The Curious Case of Invisible People

by | Jan 24, 2018

If you’ve been to Pune, think about it, close your eyes for a moment and note down the words that come to your mind. Now, let’s take a look at one such narrative.

“I stand on top of my building gazing at the clouds slowly descending to meet the mountains that mark the boundaries of the city. Interestingly, as the sun starts setting, the city gets brighter – there go the streetlights! The wide roads, the huge flyovers, the big malls and the tall buildings – all look alike – clusters of flashing lights. The bustling of fisher-women and the ringing of temple bells are set into a rhythm with the clamor of crowded streets decorated with street hawkers and cars stuck in bottleneck. The breeze, though cool and pleasant, seems to choke me at times. Perhaps, that’s what a city is like!”

But, is that all?

Do you not see the potholes on the road? Or people digging those holes? What about hundreds of them sleeping under the bridges?

Just like the panoramic view of city fails to talk about its finer details, it’s unlikely that when one is asked to describe a city, one would recall the slums or the people living along railway lines. Perhaps, when the whole city is lighted, the dark spots, like these, are hard to notice. Many times, they might be living beside the most privileged ones while making that privilege possible. Despite, their presence goes unnoticed and ironically, for many of us, the image of a beggar at a traffic signal is synonymous with the idea of poverty. Indeed, the idea of development and prosperity in a city often masks away the disparities and deprivation experienced by these invisible people.

According to census survey of 2011, 52.8 million poor people lived in the Indian cities, which means, 13.7% of urban population in India is classified as poor. Never mind, they merely constitute 4.06% of poor population across the country. Among a total of 1.3 billion people, we can surely afford to overlook this insignificant number living in dwellings that are unfit for human habitation because of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty wiring and design, lack of space, ventilation, light and hygiene or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to safety and health. By the way, that’s how census 2011 defines a slum! We still have 216.5 million poor people to look after in rural areas. After all, the ones in cities can at least enjoy the perks of city life.

Having lived in Delhi for the past few years, I have been familiar with the presence of slums in the neighborhood of a well-developed locality with tall buildings and beautiful lawns. The same is the case with Pune where I live currently. Every morning as I head to my office, I pass-by a slum that houses nearly 100 migrant families from rural Maharashtra. Located just on the sides of Mumbai-Pune bypass road, I assume that the site was a dumping ground of the locality until a few months back, but is now occupied by this group of migrants.

Kiran*, a 10-year old, lives here with his family. I noticed him and his friends outside a local grocery shop. As the days passed, this became a routine. Last week, he was walking back to his dingy tent with a packet of rice and some sugar. The following day, the shopkeeper was shouting at a lady dressed in a worn-out gown. Her shabby appearance made it evident that she came from the same slum as Kiran. As I tried to overhear the discussion, I learnt that she wanted to buy milk and oil, but didn’t have enough money. And so, she was forced to walk out of the shop, empty-handed. I was forced to think how these invisible people manage to keep up with the cost of living here in Pune?

When compared to a rural poor, an urban poor may have an upper hand in terms of access to basic amenities like electricity, transportation, healthcare and education. But, the problem lies in affordability. Taking into account the high cost of living in urban areas, poor people are barely able to suffice their daily basic needs of healthy food and clean water. With the prices of commodities shooting up every day, the fine line between availability and affordability keeps growing wider for people like Kiran and his family. To keep up with their survival needs, they are rarely left with a choice but to compromise.

I was not shocked to know that none of the kids of the slum have ever seen a school. Probably, in the wake of the constant fear of eviction, issues like education and health take a back seat. The lack of formal address might not only obstructs one’s right to access the various development schemes but also denies them the basic rights of an Indian citizen like the right to equality or right to vote.

However, what makes the situation worse, is the concentration of people living in a given area. Urbanization being an inevitable outcome of growth and development, there is no stopping more people flowing into the cities. As a consequence, the portion of the resources available to the poor living in cities keeps getting smaller and eventually becomes inaccessible. One might have a source of water in the close proximity but that does not mean one won’t have to stand in long queues to fill one’s bucket. Even with the tons of surveys, a vital question still remains unanswered – Do they get enough resources to satisfy their basic needs?
Similar is the case for toilets. Defecating and urinating in open space is often an easier choice when one has to wait in queues. Evidently, proximity is not same as accessibility.

Given these situations, the problems of health and environmental degradation are unavoidable. The urban advantage is turning out to be a delusion that mirrors away from the hopes and aspirations of these invisible people!

The loud noise of the drunken men quarreling among themselves, a group of shabbily dressed women sitting on heaps on garbage, half-naked kids running across the streets chasing stray animals – these are some of the common sights offered by the small colony of squatters next to my building. Looks like they have made peace with wounded dogs sleeping beside them in their tents while their goats are left open to feed on a garbage dump. While the smell never fails to disturb a passerby, I’m not sure if these alarming sights catch an eye. Media often highlights the sufferings of city dwellers due to air pollution caused by vehicles and industries, how often do they stop to talk about the trails of smoke coming out of these dimly lit houses because of burning fuel-wood?

Unfortunately, we are accustomed to practice selective bias even in case of such somber choices.

References:

  1. Children in Urban Poverty: Can They Get More Than Small Change?‘ by Sheridan Bartlett, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
  2. The 2011 census data of India
  3. Population estimates and projections by World Bank

*Name changed to protect identity

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