Story and Photography by Micah Coto
You can see them in the distance – high-rises, apartment complexes, office buildings and shopping centres. Over time, more are built. They slowly grow closer and closer. The roads outside the village become busier as people flood the land and before you know it, you are surrounded. What was once glorious farmland on the outskirts of the city has become just another part of this concrete jungle.
Tens of thousands of families, all throughout Bangalore, suffer from big-city encroachment, as the land they have lived on for decades becomes consumed by the ever-growing city, until they are forced to leave everything they know so the government can use their land.
Sometimes they are given no more than five minutes warning to collect everything they can and clear their homes, before everything they own is bulldozed to the ground. They are pushed into other already overcrowded slums, or forced to live in poorly constructed and often incomplete apartment complexes with no water or electricity.
Life is often precarious for people living in makeshift slum areas, but the Dalits who live outside of the Indian caste system, are perhaps the worst affected.
In some Indian dialects Dalit literally means “broken” or “oppressed.” In Bengali, it translates to “someone trampled under someone else.” Branded as untouchables, Dalits eke out a living as manual scavengers, sanitary workers, sewage treatment plant workers and waste removers.
They are so low in the social hierarchy that they are considered casteless and because of this are often heavily discriminated against. They commonly struggle with access to housing, education, and even basic public services.
Throughout the past few decades there have been attempts to change the way people think about the Dalits. During the British occupation of India in the 19th century, there was an attempt made to remove elements of the caste system, particularity those relating to untouchables. And during India’s push for Independence, activists such as Jyotirao Phule and Mohandas Gandhi took up the Dalits’ cause.
“Gandhi called them the “Harijan,” meaning “children of God,” to emphasize their humanity” (Szczepanski 2019)
In more recent years, the Dalit community have made great strides towards improving their status, to the point where they have better access to education and are even a political force in India.
But progress remains slow. More than 20 per cent of Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water and 48.4% of Dalit villages are denied access to water sources.
A vital resource
Water! It is one of the most vital resources humankind needs for survival. It is a resource that, because of the rapid population increase, the city of Bangalore struggles to manage effectively.
Lakes are drying up, becoming polluted or catching fire. Households and apartment blocks are desperately trying to save, treat or recycle water wherever possible. And many are forced to turn to the Water Tanker Mafia who monopolise supply and make it accessible only to those who can pay.
As one of the fastest growing cities in India, Bangalore is home to about 12 million people. At its peak, there were over two thousand lakes in the region which were once primary water sources for farms and villages. In Bangalore today, there are about 81 bodies of water left and only 34 of those are recognised as live lakes.
Because of the rapid expanse of the city, alternative water sources and poor managment, many lakes eventually dried up and were replaced with infrastructure. The lakes that remained either suffered from neglect or illegal waste dumping and contamination.
As lakes dry up, new inner city land becomes available, which governing bodies quickly snap up for new bus stations, stadiums and shopping malls. The only things standing in the way are the communities who have lived on these lakes for generations. But because many of these communities are Dalit, their claim to that land is tenuous.
The Government will claim these communities do not have any legal proof of land ownership, and therefore must move.
With no other option, these communities are forced to leave everything they have and are pushed to the outskirts of the city, under the promise of better housing. Unfortunately, this relocation process will be forgotten, any many will find themselves living in the streets years after their supposed “relocation.”
The state builds thousands of apartment complexes, building after building, row after row, for people who have been forcefully evicted from their homes. But these apartment complexes are so poorly constructed they often lack access to water and electricity and some buildings have been known to collapse, killing those inside.
In 2015, there were more than two thousand slums in Bangalore alone, with their occupants making up at least 10% of the overall population.
One of the largest slums in Bangalore, Laggere, consists of four to five thousand homes, stretching for kilometres. It is not only the Dalit who live here, Muslims, Christians and other lower caste members live within the massive slum as well.
A large group of people who live in Laggera were forcefully evicted from Koramangala to make way for a large shopping mall. Because it is such a large slum, different issues affected different areas, but many continue to struggle with accessing clean drinking water. They have access to bore wells and even electricity, but with no clean drinking water, they must rely on expensive government facilities or water tankers.
Sulikunte, another slum sitting further outside the centre of the city is a community in darkness. Its residents live in an apartment complex where 900 homes were constructed, but only 300 are occupied because of the poor living conditions.
They were forcefully evicted from their homes 20 years ago under the promise they would receive government housing. That housing, took 15 long years to come, and many were forced to live in makeshift homes on the outskirts of the area, having no access to any services. Finally five years ago the government started construction on apartment complexes. Unfortunately, these complexes – so generously provided - were never completed and were left with no electricity, no wiring, and no water.
“We don’t have a problem with getting water as systems were put in place. The issue is there is no electricity to pump the water,” one of the elders living in the complex explained.
For now, the members of Sulikunte, have been forced to rely on the Water Tanker Mafia to get by. Once every four to five days they must call a tanker at a cost upwards of 700 rupees which is split between four or five families.
The Bheemanakuppe apartments nearby suffer a very similar fate to Sulikunte. Residents there also have access to a bore well, but no electricity. However those who live here have taken the situation into their own hands by installing their own wiring as best they can and are hijacking power from nearby powerlines. Access is still limited, and they only get power for a few hours of the day – but at least it is something.
In fact, construction was so poorly managed in Bheemanakuppe that only 250 houses were actually built before construction stopped. Many people still live in makeshift housing put together with tin sheets and roofing tiles.
The community have only been here for about a year, but they don’t have much hope the situation will change any time soon.
These are only three examples of communities affected in Bangalore. There are hundreds more. And there are thousands of families and individuals who have been forced from their homes and live in terrible housing conditions because of greed and corruption.
Encroachment is a serious issue, and the communities that are displaced because of it are in peril.
Whole communities, who have thrived in the villages and farmlands surrounding the city for decades, are suddenly finding themselves engulfed by its growth, and eventually forced to flee so big corporations can build.
But because the majority are Dalit, there does not seem to be much inclination to support them.
“Once the outskirt areas develop, these communities will again be displaced,” a local translator said.
“They are no longer considered people but just numbers.”
Bangalore is facing serious difficulties. As over-population forces the city to grow to accommodate more people, the strain on land and resources like water increases, and people like the Dalit are left behind.
Until the people and government of Bangalore unite and work together to overcome these issues, it can only be expected to get worse.
Micah Coto is a final year photojournalism and documentary student based in Brisbane. He found his love for photography while living in China as a teenager, and has since worked on a number of award winning projects including his project Look Closer which focused on the disconnect that occurs between zoo animals and patrons, placing him 4th in the Wildlife category for Australian Photographer of the Year awards 2018. He has also done work in Nepal photographing alongside organizations that looked after wild street dogs, vaccinating and de-sexing them to then release them back into their local areas. Now on the final leg of completing his Bachelor, he hopes to move on to greater and bolder adventures. (See Instagram)