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Wake up from slum-ber, Mumbai!

This is the last column I will write as a resident of the great and glorious city of Mumbai. At the end of this week, I will find myself in Dehradun, and from then on, perhaps, my perspective will be Himalayan in stature or more likely, stuck in the nitty-gritty of small town life.

Leaving this city is painful enough when you have spent a lifetime in it I came here when I was five years old and am now heading towards 52. My last moments in Mumbai have led me to appreciate the best of the city but also to seriously loathe its indifference to those less fortunate. The past 20 years have seen all kinds of slum rehab schemes take over parts of the city.

If Mumbai has to remain a city of dreams, some Mumbaikars need to step up and end the nightmare for the less well-off.  File Pic
If Mumbai has to remain a city of dreams, some Mumbaikars need to step up and end the nightmare for the less well-off.  File Pic

Lest we forget, more than half of Mumbai lives in slums. That is, more than half of Mumbai does not have access to affordable housing. The slum rehab buildings can be all over, often standing next to swish towers and gated communities. But even more of these buildings have been moved to the extreme edges of the city: out of sight, so that the rich and wannabe rich can play out the fantasies imposed on them by builders and developers.

Every real estate ad promises the most extraordinary levels of luxury, a recent one sticking a snow-capped mountain somewhere in the region of Worli. As we know, a builder’s concept of Worli can stretch from the wrong side of the racecourse to Lower Parel and Sewri.

So, while the city was going gaga over the first phase of the Mumbai Metro from Versova to Ghatkopar, I was having dinner in the slums of Santa Cruz a stretch that starts in Khar and ends at Juhu, running along the sea. The people who live here provide essential services to the people of the area and beyond they are the domestic helps, courier delivery boys, various technicians, drivers, sales assistants, carpenters, electricians; you know the rest.

And for rents of between Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000 a month, they get a tiny airless room, a slushy walkway barely enough for one person, let alone two, a small washing area and kitchen space and often no ventilation at all. Toilets are shared and, obviously, there is no running water — a shared pipe or tap for a couple of hours a day. They pay extra for electricity and other facilities.

Of course, we begrudge them anything they ask for when we have contact with them. We feel that the nation is progressing because they have TVs and touch phones. And we reduce them and dehumanise them to a votebank, as if anyone really wants to live like this.

The big mistake we make in lowcost housing, or housing for the less privileged, is that we think it has to be free. They already pay for these slum homes and, if you look at it in comparative terms, they pay too much for far too little. So, why not allow them to live with a little dignity? Make them pay rent for proper homes and give them the same utilities everyone else enjoys?

Those new slum rehab buildings are badly built and are already falling apart. Some of them look worse than government-built cessed buildings of ancient vintage. And the problems with maintenance have not been worked out, in spite of experts of every hue making all potential disasters very clear.

The rich and wannabe rich want the services that the poor provide but are not happy with them living in their vicinity. Plus, they have neither any shame nor a discernible conscience as they go on about sops given to the poor and how slum dwellers try to make money by renting out the tiny flatlets granted to them. As if only the well-off are allowed to indulge in money-making schemes.

To my mind, unless Mumbai gets its priorities sorted, it is doomed. Citizens have to step in because politicians of all sorts have continued the same policies, which are half-baked, exploitative and impractical.

I am resisting telling you how clean they keep their homes in Mumbai’s terrible slums or how they try to decorate them. That is sentimental tosh. But, if Mumbai has to remain a city of dreams, some of us need to end this nightmare.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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