Indian cities are famous for their gypsy-slums.
They are groups of people below the poverty-line who come from villages in search of better prospects. They are got hold of by contractors, who put them to construction work in a certain area, in exchange for a minimum wage and legal permission to temporarily situate themselves in make-shift plastic homes on the side of the road, before moving them again once their work is done. The children are shuttled around like this forever and end up uneducated and put to labour in their early teens. Instead of moving these families every few months or so however, the contractor sometimes allows them to stay in exchange for regular 'monetary incentive' (ahem), as has been the case with the cluster of families living on the pavement in my neighborhood.
They have been asked to leave immediately. The children's exams are in March though (some of the kids from the slum go to a government-school nearby), and if they leave now, they'll have to repeat their academic year all over again at the new location the contractor assigns them to - that is assuming there even is a school there, and that there are people around to even enroll the children, and that the location does not pose bigger problems than education to worry about.
So my friend and I, who have been teaching them once a week for a while now, took to our neighborhood today, with a Petition in hand. We asked the people of our neighborhood to sign the Petition, which requested the 'Mukhi' or the Head of the district to allow the slum community to stay put till March, so that the children can complete their academic year, after which they would leave. Some doors were slammed in our faces, but many (much to our surprise) smiled and gave us their signature. 'Do it for the children, sir' - who can say no to that?
But our elation was short lived. We walked around from 10am to 12 - and we'd gotten 32 signatures already. Maybe 20 more would clinch the deal enough for a case of appeal with the Mukhi. My landlady calls me now. 'There's a problem - get here fast' she says. We go back to my apartment and she and her husband are grave. 'We have got many complaints from the neighborhood about your Petition to allow the slum people to stay - you need to stop it right now'. We soon find that it is the people of this neighborhood themselves who had complained about the slum in the first place - and had demanded that the Mukhi have them evicted. The 'paid guest house' that I live in is apparently not even properly legal, says my landlord, and if you annoy our neighbors with your campaign they might call the police and they might come here and put us all in a lot of trouble. Please think about it, you are causing too many problems for us and for you. That slum is a pollution in our neighborhood and the children are thieves, please stop this at once.
I told them I was ready to remove myself from their apartment immediately if that was what they wanted, and that I was going to the Mukhi with the Petition whether they or their friends liked it or not.
An hour later we were with the Secretary Head of the neighborhood, the Head of the 'Association' that had demanded the eviction of the slum community. We had come to his house in hopes of some kind of negotiation over the eviction - after all, the people of this slum had been living here for years and had literally paved the pavements that these people now walked on - couldn't they allow them just one more month just so their children could finish their year's education?
The answer: no.
The Head who asked to look at my Petition then promptly confiscated it. He made several angry phone calls, exchanging flustered remarks with his outraged neighbors. He said he was calling the police to get my illegal paid guest house in trouble for this. After some sensible pleading on my part and the part of his wife who could see we didn't mean any harm, he invited us inside and called up two other main members of his Association and we had an impromptu meeting. 'There has been rampant crime since that slum came into being,' they explain. Little children are trained to steal things and break windows, just the other day I met a little boy thief who had been trained by a teenager at the slum, says one man, and did you hear about that incident the other day, when somebody from the slum had tried to kidnap a child from the road? And the inmates who are released from Tihar Jail nearby also find refuge at this slum. And the Bangladeshis, they have moved into it as well, they are all criminals.
We shook our heads at him. No, we had never seen or heard of this 'crime mafia' that had apparently been slyly working within the slum. These men were in their 40s, and they had lived here long before we had, they said. They knew how things worked. We like the intention of what you are doing, they said, we love to give to poor people too, and it is a good cause - but we need to look at our community as well. Those children come and crap on our pavements, they steal little things from cars, they do not live in proper hygiene, their tents are an eye sore, they said. 'What about the children then?' said my friend naively. Their contract expired ages ago, they still have not left when they should have left more than a year ago, they replied. 'And what about the children?' They need to leave if we are to live here in peace, we cannot tolerate the crime, it is the reason we have posted security guards here and near your College. 'And what about the children?' I am taking your Petition, and even if you had taken it to the Mukhi, he will only listen to us in the end because we are the Association, I understand your feelings but nothing can be done. 'Is there anything that we can do, maybe arrange a meeting among the Mukhis, since your Assocation has that power, discuss some kind of attempt to stabilize these people's lives, maybe get contractors to mind the children's school routines when relocating them?' A long, silent pause. Beyond our control, beta, he said.
We were shown the door.
As we broke the news to the father of one of our students in the slum, he showed no expression on his face. He was used to it now. He nodded silently as he sucked on his cigarette. His wife smiled a wan smile. They would all move tomorrow. Where? We don't know, it's up to the contractor, she said.
I saw Ajay, a tiny 5 years old, skipping towards us in the distance, followed by his friends Sachchu and Sonam. They were grinning and dancing and waving, with all that beautiful childish innocence, not knowing that the world really didn't give a shit about them. My heart just broke into a million pieces.
Why do these things happen? Is it the contractor's fault? The Mukhi's? The affluent classes of people who feared the 'thieves' and 'criminals' born out of the desperation of poverty? Is it my fault, that I didn't push hard enough? Maybe if I had written up another Petition and got signatures from another block? Would it have made any difference at all to the Mukhi who is happy as long as the Association is happy? Would it be worth the police getting involved and ruining my landlord's business and evicting all my apartment mates? (poetic justice eh?)
All over the fact that they could not wait one month so some children could write an exam. Because, what, their lives were in danger at the hands of these big bad criminals disguised as the most docile and down-on-luck folk that I have ever met?
Some people would say it is easy at this point to say 'fuck this shit' and throw your hands up and give up. On the contrary, I find that extremely hard to do. At least now I know something about how the system here works, whose interests are being maintained, who is dropping things in whose pocket and where. You need to really get to know your enemy to hit him where it matters. We lost Round 1 but I just heard the bell go off for the next match.