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The divided city

The question is not whether Shanti the city girl is better off today than if she had stayed on in her village. The question is not whether Shanti the city girl is better off today than if she had stayed on in her village.

Shanti is an 18 year old hoping to complete her schooling in April next year from a government school in southwest Delhi. She lost her mother, Santosh, the only breadwinner in the family, last year. Santosh was a masseur, known in her gali as a “maalishwali”, a widow who brought up her two sons and daughter on her meagre earnings. She died last year of a mysterious illness at 45. It was said that a neighbour in the unrecognised slum colony where they live had performed “tantric rites” against her. Shanti does not want to believe this, having learnt health science in school, but is silenced by her two brothers, both dropouts, both older, who warn her that she will meet the same fate if she displeases “society”. As a single woman, their mother faced social disapproval for travelling to distant places in pursuit of her work, often returning late at night. Shanti, too, has become the target of gossip. In the last year, she has developed a close relationship with a boy a little older than her, which has met with strong disapproval from her brothers. She has been beaten by her eldest brother because she defied him. They punished her by preventing her from going to school for two months. They want to marry her off to a person of their choice. He lives in a village in Haryana. Shanti has rebelled. She has moved out of the half-built structure her mother left for her children, and is now living with her 80-year-old grandmother. “How can I go back to the village,” she asks. “I am a city girl now.”

“A city girl” — that’s how Shanti and millions of other young women on the threshold of adulthood see themselves today.

Census 2011 tells us that the pace of urbanisation is rapid, though behind China’s. Whereas the number of towns and cities built during the first 50 years of Independence, till 2001, was only 2,125, an additional 2,771 towns and cities were built in the 10 years from 2001 to 2011. The share of income from urban areas in the GDP at 60 per cent also reflects a big increase. Poverty and lack of work opportunities in rural India are determinants for an increasing shift to cities and towns. There is, equally, a migration of new generations of the rural rich, investing the surplus earned from agriculture into businesses, real estate and so on, looking for better educational opportunities for their children. There is urbanisation and rur-urbanisation, with the merger of contiguous villages into satellite towns, presumably so that the benefits of better living and livelihoods made possible by advances in physical and social infrastructure are available to larger sections of the population.

Alas, many “city girls” find the dream far removed from the reality. Look at Shanti’s story. As a second-generation migrant of a poor, rural, Scheduled Caste family, and now a permanent resident of the city, Shanti’s life was a microcosm of a people in transition, a city in transition, a country in transition. And since it is a more or less unplanned transition driven by the requirements of a volatile and ruthless market economy, the cost is often unbearably high.

Her mother was married into a family that owned some land in Haryana. With the division of the land between brothers, the income was not enough to cover expenses, so her father moved to the city in search of a livelihood. Here, the city was seen as a lifesaver. He got a job as a contract long-distance truck driver and became a heavy drinker. Shanti and her brothers were brought up in an atmosphere of domestic violence, with her mother, Santosh, as the target. There were no networks to help out this family in distress. On the contrary, family ties with the village had weakened without any compensatory support in the city. The alienation of migrant workers from support bases more accessible in their home villages makes the city a place of loneliness and isolation for families like Shanti’s.

Other countries have ways to provide social and community support. One of the best examples is socialist Cuba, where neighbourhood committees provide emotional and social support. There was no such support for Shanti. Her father died of alcohol abuse. By then, the family had decided to stay on in Delhi. Santosh had got herself trained in a neighbourhood beauty parlour. She felt it was an upgradation in her skills, as in the village, she would find employment only as a manual worker. The children started going to school. Life in the city appeared promising.

The first hurdle was housing. The city needs services. Yet there is no affordable housing for those who do the work. The cleaners, domestic workers, street vendors, individual service providers either live on the razor’s edge of confrontation, with bulldozers coming to demolish their illegal slums, or move far out of the city’s confines into unauthorised colonies looking for comparatively cheap rent. It is even more difficult for a woman-headed family. They had to keep shifting residence, sometimes to areas without electricity or water.

Santosh and Shanti spent many hours a day fetching water for their household, sometimes as far as 2 km. Tough to imagine in an urban setting but true, since in her area, the water supply would be available only twice a week, that too at odd, inconvenient times. Urban areas get much more funds for infrastructural development than rural areas, but within the city, fund distribution is highly unequal. So here was a family living in the city, but deprived of basic amenities like water and electricity because of policies that permitted — or, rather, created — unequal standards of distribution, with the rich getting more.

Shifting to the margins of the city due to housing concerns also meant a higher transport bill, as well as greater vulnerability to sexual harassment. The nearest bus stop was 3 km away. The road was so bad that the buses refused to come any closer. The utter callousness in providing safe public transport for working women or school-going children is one of the most glaring gaps in city life today. With the metro, things have improved for those who can afford it, but for families like Shanti’s it is a recurring nightmare.

When her mother fell ill, Shanti rushed to the nearest doctor. The bill was high but the medicines did not help her get better. They took her to the nearest government hospital. They had to pay “user fees “ for the various tests. When there is no money at home to pay medical bills, it is easier to believe that it is not medicines but black magic, available at one-tenth the price, that will do the trick. Her mother died in her arms. Privatisation of health services in cities and the huge cost of medicines force families into no-choice situations, destruction by debt or death.

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The question is not whether Shanti the city girl is better off today than she would be if she had stayed on in her village. It is whether Shanti, as a “city girl”, is as well off as she should be in a country that is inviting the world to make in India. Why should the labouring classes in cities and towns and the urban poor continue to live in conditions of deprivation? Why should young and working women have to constantly put themselves in risky situations because of unsafe public transport?

So the city means different things to different people. Class-based inequalities greet you at every corner. An ideal city would be a city of equal access to at least basic services like housing, education, health, transport and civic amenities. These are the minimum goals we should try to achieve.

The writer is a CPM politburo member

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