Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grab some tea and enjoy the show

Today we met with Sharmila and Avery from SPARC for a tour of various locations where they work. Priya, the eldest daughter in our host family joined us for the day.

We left the house a little late, in good Indian fashion. First stop was for some petrol after which we headed out to pick up Sharmila. "no, no i said meet me at dreams malls, not Nirmal lifestyles." the driver did not know where we were going. We did finally make it after a few phone calls of "where are you now?" with Sharmila and continued on our way to .... Wait! A police officer just stopped us!

Two people in the car didn't have their seatbelts fastened so the police officer pulled us over. Where he came from no body knows - he just kind of appeared out on a motorcycle alongside of us! Before we even realized that the police officer was standing there, our driver had already handed him his license. Out goes our driver to talk with the officer - then out goes Sharmila to help once she realized that the driver couldn't handle the situation. The police officer wanted to take the license and make our driver go to the station only tomorrow at which time he could pick up his license by paying a 400rupee fine or the officer said, you could pay 200 rupees now and be done with it - 100 each per passenger without a seatbelt. Sharmila looked at him and said, "just take 100 total. We're all women in the car!" once everyone was back in the car, Sharmila asked our driver, "you didn't see the officers hand before when he asked for your license?" meaning, "you couldn't tell he wanted the money sooner?!" Vinisha and Cecilia learned an important lesson here: you can even bargain your bribes!

And we continue on our way.

Next stop to pick up Avery at the "t-junction" near Dharavi. To get there though, we had to weave through some complicated traffic. Oh, and the car kept stalling - of no fault of the car. We proceeded at the speed of a well-fed turkey on a Minnesota country road in winter towards our meeting point with Avery. The speed was no matter though, it provided us more time to speak with Sharmila and learn more details about her work and the history and work of SPARC. Many phone calls then ensued, "Avery, where are you? No no, the T-JUNCTION! You know where that is! Ok, stay put, we'll find you!" Sharmila is amazing and knows everywhere and everyone!

"I don't see her," says Vinisha. Cecilia responds, "I see her. She's the white one!" We found Avery!

On to Dharavi!

We managed to get the car parked near the Mahila Milan offices in Dharavi. We sat and spoke with Sharmila a bit more, and learned more about what Avery is working on and how she arrived at SPARC.

Sharmila worked for many years previously with the Tata Institute and Avery hails from Sacramento where she was working on urban planning. Sharmila's current position has her in the field each day, going to meet with Mahila Milan leaders and learning about what they need and how everything is going. Avery is currently a volunteer with SPARC and is working on a GIS mapping of various SPARC projects. They showed us a Google Image map of Dharavi - it's ENORMOUS! There are 86,000 people living in Dharavi - according to SPARC surveys. (In the image below it's important to note that Dharavi is not just the section where Sharmila's hand is - its the entire image, plus parts which are not included that just didn't fit in the photo.)

The first thing that needs to happen in order to redevelop an area is that first the residents need to come together and form a federation. Leaders are elected by their communities and they conduct a survey which informs SPARC, and in turn any government official that needs to know, how many people are living in that area, how many people line in a particular house, their marital status, their caste, religion, etc. With this survey, SPARC found that there were 86,000 families- around 600,000 people- living in Dharavi. In the survey conducted by the government, they found that there were 35,000 people living in Dharavi. There are obviously some discrepancies. In an article that we came across on, "The survey on which the Dharavi redevelopment plans are based ignores anything above the ground floor. A majority of Dharavi's residents, especially those who came in relatively later live on the upper floors while the older inhabitants and those who have first-right on the ground level stay below. The survey is impatient with working out details of those above the ground floor since that involves a greater number of people. ... Since most of Dharavi is ground plus, often going up to 3 floors, it is evident that in the end much more than half of the present inhabitants of Dharavi will be evicted. The secure residents, who have been included in the survey, who think that a free flat is better than nothing, will even do the job for the authorities to chase the rest away." This is where roles of SPARC and Mahila Milan become very important, because unlike the government surveyors and officials who are doing the allocation, SPARC and Mahila Milan are so embedded in the communities that they can see past many of these attempts at acquiring even more land.

