India: Slums, students and resistance

With 1.2 billion people, India is fast becoming one of the world’s major capitalist economies. Vijay Prashad offers some snapshots from a country where shining skyscrapers are springing up alongside ingrained mass poverty

August 25, 2013 · 15 min read

india-skyMumbai’s slums are increasingly overshadowed by skyscrapers. Photo: JonoHub


As your flight begins its descent into Chhatrapati Shivaji international airport, Mumbai, you fly over endless homes with endless squares of blue, little swimming pools attached to each house. These are some of Mumbai’s slums, Jamblipada and Kuchi Kurve Nagar, and these blue pools are actually blue strips of recycled polypropylene tarpaulin, the cheapest shelter on the market. There are more than eight million slum dwellers in Mumbai alone, but everyone recognises that this is a convenient – not accurate – number.

In these slums, the residents are not idle. These areas are a hive of activity oscillating between the very difficult work of managing everyday life (cooking, cleaning, washing, sleeping) and the equally hard work of earning a daily living. Here you will find a group of people, including children, in a small shop that spills onto the street breaking down various electronic goods for their constituent parts (e-recycling) and there you will find women on the way to work as cleaners and cooks in the nearby middle-class colonies, and men on the way to work as day labourers. A few elderly people are at rest, but among them too there is activity – the women prepare meals and the men tell stories. There are no swimming pools nearby.

No one in India ignores the slums. They are a fact of life. The Committee on Unorganised Sector Statistics (Government of India, 2012) acknowledges that more than 90 per cent of the workforce is in the informal sector – defined now not based on the regulation of the workplace but much more progressively to exclude ‘regular workers with social security benefits provided by employers’. If a worker gets no such benefit, then that worker is in the informal sector.

Yet when the writer Katherine Boo studied one slum near the airport, Annawadi, she found that ‘almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks’ (Behind the Beautiful Forevers: life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity, 2012). The government has been playing around with poverty statistics. Last year it reported that 29.8 per cent of the population – 360 million of the 1.21 billion – lives under the poverty line. That’s a drop from 37.2 per cent in 2004/05 – a result of its policies, the government suggests, while others note that it might have a great deal to do with the benchmarks chosen. In 2012, the government’s Planning Commission fixed the urban poverty line at Rs28.65 (about 34p) per day, Rs22.42 (27p) in rural areas, even lower than the Rs32 (38p) and Rs28 (33p) it had originally proposed. Other indices contained in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2010, The Real Wealth of Nations, suggest that 55 per cent of the Indian population lives in poverty, while an official government commission has claimed that a more accurate figure would be 77 per cent living below the poverty line.

The UNDP study offered a new measurement to study poverty. It developed a new ‘multidimensional poverty index’, which took into consideration not just earning power but ‘poor health and nutrition, low education and skills, inadequate livelihoods, bad housing conditions, social exclusion and lack of participation’.

Based on this much more accurate assessment of deprivation, the UNDP found that eight of India’s 28 states house 421 million multi-dimensionally poor people, more than the 410 million equally poor people who live in the 26 poorest countries in Africa.

Books by Katherine Boo, Aman Sethi (A Free Man: a true story of life and death in Delhi, 2012) and Sonia Falerio (Beautiful Thing: inside the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars, 2012) introduce us to the people who live on that side of the barrier of multidimensional poverty. Resilient certainly, but they are also buffeted by the insecurity of their lives – caught in the fragile membrane between legality and illegality, security and insecurity. Work is contingent and sometimes dangerous. Their neighbourhoods are often illegal settlements that rely upon political patronage and so welcome the kind of political mafia that mimics the other mafia whose purpose is to traffic in illicit commodities such as drugs, sex and weapons.

Katherine Boo finds that for those she encountered ‘the crucial thing was the act of casting a ballot’. Aman Sethi’s lead character would scoff at such elementary civics. Mohammed Ashraf tells him: ‘Today I can be in Delhi. Tomorrow I could well be in a train halfway across the country; the day after, I can return. This is a freedom that comes only from solitude.’

Romance does not govern Ashraf’s life: ‘When you first come here, there is a lot of hope, abhilasha. You think anything is possible, but slowly you realise, nothing will happen, and you can live the next five years just like the last three years, and everything will be the same. Wake up, work, eat, drink, sleep, and tomorrow it’s the same thing again.’

