A day in the fragmented life of our unique urbanisation
42-year-old Ram Kumar is waiting for his wife to arrive at the Old Delhi Railway Station. Tired of standing in the small patch of sunlight escaping through the roof, he makes his way to a cooler corner. Half an hour later, his wife, 34-year-old Sunita Rani arrives. She is not alone. There are three more people with her, two young pre-teen boys and a teenage girl. Ram Kumar herds them all into the metro nonchalantly. The children look fascinated and scared in equal measure. But they don’t speak. Everybody gets off at the green park metro station.
Kumar works as a driver in green park and his wife, Rani, is an ‘attendant’ in one of the popular bars and restaurants in the party district of the capital—Hauz Khas village. Between the both of them, they have an income of Rs.25, 000. It is not much, but it is a lot more than what any one of them could have ever asked for. “I could never dream of making this kind of money. Back in the village, all we did was farm and labor for other people. It was a very limiting life,” says Kumar. But surprisingly, he wasn’t really keen on leaving home, so Rani came first. “He was so scared. He thought I was getting ahead of myself. But I had heard stories from my sister and seen the results too in the money she sent back home. So I had to give it a try.”
When she first came to Delhi in 2010 Rani lived with her sister in Vasant Kunj. “My sister had her family but she kept me anyway. We had one room to six people. We all cooked on a little stove outside and had a common lavatory.” She knew that if she had to get her husband to join her, she would have to work harder. So for two years all she did was work and adapt. “I ditched the sari for salwar kameez and lived on hand-outs and sent all my money back home. Lured by opportunity, Kumar eventually decided to come see me,” she beams, adding, “seeing our success story my sister-in-law begged me to take her children with me this time. I couldn’t refuse obviously. She is my Bhabhi.” Rani explains that when she goes back home, she has to leave city-life and all its independent trappings behind. “When I go back, I have to be as I left. I don’t mind it at all, except for wearing the sari because I am so out of practice now,” she laughs, “but I enjoy my days there as I can catch a break. Kumar has it tougher because he has to go back and help his brother with work.”
The urbanisation of India has been rapid and unplanned. Proof of this is the amount of traffic going back and forth between the urban and rural spaces. The Indian-railway network makes approximately nine billion journeys every year. These are made to accommodate the needs of an average Indian–a migrator, who enjoys the opportunities of city life but has his heart rooting for his home town in rural India. Which makes this an urbanisation unique to the subcontinent where lifestyles and habitats are often dual and almost everyone has to accommodate two lives—one in the city and one back home. According to census data, the urban population has grown from 62 million in 1951 to 377 million. There are 7,742 urban areas which are home to approximately 65 million families. Expected to grow at 4 per cent per year, it will add 15 million people to the list every year. Today 53 million-plus cities are home to over 160 million persons and are cracking under the weight of it.
Rani is making tea for her family at home. There are seven of them now. “I am right where I started,” she laughs. It is a one room apartment in a tall cramped building lined with similar rooms. Each floor has a bathroom and a toilet that can be shared. A small portable gas cylinder stands neatly in a corner and the kitchen utensils lie in a basket nearby. Two large plastic drums take space diagonally. They are filled with water. “We have no running water, so I get the children to fill these drums,” she says, “but we do have a washing machine. And it works.” She is proud of it all. “My children go to school. I have a bank account. A mobile phone and can do as I please. Life has turned out much better than expected.”
For her neighbour, 24-year-old Samir Srivastav who works in an MNC and also takes care of his family back home in Jaipur, it is a different perspective. The nostalgia for open spaces and a better quality of life haunts him, “I hate living in these muck lined lanes without any sunlight, amongst these people. It just depresses me. Every time I get upset, I think of home.” New to the city, he has not made friends yet to share an apartment with anyone and his starter’s salary allows him only this much of an indulgence. “I am spending Rs. 8,000 on this. And that’s all I can afford right now,” he says.
One in five Indians lives in a slum. The census defines slums as “residential areas where dwellings are unfit for human habitation.” Loosely translating into places that are cramped, run down— with poor ventilation and lack sanitation. Data released by the registrar general and census commissioner’s office showed that rough 1.37 crore households or 17.4 per cent of urban Indian households lived in a slum. 16 per cent of urban households do not have a toilet. A surprising 46 per cent do not have a toilet that flush. Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka account for nearly 50 per cent of India’s slum population. State governments usually refuse to acknowledge these glaring problems because not only does it reflect poorly on them, but once acknowledged, they will also have a legitimate right to water and drainage. Problems the government just doesn’t want to take on. And people don’t really seem to care about it. Because barring sanitation, the housing amenities for slum and non-slum dwellers across India are surprisingly similar. They use LPG for cooking; have televisions, in some cases, even computers and all use mobile phones.
And not all are desperate to get out like Srivastava; most of them do it to save money and are oblivious to their surroundings because they think they’re temporary. “We are building a brick house with a garden. Once it is complete and we have saved a bit of money. We will go back to our life,” says Kumar.
This article is an introduction into a series that Sbcltr is currently curating