Hope and Debris

Story and photography by Marena Janse van Rensburg

Her mornings start with the cry of a small child in the distance, with the sound of pots and pans clanging as breakfast is prepared, and with the cough of a bed-ridden relative cutting through friendly chatter between neighbours. In the doorways of her neighbour’s homes mothers bathe their young and schoolchildren make their way out with books in one hand and a sibling in the other. A little way along, a line starts to form at the water pump, women and young girls waiting with buckets and containers to collect their share of water for the household.    

On the north-western edge of Mumbai, Ganpath Patil Nagar is a mass of a 100,000 people crammed in to 29 hectares of land on the edge of a mangrove swamp. It is home to anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 shanties connected by a labyrinth of paths the residents call gullies. Down Kushboo’s gulley there is only one tap and it runs just twice a day for two hours at a time. 

Wrapped in a light pink shawl, her long black hair braided down her back, 19-year-old Kushboo emerges from behind a group of women crowding around a single water pump that services 40 families in her neighbourhood.

Depending on how much water is used, each family pays 100-200 rupees (AUD $2-4) a month to get water from this tap – sometimes more, when larger families use more water. 

“Some days we do not get water at all,” Kushboo says. “If the water isn’t there, we call for a water tanker, but it is expensive.”

Each tanker cost 500 rupees for 600 litres of water, which must last many families for a number of days.

“There are six people in our family and it becomes a problem because we fall short of water, but some families have eight people,” she says.  

“The water we get, we have to manage for four days, so six people have to use that water to wash clothes, cook, clean, wash crockery and so on.”

During the day, as the eldest in the family, she takes care of her siblings, does the washing, and collects water. She explains how her father, who used to be the family bread-winner, is sick from liver disease which leaves the family’s income in her mother’s hands – which amounts to about 1000 rupees a day selling the popular Indian street food vada pav

Her mother’s income must support meals for six, up to 4000 rupees a month for electricity, and  injections for her father twice a week. Just one injection alone costs 5000 rupees. 

The increased cost of getting water tankers is an expense the Shrivastavs can hardly afford. 

Kushboo would have been in her final year of schooling this year, but says she had to drop out to help her mother. Before she dropped out, she had hoped to extend her tertiary studies to study event planning. “It is just a dream,” she said softly, “I cannot fulfil it.” 

Should Kushboo have continued and completed her education, she could have gone on to develop her skills and secured a job that would have provided her with a steady income. However, as the eldest of the children in the large family, the responsibility fell on her to forego schooling to care for her father and siblings. 

Education could be the key to ending the cycle of poverty and overpopulation, but children in Ganpath Patil Nagar and communities like it, often drop out of school to help their large families and continue to be trapped in never ending cycles of poverty.

The 2011 census showed the population of Mumbai city stood at more than 12 million people, and the metropolitan region at more than 18 million. The city’s large population can, in part, be explained by the number of people migrating to the city in search of better prospects. About 70 percent of those migrants come from rural parts of Maharashtra itself, but most end up either in the city’s slums or adding to the growing number of homeless in the Mumbai streets.

Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is the capital, has been in drought since 2012. Government reports in 2016 showed more than nine million farmers had little or no access to enough water, and in the same year at least 216 farmers committed suicide. Mumbai, as the financial heart of India, is an attractive prospect for people struggling in drought-stricken areas where farming just isn’t an option anymore. 

The large population of Mumbai puts a strain on the already-limited water sources, but migration is not the only problem – large families, particularly in the lower socio-economic pockets of town also play their part.

Manavi Shivastav president of health charity Never Give Up attributes large families in slums to poor birth control practice. 

“Eighty per cent of people in India don’t use birth control,” she said.

Her foundation has been travelling around Mumbai’s shanty areas in an attempt to educate and raise awareness of contraception and reproductive health. 

It’s a huge task, and she’s not alone in her efforts.

In a brightly painted room that sits on the main road of the Tulshetpada slum in Bhandup West, Dr Anita Mauryathere runs a small practice for the local community. She is passionate about the health of women and children. 

She says families who end up with multiple children are usually set in traditional ways where men dominate women, who have no freedom over their bodies, and are often forced to have a child against their will. 

“People who move to the city from rural settings move with a particular mindset, and they stick to that mindset,” she says, as she waves another woman through the doorway of her busy practice.

“The fathers don’t earn enough to fulfil the needs of the families so they are not able to afford help for the health issues of the mother and the children.”

She said people often believe that more members there are in a family, the more opportunities there are to bring food, money and indeed water to the table. But it is an equation that simply does not add up.

As the population increases, so too does the strain on the already-unreliable water resources. 

Families struggle to ensure they have enough water and food to survive, competing with the thousands of others that struggle with the same basic needs. 