The anomie that seems to have settled into Ashraf’s difficult life is unsettling. His is the consciousness of the vagabond. It must have been conversations with people such as him that led Boo to her equally unsettling conclusion about the ethics and politics of the poor: ‘Powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another.’ But this is only one part of the story.

india2A train passes through slums in Mumbai

Street corners

I am sitting on the street in Delhi, talking to a group of men and women; they are drivers, guards and household servants. We wait each day for the school bus – my children ride it and so do the children of their employers. Each day, as one of the women puts it, our ‘parliament’ goes into session. This day I report that I had just found out that Adi Godrej, the head of the Godrej Group, is worth $9 billion. I ask what each of them would do with $1 billion – let alone nine of them. Everyone laughs.

One man, Chaman Lal, a guard who has just had a son and beams with the confidence of new fatherhood, says that he would use the money to ‘remove’ the prime minister. All the implications of an execution are on his face and in his biting tone. The others rush in. Rubbish, they say. Anyway, if you get rid of one person, there will be others in the wings. The point is conceded, but he insists that something must be done.

Another, a household servant, Geeta, smiles and says that she would use her money to erase the slum areas of Chirag Delhi, where she lives. Once the old houses are bulldozed, Geeta would build a new neighbourhood with more rational streets, better sewers, good electricity networks and – she nods as she says it – free wi-fi. Everyone applauds. Hers is the best idea.

On another day we are talking politics. One of the drivers, Dadu, is the very well-read intellectual of the group. He goes for a morning walk for an hour each day before he makes his half-hour bicycle ride to his employers’ house. The walk, he often says, allows him to meditate on the news of the day. We all agree that the current government, led by the Congress Party, is corrupt and feckless. Each day’s paper brings news of a new corruption scandal, and recently The Hindu, I tell them, is reporting news of corrupt tendencies from the 1970s. ‘Is corruption the destiny of India?’ one man asks.

What he refers to is the prevalence of small bribes. One of the women, Premlata, laughs and says that the bribes she has to pay do not seem to be much compared to the kind of stories Dadu has been feeding us with. No one can disagree with her. They all live in slums of one kind or another, and all of them see their small bribes as forms of non-municipal taxation to settle matters of energy, water, security of tenure and education. They see their local politicians come and mingle with the gangsters who collect the small bribes. This is a parallel economy – the small bribes do not go through the state but the state’s elected officials pocket them.

At the other end of the city is a slum where I have come to meet friends who had worked with me during my dissertation research more than 20 years ago (Untouchable Freedom: a social history of the Balmiki community, 2000). It is as you would imagine a slum except for one thing. As you go through the congested lanes, threatened at all times by the sewage brimming in open drains, you will pass onto an open field – a park that anchors the slums and has not been encroached upon as a result of the vigilance of the residents themselves. It is where the boys and girls play, where there is a small temple dating from the 1930s, and where the elders absorb the sunlight and the fresh air. It is where there is some respite from the struggles of everyday life, and so this is where I often like to go.

Nothing has changed over these two decades. Our same group is in place, and we are talking politics once more. Previously, in the early 1990s, two threats convulsed India – the breaking down of the dirigiste economy in the name of liberalisation and the rise of Hindutva fascism. The colony where I worked was threatened on both counts. The people here worked as sweepers and sewage workers in the municipality, and there was fear that their jobs might be outsourced to the private sector, something that had already happened to their colleagues in the airports). The people here had also begun a long march from the 1930s into the political wing of the fascist ensemble, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP.

Today, things are different. The lure of commodities determines the horizon of the young people – they are not talking about the Hindutva and the threat of Muslims or about the security of their sweeping and sewage jobs. Many of them want a new destiny – something that allows them to roam the malls as more than mere tourists in the world of commodities. I meet some young people who no longer want to pursue the professions of their families – at least of the past two generations – to work as municipal workers. Some want to rise up the government ladder, others want to be politicians; some want to migrate to another country, others want to be teachers; some want to be musicians, others want to be scientists.

Such dreams were also there 20 years ago. Mahesh wanted to go to Russia but he found that the upfront fees to the labour contractors were forbidding, so he remained behind. Now the dreams are thrust upon the youth by the commodities that enfold their lives – on television, on billboards and of course in the shops. But I don’t see too many of these commodities in their homes, which bear the marks of an earlier era. It is on their bodies that one sees the change – jeans and t-shirts, not purchased from the Ambience Mall but at the street markets instead.

