Recently, I overheard a group of people in a local train talking about slum-dwellers. There were four of them, two ladies and two gentlemen, all senior citizens. They were in the ‘oh-what-has-this-city-come-to?’ mode, reflecting how Mumbai was such a great place to live in before these ‘dirty’ slum-dwellers came and squatted on every inch of land.
Here is the general tone of the conversation… (Gentlemen 1 & 2, Ladies 1 & 2)
GM1: “These bloody slum dwellers, they are a scar on the face of our beautiful city.”
L1: “Yes, every morning when we travel, we are greeted by the sight of naked men along the tracks. It’s so disgusting. Why can’t these people use toilets?”
GM2: “You know, they constitute a major vote bank and hence, even the politicians support them. Whenever a Khairnar comes along to demolish these illegal settlements, these politicians come out and stay the proceedings.”
GM1: “And, even when the Government comes out with a rehabilitation programme, and gives free houses to these bastards, they rent out those pucca houses and come right back into the slums in the hope of getting more such benefits.”
L2: “And to think, we pay for it all. These people get electricity free, water free, houses free, and it all comes from our tax money. These people run small, unorganized businesses and never pay a single paisa of tax.”
And so on and on, it went…
Now, I am no great supporter of slums or illegal squatting, nor do I particularly admire the sight of naked male buttocks on early morning train trips. I do, like so many other ‘self righteous middle class people’ think that the Government is not fair in giving away free houses to squatters while we sweat it out to get a roof over our heads. In fact, not too long ago, I used to cheer whenever news reports came that Khairnar and his ilk had demolished yet another illegal settlement.
That is why I almost fell out my seat in surprise when I heard the term ‘poverty premium’. Poverty premium is defined to be the differential between the "real cost" per unit of a commodity paid by the urban poor and the formal market price paid by more affluent residents.
A study reveals that the poor pay more than you and me and the self righteous middle class for amenities as basic as electricity, water, medical facilities, sanitation, education, credit… you name it…
Contrary to popular belief, the poor do not automatically draw power from the lines passing overhead. Nor do they get water by making holes in the pipes passing underground.
I personally know of banks refusing to issue a credit card, if one’s address is in Dharavi. These people borrow from money-lenders at rates of 5% per month (yes, you read it right, 60% a year). The Government puts millionaire farmers under priority sector lending at concessional rates, but no one cares for the driver, maid or plumber living in Dharavi.
I have personally seen the condition of the public toilets in slums. No water, no proper drainage, and you can see shit actually floating during the monsoons. Believe me, once you have stepped inside one of those, you will feel shitting in public view along the tracks is heaven.
Another common accusation is that these people are not actually poor and they have TVs and ACs in their homes (if you can call a 10x10 box in which 8 people squeeze in a ‘home’). Now, how many of us have actually visited a slum, taken a proper sample before jumping to this conclusion? And, who said owning a TV makes a person ‘non-poor’? A second-hand TV costs 6000 bucks, the smallest house in Mumbai might cost 6 lakhs…
So, the next time some pompous, tax-paying, middle class bugger (who, btw gets a subsidy on gas cylinders, education and God knows what else) moans about slum dwellers getting a free ride, I am going to ask him, “If you think they get such a wonderful deal, why the f*** don’t you go and stay there?”