from each slum cluster ensured that a reasonably accurate count was taken, for the first time; simultaneously, they identified issues around which all slum-dwellers can organize more effectively than before — access to water, ownership of land, security of tenure, police
and slumlord harassment.
Dharavi in Bombay is commonly described as 'the largest slum in Asia'; it is believed to hold about half a million people. The Federation has identified ninety-seven separate communities, some single chawls with no more than fifty families, others covering several acres of densely built shanties of rusting tin and rags intersected by narrow alleys and rivulets of foul water. The representatives from each community know where the people come from, to which language group they belong, what work they do; they know the number of temple's, mosques and churches, the rate of turnover of the people, how much the huts sell for, and who produces the wealth that is drained out of the slums each year A But! The census has a purpose beyond the compiling of statistics. Very little is known about which districts the city migrants come from and why they come; the relative importance of push/pull factors is a matter of academic dispute rather than known fact. P. Annamalai, a lawyer who has lived in the jMadras slums all his life, says:
What we plan to do is find out where the people come from, and then go to those districts and study the problems there. Was it drought, landlessness, unemployment ? We want the government to place the needs of the people at the centre of their concerns rather that their macro-level plans. If the places people leave can no longer support them – whether because of deforestation or drought or dam-building —then migration must continue, not necessarily to Bombay and the big cities, but to smaller centres. If the flow of people can be stopped by investment there, then that is where the effort must be made.
A. Jockin has lived and worked for a Bombay slum community for twenty years, ever since he came to Bombay as a young man from his village in the south of India. He has helped form the National Slum-dwellers Federation, which meets annually and to which the slums of six major cities are now affiliated. Of migration he says:
‘We are starting with no hypothesis, but are trying to find out, deeply, from the people themselves what has determined their move. There are people in Dharavi from Tamil Nadu who own land in the village, but nonetheless prefer to stay in a Bombay slum. Why is that? Could you imagine anyone staying here from choice? When you look at the circumstances, you find out the government of Tamil Nadu stopped giving electrical connections in 1976 to small and marginal farmers with five acres or less. So a farmer with five acres of marginal land with no electricity for a water pump can't cultivate his land. He leases it to someone else, comes to the city, makes money to buy more land, to buy a pumpset or to bribe an official for an electrical connection. Other small farmers may have sold their land to bigger farmers, they may be in debt for a Wedding or medical
expenses, the rich formers may be selling water at a prohibitive price.’
Education is another cause of migration. Most villages have primary education, but with 20-30% of young people wanting further education, they have to go to the major town in the taluka. For higher education people must go to the cities where the colleges are. Over 80% of those who have been to college settle in the city, whether there is work for them or not.
Landlessness also sends people to the city. Rural labourers work for three or five rupees a day; when they come to the city, they can earn twenty rupees a day as construction coolies. In the city, a man or woman works eight to ten hours, in the village a day's work may mean twelve hours. And in the transition to the city, the culture changes: caste is submerged, nobody knows who you are, untouchables are not prevented from using the well.
Jockin insists that people are not any less exploited in Bombay, but it's a different form of exploitation from that prevailing in the village- Bombay is crowded — less than 0.1 hectare of open space' per 1,000 people (and that includes traffic islands). Its air is sulphurous, its traffic frequently immobilized.
In the city, people find their role is to become human bulldozers. The poor squat on useless, rocky or marshy land; they level it and turn it into valuable real estate. When people started coming to Dharavi fifty years ago, land was forty paise a square metre; now its 400 rupees a square metre. This is the hidden purpose of the poor in the city — to benefit the rich. No wonder they then try to criminalize the poor, say they're lazy and worthless. They want to get their hands on the urban land which the poor have improved and added value to.
There are other myths about migration. The image of the migrant is of a poor family, getting off the train at the cathedral-like Victoria Terminus with their tin box and bundle, looting up in wonder at the city lights. The slum-dwellers Federation points out that the Chief Minister of Maharashtra is also a migrant to Bombay, as are many of the executives, holders of top city posts, as well as those with highly paid jobs in the private sector. The rich want the amenities of the city; but their presence helps drive out the poor, whose services they also require— domestic labour, food vendors, drivers and cart-pushers. P. Annamalai:
Construction contractors go to the villages to collect cheap labour, bring them to Bombay and erect sheds for them on the site. The work lasts three or four years, the building is completed. The workers are then turned out of the compound. They become pavement dwellers. They lean some bamboo poles and a gunny bag against the walls they have built and that's where they live.
‘The problem of the cities starts in the village,' insists Jockin.
‘The government is urging us to send television to the villages. What for?1The people will see city life, see people walking on the moon. yhat can only encourage young people to get on a train and cqme here. They see the city as aplace where people live in cement houses, have electric fans and refrigerators.'
Many eaily migrants to Bombay came to work in the mills. They sent money back to the villages. But the majority maintained the dream of going back themselves. And indeed some do return, buy land, build a bigger house. But others find that the villal e economy has changed, conditions are different from what they are accustomed to in the city. Often they cant take the caste feeling and communal tension, and after a time they go back to Bombay. 'Mentally, people are not fitted to return. Something happens to them in the city — they become different people.'
Stories of the people you meet everyday in Bombay confirm that the reasons for coming to the city are complex. They don't, of course, see themselves as part of a vast social and economic shift taking place in India; for them, it is a personal drama, a journey of sadness or hope.
