The Other in the Shanty: Preliminary Reflections

(Thoughts for this essay have been drawn from readings – such as “Politics of the Environment” by Anil Agarwal, lectures in class over the 2nd and 4th of June, and our visit to the Baoli)

Many have accused the environmental movement of being a movement of the wealthy and powerful, who, comfortable in their spheres and comfort, can afford to look out for the environment that they have quite ravaged to put them there. A popular rebuke to this idea originated through the work of environmentalists in India in the 1980’s, who contested that poor or marginalized communities had an intrinsic connection to their environment: they needed it for their survival. It was wise thus, to use as little as possible and to step softly. In effect, they were bound by their situation, traditions and locations. Inspiring such cases have been documented throughout the country, examples include traditional water harvesting structures like Zhings or Bunds, indigenous crop cycles, sacred groves; the list goes on. Initiatives on sustainability, therefore, often seek to evoke this close link that communities have to nature, and stress historical and traditional solutions – with necessary modifications.

While this analysis is definitely true for (most) rural areas, the discussions and visits of the last few days have made me queasy on applying this model to the mass of urban poor in India. With more than half of the population in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai living in slums  (statistics for either range from 50%-60%), at densities in excess of 25000 people per square kilometer, a cursory walk through any shanty will display the pathetic standards of life this population faces.

Irrespective of when and where these people came from to settle in the big city, once there, they lose pretty much all contact with the environment that was once their sustenance, indeed, in some cases, they are driven to the city because of it.  Daily survival is now a different ball game: dependant more on shifting markets in construction, domestic help, odd jobs and manual labor.  All in the big, concrete hash of the city.

The Other for a lot of this population is then probably the environment – something that was left behind, and something that is a distant dream, beyond daily livelihood and the city’s boundaries. Assuming then, that purely environmental programs targeted to this section of the urban population will be successful, is limited. Programs initiating proper waste disposal as well as water availability and management must expand – even ‘leapfrog’ – to include aspects of livelihood. At the same time, schemes that target education or labour rights of these people must also include dimensions of water and waste management. In effect, the recognition of intertwined problems transforms into intertwined solutions – and very utilitarian ones at that.

This is something especially relevant to the community at Nizammudin. While the Aga Khan Foundation has done a wonderful job in restoring their Baoli, I would be uncomfortable in saying that that was the best solution. The water remains dirty through much of the year and must be replaced annually, the watershed remains heavily encroached, and most of all, the water from this structure remains completely unused! Solutions that included low technology filters, or that aided rejuvenation could have been inculcated into the project. The historical and religious importance of the Baoli to the community might easily have been utilized in promoting its renewed use.

Also important in the implementation and maintenance of schemes  is local involvement, and initiation. I am sure all of realized the stark contrast between the surrounding community and ourselves on our first visit there – in attitudes, what we deemed important, and how we looked at each other. While we were definitely ‘touring’ through the neighborhood (probably justifiable, as we were trying to learn and not interfere),  many of the surrounding community were also ‘touring’ upon us – outsiders of the neighborhood – how we behaved, what language we spoke, what we were saying, what we were doing there, and so on (also possibly justifiable, for the same reason!). This  dichotomy though must be considered in the initiation and implementation of any schemes in these areas. One cannot afford to see ,or be seen, as an Other – exotic, different and possibly even out of reach –  and I mean this for both sides – and expect to cary out a project successfully. This is a lot easier said than done. The root of the solution possibly lies in education. Only when problems are seen as problems from within the community (as opposed to being highlighted by outside agents) do solutions begin to arise from within as well, and garner large respect and effort.

In effect, one of the take aways from these last couple of days for me has been this: the urban poor must be viewed in complete separation to their rural counterparts, even if they originated from there. While their problems are obviously different, it must be realized that their mindset – conditioned by the surrounding city – might be as well. And therefore, solutions to these problems must take into account the fact that these people might be alienated – from the natural environment and from the contrasting lives around them.



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