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a tale of two cities


Ever since India passed its Slum Clearance Act in 1970, the government has repeatedly revisited attempts to surgically remove what it has come to regard as a tumor. Evicting entire families; offering to rehouse them – when pressed – in newly erected concrete blocks complete with indoor plumbing. A hitherto unheard of luxury for rural migrants squatting in the vast labyrinthian channels leaking out from central Mumbai. Unarguably ugly developments which offer not only shelter but, just as crucially, a means of eking out an existence in scores of thriving – though officially unrecognized – industries which generate billions in untaxable revenue. Successive governments, then, have found the going undermined by persistent recalcitrance. The people simply do not wish to be rehoused.

As the west has ably demonstrated, slum clearances only result in funneling existing populations into artificially created pockets which are, themselves, new slums in the making. Repeated amendments to planning policy have scarely addressed the outcome. And it is not merely a social issue. With city acreage selling at a ridiculous premium, government in Mumbai is less concerned with resolving genuine issues of community and public welfare than generating huge profits from untapped resources.

Unlike, say, the notorious favelas of Brazil, crime is not inwardly endemic in the Mumbai slums. Largely kept in line by the same Caste system operating outwith the slums – which inescapably visits its own unique set of problems on a far larger scale – there is very real order and a sense of community in the sprawling network of makeshift factories, sweat shops and claustrophic dwellings. Its peoples often labour just yards from where they sleep; their children receive an education at one or another of the myriad schools established beyond the margins of state intervention.

In short, the people of the slums have toiled for generations to secure and maintain a sense of identity. Often labouring in hereditary trades adapted to meet demand. To procure for themselves that which has consistently been denied through central governmnent.

Uprooting whole families to stack them one on top of another in a concrete house of cards while the plumbing slows to a crawl and the lifts grind to a halt scarcely qualifies as improvement. Paring away all potential to generate an income beyond begging in the street should be roundly vilified.

Shit, work and play where you eat and sleep. An agrarian concept popular before the Highland Clearances of old, when the factory owners waged war and won. Just as before, they come for the children. And put them to work in call centres.

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