A few months back I worked on a radio series called Khanabadoshon Ki Duniya (The world of migrants). It focused on breaking the narrative of internal migrants as a threat to development as portrayed by various media. The themes touched upon areas like the interdependency of labour between a migrant and a city-dweller, the agencies and choices that pushes one to a city and social remittances gained through the discovery of a world different from their own.
Although the focus was about the social issues faced and fought by a migrant in a city, it hardly investigated the economic evolution one goes through. By that I do not mean only the raise in one’s personal economic status alone, but the overall change that is brought about in the space he/she lives. The point of discussion has always been around why one migrates, where he settles and what was faced in the initial stages but hardly ever the state at which it will be in a span of say, 20 years.
Recently we had the task to identify three communities suitable for setting up a community media centres in areas close to my office for a new initiative. We had been visiting Khaan for a good ten days to observe and understand the community before we intervene. The conversations with the residents tell a different story from what a normal passer-by would observe.
One can come across the narrowest lanes in this locality. The foul smell of sewage water follows no matter wherever you are. No one knows when the tanker would arrive with water. It is the hour of the day when nothing else is given attention – the arrival of water, too precious beyond anything. But the rains were feared as it would fill the depths of the mine making it overflow. Enormous amounts of garbage float in the dead mine. Multiple civic issues also continue to exist as the colony evolves.
Khaan in Hindi translates to “mine” in English. The people who live around this mine still refer to this settlement as Khaan. However, the area is an extension a locality named Mohanbaba Nagar in Badarpur. To understand its evolution, it is important to know what happened when the mines were still able to feed a few families; what happened when the mining came to an end; what did its aftermath hold.
It wasn’t very clear when the mining began in this site. In 1991, the government decided to end mining in the area. Having lost their livelihood many returned back to their hometowns in search of other options. A few, who anticipated the end, already pursued other skills and, decided to stay back. There was urgency for the Rajasthanis to sell their jhuggis before they could leave. It was sold to the migrant labourers that moved into the settlement after 1991. The cheap prices (300-400 rupees) made it affordable for many to purchase them. Many moved in later, mostly labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Once a sparsely occupied locality now thrives with people everywhere.
Today, only three Rajasthani families remain in Khaan. With the first generation of migrant workers long dead, the children recall the layers of dust that filled the air once. “It is too deep”, they warn you about the lives taken away by the mine – now and then. If anyone false into the mine, it was hard to rescue them now. Back than it was the explosion that left many hurt, and sometimes dead.
They recollect the stories their mothers told them – on how babies fell asleep drugged with a mixture of opium and water.
“What else could they do? It was dangerous out there to take us with them. We had to be left back in the jhuggis without any care until they returned. They had to work really hard to feed us” said Ganga from Debu camp, a settlement named after her grandfather, an important contractor at that time.
The colony had its past written everywhere – steep and uneven terrains where concrete houses exist now, the stories on the land politics that happened between the gujjar community and the rajasthanis, the old woman by the street corner who boasts on how hardworking she was back in the days. Even today many houses are expected to collapse at any moment as the landscape does not facilitate them to lay strong foundations.
What we tend to see is the problems that exist now. But the people who have toiled here for several decades will tell one about the ones that aren’t there anymore. Mothers who do not have to feed opium to their children, the ASHA worker who collectivised all women in the locality and fought to make drinking water a reality, children who do not work in mines anymore, several years of waiting to get a sewage system built – amidst the civic issues they fight against every day, there is a tale of perseverance.
“Water is available from 5-8 in the morning and evening, there is absolutely no problem for water. We did not even have proper roads back then, now we have that too” Ganga continued. It is not that the problems they face are negligible and they deserve attention. But what surprised me was their hope in the government’s promises of building a hospital in the non-functional mine that is an overflowing dump yard now and, the glorification of a painful past that has led to where they are now. On the other hand, the social conditions have not improved much in terms of literacy levels, employment opportunities and, the subtle judgements passed targeting one’s caste and gender.
These social factors could definitely be the major reasons for the stunted development of a community. However, there are areas like social exclusion within and outside the locality and inaccessible government schemes that are not investigated yet. I continue to work in the community and every day I am loaded with interesting comparisons of the past and the present. The lives that thrive around the dead mine has indeed left me wondering how less is less and how much more is more.