Diary from Mumbai: Part I

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By: Ariana K MacPherson

**Cross-posted from the SDI blog**

Mumbai has a constant buzz. That is the best way to put it. The city is always moving, coming and going in all directions And full of light. I arrived in Mumbai three days ago, and immediately was taken aback by the vibrancy of it. Even as I made my way from the bustling airport at 1am to my hotel, taxi cabs lined the streets and pavement dwellers sit in front of their tin shacks, eating around fires.

I am here to visit the Indian SDI alliance, an impressive trio of organizations consisting of Mahila Milan (the women’s savings collectives, which are federated citywide as well as nationwide), the National Slum Dwellers Federation (a network of male-dominated slum dweller federations operating at the same scale as MM) and the support NGO, SPARC. I have heard tales of the dynamism, innovation and success of MM-SPARC-NSDF, but truly there is nothing like seeing it for yourself. The same goes for Mumbai, for Dharavi, for all of it: you can read all the books, see the movies, read the newspaper and taste the food abroad, but there is nothing like coming face-to-face with the life of the city, of the people, to make you really understand.

Yesterday was my first day in the field. Alongside a colleague from SPARC, I visited three of Alliance’s projects in Greater Mumbai. First we stopped at a housing project in Dharavi called Rajiv Indira, designed by the women of Mahila Milan. The building is light and airy, with children playing and riding small bicycles in the wide corridor. On the ground floor there is an open courtyard, where women congregate with their kids, chatting about the day. All but the top two floors of the building have been constructed with 14-foot ceilings so that families can build a mezzanine floor to maximize the 225 sq ft space.

The women make this happen through financing from various sources, but savings is a big part of it. Not only does money collected through daily savings go towards financing the actual housing projects, but it also serves as a means to organize, mobilize and unify the group around a common vision for the community. Even after moving into the building, the women continue to save in order to pay for maintenance and further improvements to their homes. It is not a project-based activity, but instead becomes the very core of their activities.

I have read so much about Dharavi. How residential and commercial uses co-exist. How many millions of dollars are generated there. How high the population density is. How poor some of the living conditions. How vibrant, and dynamic a place it is. But again, nothing compares to reality. It is not simply a slum – Dharavi is a town. The true essence of an informal city, existing right in the centre of the formal city, feeding into it minute to minute and day by day. We make our way to a community toilet project, turning off the main (4-lane) road and onto a crowded, winding side street. We pass a Hindu temple, painted bright with garlands and incense adorning the entrance, and are shaded by green canopies of tall, old trees. A white cow passes us on the right.

We arrive at the community toilet and it is bright, airy and clean. My colleague explains that it is used by 226 families (roughly 1,300 people), each of whom pays 20 rupees per month (about USD .40). Others pay 2 rupees per use. There is a caretaker who looks after the facility daily, closing it only from 1am – 5am. He has a room upstairs that he shares with his family, and there is a lovely roof terrace with a mosaic tiled floor that can be used by the 226 families for community events and meetings. There are basically two other options for toilets in Dharavi: 1) shit wherever you can find a hole, which often means holding it in until it is safe (especially for women), and of course causes numerous health risks; or 2) use one of the government-provided communal toilets, which tend not to be well looked after, and are often dark, smelly and unpleasant to use. By making this a community project, it has kept the toilet clean and pleasant to use. One of us even stopped to pay the 2 rupees to use it during our visit!

The last site we visit is a housing project called Milan Nagar, also designed by the women of Mahila Milan, located in Mankhurd settlement quite a ways from the centre of Mumbai. This group of women were pavement dwellers, perhaps Mumbai’s poorest population, and some of Mahila Milan’s oldest members. They lived in shacks along the sidewalks, crowding the streets near Bombay Central station. The women tell us that one of the biggest differences in their lives today is that they are no longer called “pavement dwellers” – that they are respected by others because they now live in formal housing. But pavement dwellers chose their spots on the streets to be close to economic activity, and the women say this is one of the challenges of their new home. It is further to go to work, and they cannot come home between jobs to spend time with their children. There are three different design options within the building, each one consisting of a mezzanine floor like the building in Dharavi. The homes are modest but beautifully maintained, with sparkling pots and pans and spotless floors. Children play in the hallways, and music pours down the stairwells as a family upstairs prepares for an upcoming wedding.

After spending the afternoon at the SPARC offices, housed in a beautiful old municipal building in South Bombay, another colleague whisks me off to a Mahila Milan function in honor of a Hindu holiday celebrating the beginning of spring. This is the real thing. There are hundreds of women, all dressed in colorful saris and their best gold jewelry. We are asked to come on stage, and are honored with flowers, and decorated with saffron and turmeric on our foreheads. We eat sesame sweets and listen to the women speak about their daily realities, from the importance of daily savings to their struggles with crime. Before the close of the evening, traditional music comes on and the women begin to dance. We are drawn into the crowd and a young women smiles and grabs my hand. We dance together, laughing and I doing my best to imitate her every move. It is infectious – the vibrant soul of this community. Empowered and real, dancing under the scaffolding of 900 new homes.

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