Next we went to some rooms inside the building. The first floor a high ceiling living room with a loft. The bathrooms were inside, but the toilets were communal. The women whose house we went to see were very king and allowed us to walk about and take many pictures.

The ladder to the loft was very steep, and the women in the house were very concerned about Cecilia climbing up to see the loft. Vinisha had to convince them that Ceci is going to be totally fine, she’s almost part monkey.

Sharmila took us all to the roof of the seven story building which Mahila Milan ground floor office, and was built by SPARC. It was as if a jolt went through our body as we felt and saw the enormity of Dharavi. On one side its borders were a major highway to a train line. On the other side it just kept on going for miles. Homes were stacked as if boxes, with no visible paths to get to the top rooms. Right below us was the tanning area, where workers were seen stacking hides. There were obvious layers of tenancy that could be seen through stacked homes, different kinds of homes, and different classes of homes that existed within Dharavi. Complexity of Dharavi was also visible to the naked eye, where unlike other slums, homes had been erecting atop of on one another for many years. The intertwined economic, social, and residential life was bustling even from our seventh story view. We must have stayed on this roof top asking many questions and looking at the living and breathing community from all angles.

From there we went back down stairs and back to the car to move on the next destination. Interestingly, a very significant conversation took place between Avery and Vinisha during that short walk. As we were climbing down the stairs, we saw that adjoining to the flats where was a jeans making factory, a lot of men in their undershirt were sitting in front of sewing machines, assembling jeans. Avery and Sharmila said that once some people from Europe came and took pictures and published them back home. Those who saw the photos labeled this place as a sweatshop, which led to the company getting an earful with regards to the poor working conditions, which was then felt here in this factory. So the factory decided to raise a wall so keep those wandering eyes out of the factory. Avery and Vinisha then had a conversation about the complexity of demanding a fair wage, because these men here, did not seem to want to create a fuss to get better conditions, especially if it meant keeping their jobs.

For a split second after reaching the car there was a scare when we realized that Cecilia and Priya weren’t with us. We went running back to the apartments looking for them. As it turns out, on their way down, they got pulled into an apartment when the owner saw them taking pictures. They wanted Ceci and Priya to take their pictures too.

From this apartment, we maneuvered through the narrow streets of Dharavi to the toilet block. This is where SPARC and World Bank made a toilet block with had a monthly membership fee. We had been reading about them on the SPARC website and in other articles. When we got there the first thing that was obvious was the lack of smell. We learned about the management structure of the bloc, where there is a 24 hour caretaker that lived on the top of the bloc. The fee for this toilet bloc was 20 rupees per family. The block it self is only available to a certain radius, and only those who are in the area could use it. We saw people come and pay one rupee to use the facility. What we didn’t see was people coming in with their passes. Went up the roof to see the caretaker’s home.

It was a modest home like the others that we had so far seen. But the area surrounding his home, the rest of the terrace, was a community meeting space where people came together to exchange problems.

Standing on top of this one and a half story building we were able to grasp the proximity of one building to another. Through out this site we noticed the creativity that went into using the little available space to carry out small trades.

It is important to point out the population density that we went through in order to get to the toilet block and back out. So first of all, by this point, in this 4 person- to American standards- car, there were 6 people in it. With a dog sleeping on the side of the road/walkway and children walking along the road, and the vegetable vendor hawking on the street, it was a tight squeeze. Let’s just say that there were frequent shut eyes, and calls to watch out for the child, and countless gasps. But we made it without hitting anyone, although we cannot say the same about brushing very close to people.

While confined to our vehicle during the maneuvering we had time to observe our surroundings as they passed us by. One of the most striking points (which Cecilia failed to notice, but Vinisha will soon teach her how) was the mixture of religions living side by side in Dharavi. In the photo below you see a Hindu temple and a Muslim women in a burkha walking past. We are not trying to romanticize this coexistence, because there were obvious regions in which one group dominated, but these groups mixed within the flow of Dharavi.