Sunderam is twenty-six. He came with his mother and brother from Mangalore when his father had brain cancer. They lived for six months in the hospital compound, preparing the father's food and looking after him until he died. Sundera s mother then went back to cultivate the three acres of land, mainly paddy. His brother went to Delhi, where he works in a department store. Sunderam works in a South Indian vegetarian restaurant, where he earns 400 rupees a month and is lodged and fed in the hotel. He spends nothing on himself, and sends 300 rupees a month to his mother and sisters. He goes home once a year at the beginning of the monsoon, and helps transplant the rice.
Rafiq's father came to Bombay from near Aurangabad in 1948. He lived on the pavement and worked as a ward-boy in the municipal hospital. He was once offered a site at Cheetah Camp on the edge of the city for a house; but it was too far away from work and he refused. He lived on the pavement all his life, and that is where Rafiq ;ind five others were born. One sister died at fourteen. Rafiq went to Saudi Arabia as a driver for seven years: he worked for Toyota driving empty cars from Jeddah the 1,400 kilometres to the showroom in Riyadh. After seven years he had enough money to buy a flat in Bombay; but within a short time his father fell ill. The flat was sold to pay the medical expenses. Rafiq is now back on the pavement with his wife and two children.
Vishnu came to work in the mills of Bombay when he was a young man. He comes from Na!sik in northern Maharashtra. He worked in the spinning sheds for ten years, until the long textile strike of 1982-3, after which his mill closed down. His salary had been 1,000 rupees a month; now he is getting 600 rupees a month, house-cleaning. He has sent his family back to the village, where they can live hnore cheaply.
Suresh was driven to Bombay by forces that don't figure in the official statistics. The son of an unhappy second marriage, he was badly treated by his half-brothers. From an early age, he says, he knew he was different; it took many years before he could articulate why he felt estranged, and say that he was gay. He worked in the small town in Karnataka, and saved enough money to come and study in Bombay. Here he has found friends who don't make him feel the only person in the world who is gay.
Manino comes from Goa. His parents were shopkeepers and reasonably well-off, but one day, his mother slipped as she was drawing water at the well. His father, trying to save her, was also killed. The orphaned children came to Bombay and lived on the road near Churchgate Station. After years of precarious existence, Manino got a job as driver to the Sultan of Muscat. One day, as he was driving the Sultan's daughter, the car left the road and plunged down an embankment. It was thought Manino would die; his employer intended to send him to London for surgery, but he said he would rather die in India. He recovered; returned to Goa, and worked there with the traditional fishing community who were resisting mechanised fishing by big trawler-owners. He was shot in a demonstration; he raises his trouser leg to show the bullet scar. He returned to Bombay and is now a community worker in a slum
that has been much improved.
Ravi is from Thane in Maharashtra. He sold the four acres of family land because of drought. He worked for a few years as a day labourer, but eventually came to the city, where he lived in an established slum with his brother. He now works as a taxi driver. He has to pay the owner 160 rupees for every 100 kilometres on the clock, and he keeps an equivalent sum. He has to buy the petrol and see to the daily maintenance of the car. His daily wage comes to forty rupees. He has five children. His wife is mentally sick, and his unmarried sister looks after the family while he works, sometimes a fifteen-hour day.
Anand came to Bombay to work on the site of the World Trade Centre with others from his village in Orissa. When the contract finished, he lived with his brother's family in Mankhurd, but they quarrelled and he left. He is unmarried, a thin, unshaven man in his early forties who looks much older. He says he can sleep anywhere, on the pavement, in the station. He pushes a cart from which he sells fruit in the dock area. Each day he borrows money to hire the cart and buy produce from the market. The loan is paid back at the end of the day, at 10% interest. The police regularly take five rupees because, they say, he has no licence.
The diversity of the people and their reasons for coming to Bombay are reflected in the variety within the slums. This is what gives them their vitality and energy: factory workers, clerks, beggars, hawkers and vendors, recyclers of waste materials, servants, peons, rickshaw drivers, barbers and artisans, municipal workers and hamals, embroidery workers and tailors are all to be found within the same community.
‘The slum dwellers are the best recyclers in the world,’ says Jockin:
They will make use of anything — gunny, film posters, plastic sheets, bamboo, palm leaves, packing cases. They always start with cheap and fragile materials. Once they feel secure and know their house won't be demolished, they’ll improve it — buying one sheet of tin at atime, until a whole wall is replaced; then a wooden door-frame; then maybe a brick or cement wall, and Bangalore tiles for the roof. Then, if they prosper, they'll build a second storey, cement or tile the floor. I
On the pavements, it's different. There is no security, so you don't build with the same care. Even so, very cramped dwellings are organized with great economy and foresight. They are always kept clean inside, however great the squalor of the surroundings. Demolition has become routine for the pavement dwellers of Bombay. They are very fatalistic. Demolish today, I’ll be back tomorrow.
The slums are far from being the depressing places they may appear; they seethe with vitality and hope, qualities that i are absent from the poor inner-city areas of the West. Worsening conditions lead to more and more clusters organizing themselves in order to resist the exploitation of dadas and slumlords, the corruption of officials, the exactions of the police. But unless the situation in the villages is tackled at the same time as that in the cities, as an aspect of the same problem, the positive energies in the slums could easily turn to violence, strife and communalism.
Jeremy Seabfook, Why Migrate to The Cities?, in Life and Labour in a Bombay Slum, Quartet Books, London. 1987. P. 145-152. [B.J10a.S.2].