Demanding alternative sites for housing in India

Sr. Dorothy Fernandes talking to a representative of the district magistrate May 7. (Photo courtesy of Aashray Abhiyan)

Patna, Bihar, India — What does one need to live a dignified life? Here in India we speak of roti, kapda aur makan (food, clothes and shelter).Today we add education and health as very essential for any human person to climb the economic ladder. Yet it is unbelievable that more than 20 percent of people in the capital of Bihar – Patna city – live on about $2 (U.S.) a day in families of a minimum of five members.

I am astonished at times by how those who live below the poverty line survive. These urban poor of Patna – approximately 12,000 people with whom our organization, Aashray Abhiyan (Campaign for Shelter Rights) is engaged – are not mere parasites: They are constructive contributors to the economy of the city. They contribute by the sweat of their brows. They clean our streets, construct roads and apartments, bring vegetable and fruits to our doors, drive cycle rickshaws where there is no public transportation and work as domestic help. The irony of all this is that at the end of the day they have no roof over their heads and no security of a home.

Since 2005 the government of India has launched a mega project to give 65 cities of India a new face look. Patna was identified as one of these cities. Since then Aashray Abhiyan has been crusading the struggle for housing for approximately 1,500 families with whom we are directly engaged and another 1,500 families we are engaged with indirectly. Due to our advocacy work, the government does not easily try to evict the people who live in slums or on the roadsides, under bridges and beside drains.

Yet some of the 30 percent of people who live in apartments use every excuse to file cases on the basis of encroachment to evict the poor living around them. This is not a new phenomenon.

Our campaign is about educating people about their rights, organizing them to oppose any form of injustice that is meted out to them and eventually to agitate before the concerned offices for their rights.

The month of January was a very difficult one in the struggle to demand housing due to evictions happening on cold winter nights. Since then we, along with the people’s representatives, have had some important interventions – compensation for those evicted and the ability to stay at the same site until alternative arrangements could be made. Yet now with the summer heat becoming more severe and pleas of the homeless communities falling on the deaf ears of the District Magistrate, we felt the need to gherao the District Magistrate. (A gherao is a protest in which a group of people surrounds a politician or building until demands are met.)

People assembled from at least eight slums of the city – Malaai Pakkdi, Rainbow Field, R Block, Dhobi Ghat, Railway Crossing, Sahgaddi Masjid and Ambedkar Colony Digha – march to the district magistrate's offices to demand alternative sites for housing on May 7. (Photo courtesy of Aashray Abhiyan)
The crowd assembled at the premises of the magistrate's offices. (Photo courtesy of Aashray Abhiyan)

On May 7 around 11 a.m., people assembled from at least eight slums of the city – Malaai Pakkdi, Rainbow Field, R Block, Dhobi Ghat, Railway Crossing, Sahgaddi Masjid and Ambedkar Colony Digha – to demand alternative sites for housing. As the gathering proceeded to the campus of the District Collectorate, people shouted out slogans saying that they would not move until their demands were met.

When the shouting crowd reached the campus, the noise reached the district magistrate himself. He sent his representative to meet the gathering. I explained the purpose of the agitation and presented a five-point demand.

Then the district magistrate invited me and a delegation from five different slums to meet with him: Rukmanidevi from Sahgaddi Masjid, Saaswatidevi from MalaaiPakkdi, Chmru Ram from Rainbow Field, Tanuja from Ambedkar Colony and Khush Ram from near the railway track. The meeting was quite fruitful as he assured us that we should identify land that is available with the government and give him details of the land. He even invited me for a cup of tea some evening to discuss other related issues of the street vendors.

The success of the gathering was in the unity and the huge numbers of people who turned out, believing housing is their issue, their right. After I came out and shared the fruit of the discussion with the gathering, with belief in people’s power and unity of the urban people, they shouted out slogans of success: “We shall overcome someday . . . for deep in my heart, we do believe we shall overcome someday.” We all dispersed with a song in our hearts and a sense of pride and joy.

The struggle for housing has become very important for the community with whom we are engaged. Almost all of the people our organization represents have occupied land that belongs to the government or have set up huts along the roadside, beside drains, under bridges etc. Housing is a human rights issue. In the Constitution of India, Article 21 speaks of “Right to Life” – food and shelter – and it means a right to dignified life. It is unfortunate that these homeless communities live in very vulnerable situations with their families and for decades have not been able to find housing.

The mindset of the high caste and class bureaucrats and government officials believes that this is the destiny of the poor. So, in the first place it was quite a task to educate the communities and make them accept the fact that they are positive contributors to the economy of the city and as such have a right to live in the city. When we speak of our interconnectedness, it means humanizing our society and enabling those whose rights are violated to speak out loud for their rights.

Today the homeless communities are very vocal, and perhaps it is because of the pressure created by our group that makes the government think twice before conducting any eviction operation. Though we cannot reach out to all the 112 slums that are recognized by the government of Bihar, the word is spreading rapidly when communities feel threatened to be evicted. Then, they do approach our organization for support, guidance and help.

At times, when I am back in my home for the night there have been incidents which have kept me awake – scenes of young women with children, families going to sleep without a meal, without a bed, without a fan. This often disturbs me and I begin to ask myself, “When and how can things change, and who will bring this change?” What comforts me is that a small band of us are trying to be a drop in the ocean as we commit ourselves to make housing a reality for these communities who have a strong belief in our organization and that they will one day get their rights.

Sr. Dorothy Fernandes addressing the crowd of demonstrators after meeting with the district magistrate about housing. (Photo courtesy of Aashray Abhiyan)

[Dorothy Fernandes a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as Vice Provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]