We left Dharavi for another development of houses and another Mahila Milan office. Before the next meeting however we stopped in to a restaurant for some lunch. This was a feat – not the lunch, but arriving at it. Do you know the game “Frogger”? That’s what Cecilia cheerfully announced this trek to be like. Vinisha did not agree that this was like a game – “This is real life!!” That’s what crossing the street looked like. That or mamma duck (Sharmila) with her four little ducklings (Avery, Priya, Vinisha and Cecilia) all holding on to one another and making sure we all made it across. (We should note that Avery and Priya are much more adept to crossing, so this was mostly a courageous feat for Vinisha and Cecilia!) Lunch was a delicious layout of masala bhindi (okra), malai kofta, kulcha and naan, and dahi rice (rice and yogurt) with some chuntneys.

From here we embarked on a long voyage to our next site. And believe us when we say long. There were 6 of us in the 4 person…maybe 5…mostly if you are a size of a 6 year old. We drove at snail speed, with car still stalling every 5 minutes. Then there was a funny sound from the car. Sharmila quietly said to pull over and check it out. Our beloved driver still kept on driving, until Vinisha demanded him to pull over and a passerby said there is something wrong with your car. So he pulls in front of a bus stop (luckily). We told him to move away from the bus stop incase a bus comes. We all pile out of the car. Vinisha’s entire leg was a sleep, and it behaved like a character from Harry Potter when their bones were removed from their body. Since were all in a rush to get out of this crammed space and see what was going on, Vinsiha decided to tough out the sleeping leg and just stand right up. It was hard….really hard. To help with this waking up process, Priya decided it would be good idea to slap the leg awake, which Vinisha standing on it. All the while we are trying to get this leg awake, the drive is looking for the spare tire. He asked: where do you keep the tire? Under the mat in the trunk? Duh?! Then he announced, it’s not there. We wanted to go to our next site so we gave him a bit of money and told him to get it fixed from across the street while we caught our very first Mumbai bus! It was empty by Mumbai standards. We all piled in and Sharmila got us the tickets. There were a lot of jerks and abrupt stops, and two stations later we got off. We were thankful for the bus driver who actually came to a full stop for the obvious fist timers. From this bus-stop, we follow the mama duck, aka Sharmila, across the highway. It was a pretty quiet highway for Mumbai standards. Vinisha did not see gap in the median a little ways down, and decided to just climb up on it. Of course, this is what all Mumbaikars would do, take the shortest route. She was wrong, which she quickly realized when everyone else just stared at her standing on the 4 feel tall median, and wondered: are we really friends with her? They pretended to not know her and just keep walking to the gap, where normal people would have walked through. (actually Cecilia kindly pointed to the gap and did acknowledge my unwise decision) But we made it across and into our next visit.

The building that we next visited was called “Milan Nagar” where we met with a leader from Mahila Milan, Shahnaz Shekh.