Sulakshana Mahajan lives an hour’s train ride north of central Mumbai, in a quiet neighbourhood in Thane. 

“There is inequality in the supply, access and cost of water,” she says adjusting a cushion and seating herself more comfortably on her couch. 

Mahajan was a city planner for Mumbai for 14 years and has written an extensive collection of books on city development and effective city planning. 

The walls of her third-floor apartment overlooking a neat garden, are covered with diplomas and memorabilia from her many international travels. She is perfectly at ease surrounded by bookshelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books.

“There is a political system in water,” she says reaching for another sip of chai, before returning the cup to the wooden coffee table in front of her.  

She claims discrimination between the city’s affluent and impoverished creates a water distribution crisis in Mumbai, and says distribution is the issue, not availability. 

Mahajan explains that restricted allocations through the day, often prevent many people in the slums from accessing water within their share of time, leaving them with little choice but to buy water from tankers – water that is often procured illegally. 

“A woman in the slums would pay 20 rupees per bucket of water from tanker or from the water mafia –more family members mean more buckets are needed,” she says.

“But the woman in the (more affluent) house would pay (only) 2.50 rupees for a thousand litres of piped water from the government.”

She agrees the real victims of Mumbai’s water politics are the likes of Kushboo Shrivastav who have little choice but to sacrifice their future to continue being water bearers for their families.

Despite a 2014 a high court ruling that guaranteed access to water on the grounds that it is a human right, not much has changed for women like Kushboo.

The Committee of Water Rights’ Mumbai convenor Sitaram Selar agrees with the high court ruling which makes water a fundamental human right and argues that denying someone access to clean water because their home is ‘illegal’ is a violation. 

He also explains how the nature of water politics and discrimination in Mumbai goes well beyond issues of rich and poor, and is further complicated by a complex caste system.

 “We are the people of a culture who says because you are from this caste, you can’t drink this water, you can’t even walk around the water because ‘your shadow will make that water impure’,” Selar says.

“We use water to discriminate against sections of society.”

Back in Ganpath Patil Nagar, Kushboo’s already crowded world is getting even more precarious.

Two and a half years ago, a shadow slowly crept across the slum in the form of an impressive apartment block that loomed over it. 

One morning heavy machinery rolled in as the men were on their way to work. 

The thundering roar of bulldozers barely masked the sound of screaming women and children at the entrance of the slum, as groups of men in uniforms ripped people from their homes as the bulldozers tore them down.

Many who rushed to help or protect their property were beaten or battered with sticks – no woman or child was spared. Only the lucky got away by bribing the officers. 

The people in the new upper-middle class apartments had called the bulldozers in. 

Although the slum was legal, what the authorities call a ‘notified’ slum, the man who originally signed the document legalising the slum on his land had recently passed away. The document can be renewed, but only by his heir – in this case his daughter – who the residents claim was not receiving their letters begging for renewal. 

Young Kushboo Shrivastav and her family are among those who live around entrance of the slum and whose homes are regularly hit by the bulldozers and uniformed men. 

Residents claim that although the attacks have been more frequent since the apartment block appeared, government officials had done the same thing previously because they called it an illegal area – an illegal encroachment of a legal notified slum. 

“The people from the apartment complained that they don’t want to see this slum in the morning, they say they want the sun, not the slums, so the police come to break down our homes,” Kushboo says. 

 “Everyone has had their house broken down, it has been a continual practice since the apartment block came up.”

Six days later, flecks of black, white and brown are scattered across the narrow laneways at the entrance of the slum. The rubble of broken tile, brick and tin mixes with mud and water from leaking pipelines that once connected to a neighbourhood tap servicing 40 or so families in the area.

Barefooted children – four years old, maybe younger – tip toe precariously on stones through the thick layer of slush on the ground.

Water is used as a tool for discrimination against those at the bottom of the heap in Mumbai, and until government legislation and policies start to change, the prospects are dim for people like Kushboo. 

Every morning many just like her wake up, unsure of where their next meal will come from, whether the pump will have any water left after serving the masses, or if they will have a home to return to once the day comes to an end.

This morning, the air is thick with smoke from breakfast cooking in temporary homes. A young girl hurries past the pile of fresh rubble on the road, her eyes downcast. 

But there is no sign of Kushboo Shrivastav’s home that stood there six days before. 

Marena van Rensburg is a South African born Australian journalism student in the final year of her Bachelor of Arts majoring in journalism. She has previously travelled to India twice, and is particularly keen on covering social inequality through solution based journalism. She is primarily a text based journalist with interest in literary journalism. Ms van Rensburg is fluent in English and Afrikaans and is interested in pursuing a career in social justice journalism. (See LinkedIn)