August , 2019
Slums – a tragic contrast
14:29 pm

Aritra Mitra

According to the 2011 Census, around 65.49 million Indians (around 5.4% of India’s population) are living in slums. Additionally, around 17.4% of the total urban Indian population is slum dwellers.

It is ironical that while Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan was launched with much fanfare, 360 million of India’s poorest citizens continue living in some of the most dilapidated conditions in the world.

In Kolkata, a number of slums are located around Tiljala, Park Circus, Topsia, Tangra, and Narkelganga. The roots of these slum dwellers can be traced to rural areas like Gosaba, Lakkhikantapur and Canning in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal and even to the state of Bihar. Many of them have been living by the railway tracks in their polyester homes near Park Circus for generations, their forefathers having moved from their distant rural houses in search of better livelihoods in urban areas.

Safkat Alam, Joint Secretary of Tiljala Society for Human and Educational Development (SHED), an organisation working for the empowerment of slum dwellers in and around Park Circus, told BE, “There is still law and order problems in these slums. Various political parties use gangs comprising of certain slum dwellers for their own interest, especially during the elections. These gangs are engaged in several illegal activities including drug peddling.”

These slums had been sites of rampant domestic violence and abuse earlier. Alam stated, “Nowadays, the violence rate has reduced. We have formed a group that re-ports of any case of domestic violence and that have greatly improved the situation.”

While speaking about the population problem in these slums, Alam informed, “There are four to five children per family on an average. They think that more people in the family will mean more income generation. In most families, the men are irresponsible and all the responsibilities are shouldered by the women.”

Many of the slum dwellers in these areas live in abject poverty and work as rag pickers, scourging the city for paper and discarded plastic. Chadma Noor, a rag picker living by the railway tracks in Park Circus with her family, said, “I pick up rags and give them to my sister who sells them and gives me around  ` 200 per day.” Noor stays with her husband who is a van driver and three children, who are studying at the local Adi Ballygunge School. She said that they have not received any aid from the government.

According to the 2011 Census, taps, hand-pumps and tube wells together constituted the major sources of drinking water in Indian slums. At the national level, out of 137.5 lakh slum households, 101.9 lakh (74%) have access to tap water as a main source of drinking water. Government data indicates that 90 lakh slum households have access to tap water from treated sources and 11.9 lakh slum households have access to tap water from untreated sources. Additionally, the same data source indicates that 28 lakh (20%) slum households have access to hand-pumps and tube wells as a main source of drinking water, 4.1 lakh (3%) slum households have access to wells as a main source of drinking water and 3.7 lakh (3%) slum households have access to other sources (including spring, river/canal, tank/pond/lake and others) as a main source of drinking water.

The situation in these slums around Park Circus is dismal in regard to availability of drinking water. Speaking about Darapara, one of the largest slums in Park Circus, Alam stated, “We have made several toilets in these slum areas. But there is just one tap for drinking water and the slum dwellers have to face a lot of problems due to lack of drinking water. It is sad that even after almost 75 years of independence, there has been no proper planning for water supply in these areas.” 

It is noteworthy that only 44.6 million slum dwellers in India are literate. In slum areas, males are ahead of females in terms of literacy with 24.92 million male and 19.6 million female literates being recorded in the 2011 Census. This problem has been addressed by Tiljala SHED. A library has been set up by Tiljala SHED in association with Italian Association for Women in Development (AIDOS) for promoting education among women residing in these
slums. Anju Mara, the librarian of this library informed BE, “In most of the houses, there is a little space to study and there are other disturbances. So, girls come here to study and those who cannot afford to buy their books
issue books from the library. Many girls who come here have had to give up education either due to poverty or because they were pressurised to get married. However, they have interest in studies and they still visit the
library.” The librarian also said that they provide beautician training to several women.

Majority of the school-goers from slums are first generations learners and do not have anyone to guide them at home. Earlier, people did not understand the importance education but of late, they are paying more heed to it. Mara stated, “These girls have strong will-power to do something on their own. We attempt to aid them so that they can become economically independent.” Shabnam, who is currently pursuing her higher secondary studies and a member of the library, told BE, “I had to leave studies for three years after my father’s death due to financial crisis. But I have again started my schooling and this library has helped me a lot.”

Alam stated that despite their efforts, several children have also been involved in anti-social activities. He voiced his concern that though several programmes for women empowerment have been initiated in these slums, men-folk have been outside the ambit of these programmes. As a result, there have been rampant drop outs among male students. He stated, “You will see that the number of boys in schools is much lesser than that of the girls.”

Alam informed about the changing perception about health services among the slum dwellers. He said, “Earlier they were afraid of going to the hospitals. They treated immunisation as taboo but now there has been a change in the situation. India has become polio-free due to the awareness of immunisation. At present, these people also understand the importance of institutional child delivery.”

There have been some important initiatives taken by the government. The West Bengal government has a provident fund scheme for slum dwellers. Additionally, through the efforts of various organisations like Tiljala SHED, slum dwellers have been given access to voter cards and Aadhaar cards. Their recognition as voters has given them a degree of collective bargaining power and allows them to better negotiate the system.

There have been efforts to address the housing crisis as well. Programmes like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana have made definite inroads. However, as the economic marginalisation continues, there is a tendency among slum dwellers to rent out their allotted flats and move back to their polyester and bamboo shelters.

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