Mumbai’s Urban Slums: Ground Zero for Human Dignity

April 4, 2012

Mumbai slum residents protest the destruction of their homes.
Mumbai slum residents protest the destruction of their homes by multi-national corporations. PHOTO: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve spent the past two weeks working with a number of NGOs focused on women’s human rights in the urban slums surrounding Mumbai. These communities are a ground zero for human dignity, where basic needs are not met and human rights are routinely crushed by poverty and the pace of urbanization.

The underworld I traverse each day exists within a global financial capital, a land of five-star hotels and luxury cars. The stark contrast illustrates the urgency of putting human dignity at the center of the dialogue about social change in an increasingly urbanized and inequitable landscape.

Article 1:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

I’ve never seen such extreme yet proximate inequity. Each morning I pass women and girls, barefoot and stunted, picking through dumpsters and street waste to pull out yesterday’s recyclables to sell, while drivers of private cars carry well-to-do school children in air-conditioned comfort to their studies.

This is a society still struggling to shed itself of the complicated and intersecting legacies of colonialism and caste, exacerbated by economic competition, globalization and urbanization. Tent cities and slums crop up in between towering skyscrapers; haves and have-nots live wall-to-wall, yet worlds apart. The headline of my Hindustan Times condemns the latest version of the state government’s budget, which reserves only 1 percent for Mumbai’s poor, who constitute the bulk of its population.

Article 3:                    

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Violence is entrenched here, particularly for women: the 2005 – 2006 National Health and Family Survey found 40 percent of married women reported that they had experienced violence in the home. Police routinely fail to respond to domestic violence complaints, and girls and women are commonly harassed by groups of boys and men, in what’s known as “eve teasing.” Students andteachers also routinely assault girls at school.

Many parents say they keep girls home for their own protection; a girl embodies the family’s honor, and if she is raped the family is ruined. Many families refuse to report abuse because of the stigma. Just last week a mother in Madhya Pradesh reported the rape of her daughter, only to be shot by her husband and brother-in-law for reporting the crime.

Article 6:
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

The government estimates there to be 200,000 people living in Shivaji Nagar, the slum I am working in that abuts Mumbai’s largest dumping ground. The researchers and community social workers I am working with put that number closer to 600,000, even a million. That’s at least three times as many people as the government recognizes, who crowd into already overflowing buildings (I read weekly of injuries from buildings collapsing) and whose waste contributes to already overflowing (open) sewers.

A community worker I spoke with this afternoon re-calibrates my expectations for what success looks like: “In this community, we are fighting to even get birth certificates, so people can be recognized and access services. A birth certificate is your first human right.” The majority of people here are not counted, and therefore not taken into account.

Article 7:
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 16:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

Last week, India’s lawmakers amended Indian marriage law so that women’s property rights will now be protected in divorce, and adopted children will now will have the same rights at divorce as biological children. Yet the very same week a court ruled in favor of a man who wanted to divorce his wife because in his opinion she wasn’t giving him enough sex. The court ruled that when women deny sex in marriage that is “cruelty, and grounds for divorce.”

There is no such thing as marital rape under India’s laws. And India is notorious for child marriage. According to the International Center for Research on Women, 44.5 percent of Indian girls marry before the age of 18, and arranged marriages are still very much the norm. As I wander the twisting footpaths through the slums, girls are visible everywhere doing wash, cooking and caring for children, the telltale green bangles of a married woman jingling on their wrists.

Article 25:
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Behind my office lies the Shivaji Nagar dumping ground, the largest dump in Mumbai. It is a mountain of waste, upon and around which people live, across which roads traverse, and from which thousands of people, mostly women and children, make their meager living as “rag pickers.” On the outskirts of the slum, houses consist of pieces of plastic and tin stitched together. Water coverage is the lowest in Mumbai, and the distance between public latrines the farthest in the city.

Women who do come to the clinic don’t have the information they need to space children. A doctor I speak with says she can’t counsel adolescent girls on sexual and reproductive health and rights because it isn’t “acceptable.” The Indian Hindu custom of sati—which instructs women to self-immolate over their husbands’ funeral pyres—is rare and explicitly outlawed, but surviving widows are often outcast and struggle to survive.

Though life is a particular challenge for women, it is harsh for everyone. The very location of these communities renders their occupants criminals, “illegals,” undocumented and under-served. You are only legal if you can prove having lived in a house for a certain number of years—the exact figure keeps changing. Paradoxically, the government exacerbates the problems by continually uprooting communities and relocating them here. There are plans to relocate hundreds of thousands more residents from other slums where development contracts have been secured, in what is called transferable development rights.

“Two things get tossed out here,” says Professor Parasuraman, the head of an initiative studying the area at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, “unwanted people… and also Bombay’s waste.”

The Professor’s words perfectly encapsulate the central problem—that this is place has so devalued the dignity and rights of human beings that they are quite literally dumped, as far from the fancy buildings downtown as possible, in the very same place as all the rest of the city’s trash.


You can follow Lyric Thompson and the Women’s Human Rights network of Amnesty USA @AmnestyWomenRts or on Facebook at Amnesty International USA Women’s Human Rights Network.