Excerpts from a journalist’s Diary August 1999

By Malini Shankar

Digital Discourse Foundation

I recently had occasion to visit a slum. The visit was organised by the Environmental Support Group in Bangalore as part of a residential environmental camp. It was a devastating experience in that it was a real eye opener for most of us… I had seen pictures of slum in movie scenes, in photographs in the media. But the shock effect was so powerful that it did lead to introspection about the role of us journalists. Our intellectualism is not just utterly irrelevant but it gave us no clue as to a solution.

In an area barely 5 square kilometres there are about 12 lakh people (1200000) living in utter squalor. They live in rehabilitated clusters because a fire destroyed their thatched roof hutments in 1995. These are dwelling areas within four walls or erected tin / zinc separators of dimensions barely 2 or 3 square metres. There are no windows; kitchen stoves billow smoke that is trapped inside the tin compartments. A metre or two away another stove heats water for bathing. Bathing of course is a luxury that is directly dependent on the whims of water supply authority.

None of the hutments or even constructions which are unauthorised so that much irregular, have water supply connections. What am I talking of huh? There is one tap about 3 feet underground in the middle of about 5,000 families. Water supply is FOR one hour only on alternate days between 6.00a.m. and 7.0a.m. for which a three mile long queue often witnesses violent clashes between women standing for their bucket of water. When these clashes become so violent the menfolk intervene and try to separate the women who are often seen physically abusing each other. The men take the warring women to the Wilson Garden Police Station, where according to Puttanna, a leader of the people in the slum, “the cops take Rs 100 from both the warring parties and lets them free”. Since this one tap is found 3 feet below the ground, the pit is often dumped with sewage and wastes. It is from here that they collect “potable” water for domestic utility.

Without water supply and sanitation facilities the area takes its toll on human health. Lakshmi is a mother of 7 children, and she suffers from chronic hypertension, because of poverty and because of the unreliability and promiscuity of her husband, so she could not be sterilised even after the birth of her 7th child. Her eldest daughter 14 years old works in a household in a nearby posh residential suburb of Bangalore. Then two boys work as rag pickers. She too works with a suckling infant at her breast as a housemaid. She and her four other children all under the age of 6 years have to be fed with this meagre income, ( her husband, she accuses, lives with his mistress in another slum in Bangalore) so “they are all anaemic and suffer from ring worms, anaemia, scabies, respiratory and skin disorders” according to Dr. Shirdi Prasad Thekur, a retired army doctor who now does social service for the underprivileged. In a neighbouring slum a lady delivered her 5th child inside the confines of her hut because neither she nor her husband could afford even the services of a government hospital. She is not sterilised either.

One “big hut” gives shelter to 80 people that is 13 families, to one of which Puttanna is the patriarch, so there are countless tin separators. But Puttanna says “Madam, I work as a mason in Bangalore, at the end of the day I am so tired that I have to down 2 quarters (meaning 2 pegs, but note that self effasive derogatory self description) of liquor before I come home every evening. I don’t even know where I hit the bed”. So thirteen families cook their meal inside this tin shed separated only by dried palm leaf contraptions. The smoke from the two or three choolas (or stoves) is quite literally fumigating. Every family has atleast 5 children sometimes 7 to 8 of them. We typically ask why they don’t want to have themselves sterilised? “Madam, every pair of hands is a source of income for us how can you deny our right to livelihood Madam?”

Oh but every mouth to feed means so much more burden on the non renewable sources of Mother Earth I cry. (I didn’t dare to moan audibly).

No drainage, but health calls for a compulsion called bathing. After collecting the family’s quota of water from that underground tap a woman typically has to walk a couple of kilometres to her household. With what water there remains in the pot, the man has to bathe first in a makeshift bathroom, closed by dried palm leaf and a threshold made of dried coconut shells. But the used water flows out of the enclosure under the dried palm leaves. The water rinsed with soap or even detergents collects in a pool. After the patriarch bathes, the woman and then the eldest child till the youngest in the chronological order collect the collected water from the cesspool outside their makeshift bathroom, and take it outside the slum area (about 4 kilometres away) to a small grove where they throw the water into a mud pack. The water that seeps in to another pit after this novel means of recycling is collected again for bathing by the family member in waiting. Should he or she miss one’s opportunity of collecting this recycled and filtered water, there is always the opportunistic next person perhaps of another family waiting for one’s turn of filtered water.

All denizens of the Lakshman Rao Nagar slum area near Koramangala in Bangalore use the alleyway between the CUPA’s dog pound and Corporation Flats to ease themselves. Consequently there is more of human excreta than anything else on this alleyway. Mosquitoes and maggots, pigs dogs, bandicoots, bats all feast on this alley. The tragedy is that the people have to cross only this short cut to get to their work places inside town.

But even on the so called main street you will find plastic bags vegetable peel, mince meat the rib cage of a cow, used tea powder, all scattered adjacent to the slush of the monsoons. The people curse the politicians in the most colourful expressions.

There are ofcourse some positive aspects about this slum. About 50% of the population are literate. Most adults work inside Bangalore, and most children too. There has been no history of communal clashes in this area although Brahmins to the lowest caste groups and Christians and Muslims, except perhaps Sikhs or Buddhists they all cohabit in peace……well not quite in peace. One novel and indeed impressive means of income was to breed dogs to sell. They are shanty quality Pomeranians, but look cute enough anyway……..

How do women manage when they get their periods? Where do people sleep? Where do they wash their clothes? What do they eat and how do they cook? Can we, you and I help them in anyway? The only answer I could think of was perhaps they should be better employed. Slum situation in any country is a symptom of urbanisation. Rural development and development of infrastructure in the hinterland are the two answers I could get.

Administrative adhocism, political expediency, nay political exploitation for self-serving political survival have ruined their only meagre means to life, not really livelihood.