Slum Memoir by Swati Sharma, Programme Officer -PRIA
This excerpt was written during a research study conducted under Ford Foundation Funded project of PRIA ‘Democratic Urban Governance: Promoting Participation and Social Accountability”.
Date: Aug 17, 2011
Type of Slum: Notified
Ward No. – 21
Total No. of households: 1000+
No. of years since formed: 70 – 80 yrs
Kamla Nehru Slum is one of the largest slums in Patna. High degree of diversity vis-à-vis community groupings and caste is present in this slum and approx. 8000 people reside here. People from various districts of Bihar constitute the population of this slum. The residents belong to scheduled castes in which approx. 95% are Hindus and 5% are Muslims. There is majority of Dusadh community, followed by Musahar families, Gujarati families, Bakho community families and Dalit Muslims in the slum. Major professions of slum occupants are Cart pulling, Construction work, street vending, daily wage labour, rag picking, utensil sellers, and maid servants.
At the entrance to the slum, one witness’s huge piles of garbage and the by lane was full of trash mixed and muddy making it almost impossible to cross for the denizens. The environment was filled with a pungent odour which was hard to tolerate. Noticing such abysmal hygiene conditions in slums, one often feels that either the slum dwellers have accepted these grave issues (SWM being directly related to the overall health and environment) as part of their lives or they have tried everything they could but the problem persists.
There is a primary school located in the slum which has five rooms marked Class I to Class V. The so called school had 110 students from which 70% were boys. For these 5 classes and 110 students only 2 teachers were there. Both of them shared that they were teaching these poor children voluntarily and without any honorarium. The school did not have any toilets for the children. According to the slum dwellers, their main concerns were sanitation, solid waste management, water supply, electricity and education in the order of priority. Surprisingly the slum dwellers did not have the requisite residential proofs to apply for legitimate water and electricity connections, despite being 70 – 80 years old. Soon it became clear why the slum dwellers did not have their residential proofs even after staying for so long in the slum.
The slum is positioned in the centre of the main city and occupies a large area. The land on which Kamla Nehru slum is located is exorbitantly expensive and much in demand by private developers and many government departments are also eyeing it for their own purposes. The residents shared that they have experienced several incidents of fire and sometimes they all knew that the slum had been intentionally set on fire for evicting them from this land. The first incident of fire happened in the year 1992. The fire caused severe injuries and burns to a number of people. After 1992 another incident of fire took place in 1994. This fire incident was worse as all the houses in the slum came into its impact. The fire trucks could not reach inside the slum on time due to congested by lanes. Everything that the slum dwellers had was burnt to debris. Few children also died during that incident. All the slum dwellers were rendered homeless after this fire. The government did provide help to the affected families, but as usual the help came after many months of the incident and the destitute slum dwellers survived without a roof on their heads for months. The denizens of Kamla Nehru Nagar were living in the constant fear of fire as they had experienced the harshest side of life after these incidents. Soon as they were about to recover from the trauma of the fire incident, hell broke loose again when a fire gutted 90% of the slum dwellings in 1997. Many men, women and children were severely injured in this incident. After this incident people have been trying to get residence proofs but most of them did not have enough resources to bribe the authorities to apply for water connections and electricity connections. Though many of them did not have any residence proof except their Voter Id cards as the most known purpose the slums serve, is their utility of being a vote bank. The politicians are well aware that slum populations are high on vulnerability scale and can be convinced for very little in return of their voting power. Unfortunately, Kamla Nehru is not the only slum in Patna which has been through this misery. Other slums like Adalatganj, Kaushal Nagar and Dusadhi Pakri have similar stories to narrate. In a similar incident, on March 17, 2012, a massive fire destroyed over 30
Fire destroys many dwellings in Adalatganj slum (Patna) huts, destroying everything and rendering several people homeless in Adalatganj slum.
“Sita ji also had to give Agni Pariksha once. We have been giving Agnipariksha’s since we started living in this slum and we don’t know how much more Agni Pariksha’s we will have to go through to finally live in this city without the fear of fire or evictions”
Deepak Paswan, resident of Kamla Nehru Nagar
Incidents of slum fires are not always by accidents, there have been many instances where rather than affording the expenses of courts procedures or enduring a long wait for an official demolition order, landlords and developers started fire on purpose. Manila has a notorious reputation for suspicious slum fires; there were eight major burnings between February and April 1993 (Jeremy Seabrook, cited by Davis). Erhard Berner recalls the method of “hot demolition”, as the Filipino landlords’ favourite one: a kerosene drenched burning live rat or cat –not dogs, they die too fast- is pushed into the annoying settlement; a fire started this way is very hard to fight as the unlucky animal can set plenty of shanties aflame before it dies.
“After the fire incident, we had lost everything. The authorities refused to help us at all and even blamed us for the fire. They were of the belief that we set the slum on fire, so that we can get compensation from the government. Many people got burns and injuries in that fire. What makes them think that we will hurt ourselves and our children by doing this?”
Promila Khatoon, resident of Kamla Nehru Slum who survived 1997 fire
As for Kamla Nehru slum, the occupants have tuned themselves to the unforgiving veracity they live with every day. In the absence of basic services, people manage to sustain by fetching water from hand pumps after long queues of waiting, with no sanitation facilities in place; people defecate in open, the garbage on the lanes is a usual sight for them and the foul smell has well been recognised by their body systems. While living in a congested setting, the incidents of fire are hard to avoid, but the authorities need to be pro-active to react with a system in place for combating the fire. If huge fire trucks cannot go within the slum then an alternative strategy (for e.g. small fire fighting vehicles) should be in place. In several places, slum dwellers are now being sensitized about safety measures in case of fire. For e.g. in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFSR) acts in close co-ordination with Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, particularly in the area of Fire Prevention. The Community Development Wing of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board takes up propagation of Fire Safety measures in the slums with the help of NGOs with whom the Board has close links. During fire prone seasons like summer or festivals like Deepavali, etc. these organisations with the help of the Slum Clearance Board and the TNFSR take up propaganda activities in slums and teach the inmates about the tips on fire safety so that the fire accidents do not take place. Government of Tamil Nadu, through the Slum Clearance Board, also replaces the huts in the slums with fire proof dwellings. Though whatsoever has been lost in fire cannot be retrieved, but the authorities can make a difference by proving a helping hand with cooperation and assistance to the affected masses.