It was a sight for sore eyes. A man came down the lane clanging a big brass bell. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, old women, young women, young girls and a sprinkling of young boys walked, ran, hobbled carrying plastic bags and buckets. All of them were moving single-mindedly in one direction. For the uninitiated this appeared to be a strange ritual. In fact, it is the daily routine of households carrying their garbage to the municipal garbage truck in an urban poor settlement in Charkop, a suburban locality in northwestern Mumbai.
People laughed when I stopped to ask what was going on. To me it seemed unusual because I know that in India, the practice of collecting and disposing of the garbage we generate is not a natural instinct. The reasons are many. One of them is the absence of a collection system. But the other is our belief that as long as our houses are clean inside, it does not matter what happens outside. So in most parts of India, rich and poor households routinely throw out of their houses what they do not want, caring little where the rubbish lands.
In a city like Mumbai, this could land on someone's parked vehicle, or even on a pedestrian's head as the unwanted material is carelessly flung out of a kitchen window or a balcony. If you happen to be the unfortunate target of this garbage attack, you can do little as there is no way of knowing from where it originated. So you are left fuming and cursing at the anonymous 'thrower' who also has little knowledge of the unintended target. In any case, the 'thrower' does not care. Out of sight, out of mind, is the governing philosophy.
The place I describe above was a resettlement site for slum dwellers 20 years ago. It was part of a 'sites and services' scheme that allowed slum dwellers to buy, at a low initial cost followed by affordable monthly payments, plots varying in size from 25 sq m onwards. These plots were part of a proper layout with space left for roads, open spaces, public amenities such as schools, playgrounds, hospitals and shops. The owners of the plot could build as much or as little depending on their economic circumstances and within norms laid down by the housing authority. Many people began with a basic structure and have, over time, improved on it by adding an additional floor. Some have continued with a single storey structure. As every plot was provided with a water connection, sewerage and electricity, each family was assured of such basic amenities.
When people visit slum homes in a city like Mumbai they are always surprised at how clean many of these dwellings are inside. But the surroundings are filthy with open drains, garbage piled high, open defecation, etc. Once you provide the means to keep the outer environment clean, by giving the minimum facilities of running water and sewerage, you transform the quality of life of even the poorest communities. Yet, such an effort remains one of the lowest priorities in urban planning.
Mumbai today is pockmarked with seven-storied buildings that are part of a decade old slum redevelopment scheme. But unlike Charkop and a couple of other settlements, little attention has been paid to the areas around these buildings or even between them. There is uncertain water supply, the sewerage system is often inadequate and the garbage collection system dysfunctional. As a result, you have new structures surrounded by filth. And the blame for this situation is laid at the feet of the hapless slum dwellers who are resettled in what have become vertical slums.
At a time of great efforts to recast our cities as 'modern' and 'global', perhaps our planners should bear in mind certain eternal truths. One, that if you plan for the poorest in your cities, you succeed in making them liveable for all. Two, if you keep the needs of women central - then your cities will be clean and safe. Three, if you ensure that human dignity is imperative, and not just the value of real estate, then you have cities that can breathe, think, play, grow and thrive.
Coming back to Charkop, the striking fact about the garbage rush was that practically all those carrying the garbage were women and girls. Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, daughters, everyone was out in their saris, skirts, salwar kamiz and of course, the ubiquitous 'nightie' or 'maxi' - that long shapeless dress worn by many women while they do their household chores. So if women inevitably end up taking responsibility to keep the inside and the outsides of their houses clean, shouldn't their voices and views inform civic planning?