Not long after I finished my dissertation, Om Prakash Valmiki published his remarkable memoir (Jhootan, 1997) where he reflected on the intolerance of the Savarna caste Hindu who worships ‘trees and plants, beasts and birds’ but hates Dalits, oppressed castes. All is well if your caste is unknown but ‘the moment they find out your caste, everything changes,’ wrote Valmiki. ‘The whispers slash your veins like knives. Poverty, illiteracy, broken lives, the pain of standing outside the door, how would the civilised Savarna Hindus know it?’

The young people in the Balmiki colony have a wide range of caste consciousness. Some are militantly aware that they will get nothing unless they organise around their caste oppression and perhaps join forces with the Dalit political organisations, while others want to go into the world as Indian citizens and claim their rights on that basis.

Valmiki’s negative prognosis is close to the facts. Dalits in the city of Delhi are much more confident about what they want of the world, and yet the world around them is a shadow of their desires. A government survey found that 90 per cent of Delhi’s Dalits live in slums. When the Commonwealth Games construction began in the city, the government provided funds for rehabilitation through the special component plans (SCPs). Delhi’s Dalits were to receive almost 17 per cent of the SCP funding but between 2008-9 and 2010-11, where data is available, the government only spent 1.6 per cent of the SCP on Dalit areas (about £1 million over three years).

I ask the young people what they think of this. They shrug. The nonchalance reflects a long history of being confronted with oppression and corruption. But then, in the interstices, come these outbursts: ‘What were those numbers again?’ ‘Who can we go and see?’ ‘What was that money for?’

india3Farmers’ movements are fighting to ban GM crops. Photo: La Via Campesina South Asia


On 2 April 2013, the student unions of West Bengal came out on the streets to protest against the withholding of elections for student government in their colleges. A tsunami of neoliberal reforms in higher education had made the students restive. It was not just a matter of higher fees that exercised them. They were also furious at changes in the character of the education – with a tendency to yoke education to careers and to measure learning with fealty to rules developed in the North Atlantic.

Thousands of students chanted their way down the storied College Street in Kolkata and assembled in Rani Rashmoni Road. They faced a police line, which advanced with unpleasant motives. The police arrested hundreds of students and threw them into private buses to be transported to Alipore Jail. On the buses, the police beat the students affiliated with the Communists’ Student Federation of India (SFI). One SFI leader, Sudipta Gupta, age 23 and a recent political science MA from Rabindra Bharati University, was beaten, thrown from the bus, retrieved and beaten again. He died within hours of being admitted to hospital.

The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, said that Gupta’s death was ‘an accident’. She was at that point opening the new season of the Indian Premier League cricket tournament. Despite hearing of his death, she remained at the celebrations.

Anger on the left has been growing steadily. Gupta is the 93rd left cadre killed by the state forces or supporters of the chief minister’s party over the past few years. It is in this context that the Communist leader Mohammed Salim asked, ‘What kind of fascism is this?’ The SFI held demonstrations across the country and on 9 April, when Banerjee was in Delhi, the left militantly confronted her – including tearing the shirt off her finance minister. In retaliation her supporters went on a rampage, attacking the offices of the SFI and the Communists in West Bengal.

The Communists remain a weak force in India. The two main political formations are the Congress-led government and the BJP bloc. Congress speaks from both sides of its mouth – the language of social democracy helps to draw in sections of its electoral base and the language of neoliberalism allows it to please the financial sector and the ratings agencies. The BJP is keen to promote its own ‘honesty’ against Congress’s corruption, and to hide its commitment to the same neoliberal ideas along with a harsh, even fascistic, hatred of social minorities.

But neither of these parties is capable of governing on its own. In a country the size of a continent, regional political parties are essential, which is what opens the most modest space for some kind of democratic intrusion into the system. Parties asserting regional or caste interests, with a specific programmatic commitment or pragmatic populism offer themselves up to the main blocs to form a majority in the 543-seat Indian parliament.

Apart from the Communists, whose space in the parliamentary sphere is not what it was even a decade ago, the rest of the political forces are committed in different degrees to the general policy posture of ‘neoliberalism with Southern characteristics’ – government expenditure to build infrastructure, private development of real estate and entertainment, publicly-financed but privately-owned extraction of raw materials and of heavy industry. A few holdouts still believe in a robust public higher education system with students allowed full democratic rights and participation; others approve of the private sector dominance and believe that the only place for politics should be the anaemic ballot box. Anything else might be a threat to the system.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, The Poorer Nations: a possible history of the global South, is published by Verso

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