She told us the story of how they acquired the land and constructed the building. This is the story she told us: It took them 15 years to acquire the land. They could not have done it with Sheela Patel from SPARC and Gautam Chatterji from the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority. Originally the women from Mahila Milan were shown a piece of land in Sion, but people from Dharavi told them to get the land elsewhere because the Dharavi residents had been trying to acquire land rights as well, and they did not appreciate this group gaining this right on land that could potentially be theirs before them. Sheela suggested that the women take a train to Markhund. They got off and started walking by the tracks and started looking for a piece of land. They found some land on marshy ground and decided that this would be what they would request. As per the Act, they received the land and now had to decide what type of homes they wanted to build. They built a sample home. The community chose to have the loft house (which is 15feet high – as opposed to 9feet high) for construction on their land. The collector mapped out the land to see how large the area actually is and what its boundaries are. Then all of a sudden, the mill owner who was living next door to this land claimed the same land where the building was going to take place. Even though mapping was already complete with the established boundaries, overnight the boundaries were changed. Shahnaz thinks that the officials were bribed to change the boundaries. Then there was more negotiation with the government and the mill owner. FINALLY, they were given a piece of land – this time for real – but less than previously offered. Next step was the paperwork for the land, which took a very long time as well. The ladies went to the government offices every day to check on the status and they would be sent from one floor and building to another. While they were making these trips, one day was the holiday of Raksha Bandhan. On this day sisters tie a knot of raksha (yarn) on their brothers. The ladies went to the office with rakis (yarn) and tied it to all the officials in the building. The chief Chatterji, was very impressed by their strategic move, “Anything that Mahila Milan needs to get done that’s not getting done, they should call him.” The ladies told him that they had been traveling back and forth for these papers and they weren’t getting them done. He stepped in and they immediately got the papers. He saw the process through to the completion of the construction from 2001 to 2003.

As the building was going up, two areas were being evacuated and some families got moved to the new building while others were placed in transit camps. Total of 86 families were moved here of the 536 total families. All of the homes built here house people displaced from the train tracks. Interestingly since not all people were housed, some got huts in the areas where homes will be built.

This visit ended with another building resident showing us her home. It was also a ground level high ceiling loft. The woman’s name escapes me, but she was really proud of her kitchen.

She lives is the home with her husband and three orphaned children. She was also keeping her daughters’ belonging while she visited her village. She explained why her daughter needed to keep her stuff here. Her daughters’ rent for a one room for 2000 rupees plus water and electricity. While in the village her daughter could not afford to pay for the bills as she also had to leave her job as a domestic worker. As for the mother we were speaking with, she explained her trade: before she used to own a tea cart, selling tea along roadside. But after taking the kids in, the tea cart could not feed them all. So she opened a chicken store. We took pictures with her, and gave her many thank you’s before we parted.

The final destination we went to was another building in Milan Nagar, Building 98. Here we spoke with the women in their area office.

They explained their banking system, where the residents can save and lend within the building. It truly was bank for the poor.

After speaking with the women in the office, we looked at another home on the first floor. The woman residing there pointed out the number of bags with tiffin boxes in them. She and three other women had taken out a loan to start a tiffin delivery business. After cooking and preparing the tiffins, she would deliver them via rickshaw. She worked an order of 40 tiffins.

By the time we finished with this last apartment, our host family had arrived to rescue us from our very crazy and incompetent driver. The look on their faces told us to keep quiet and get in the car. Aunty announced upon reaching the car, that the driver is fired! What’s more, when we got to our shredded tire car, she was sitting in the back seat with the two uncles in the front and aunty soon to be joining him in the back. The poor man had no idea the fury he was going to face in that back seat. We were very thankful to be sitting in the other car, and not having any visual or audio of whatever that went down in that car.

Later we found out the man had caused damage of around 5000 rupees. The spare tires that our driver had announced did not exist, actually was right where it’s supposed to be, in the trunk, under the mat. But overall, we just feel bad for him being in the back seat after our family saw the tire on the car and in the trunk.

We ended the night here, writing to you with a plate of guava slices with chili and salt. Vinisha eats them happily and says, "Don't feel pressured to eat these.... mmmm these are so good!" Cecilia will take a bite and throw caution to the wind. (Sorry mom!) *10 minutes later, Cecilia's still feeling fine. All is well….actually, we spoke too soon. Vinisha’s tummy ached.

It was a very long and exhausting day in which we learned so so much! Thanks to Priya for taking so many photos and for coming with us on our adventure for the day! Thank you so very much Sharmila and Avery for teaching us about SPARC and the work of Mahila Milan. Special thanks to Sharmila who provided a most perfect tour and introduced us around to key individuals who could paint the best picture of the issues! Thanks also for helping us to escape the police (in an informal and yet acceptable manner) and also for getting us across a few streets totally unscathed! Because of you both, we are much smarter, and still very much alive!

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