The broom-makers who could not get their neighbourhood cleaned: a metaphor of urban poverty in Muzzafarpur

By Abhishek Jha & Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, PRIA

a1At first sight, Aghoray Bazar does not appear as a particularly outstanding place. Located in the heart of Muzzafarpur, the neighbourhood looks from outside just as any other Indian slum. The community lives in shabby dwellings, public services are very scarce (1 water tap is available for 800 inhabitants), and economic perspectives are desperately narrow. Most strikingly, the slum is pathetically dirty. A carpet of rubbish covers the lanes, and the lack of maintenance makes the air genuinely unhygienic. Apart from its negative impact on the visual aspect of the neighbourhood, this dirtiness represents a real sanitary challenge, especially for physically weaker citizens. Clearly, the sight of Aghoray Bazar is not rejoicing. But one could argue that, unfortunately, such situation remains relatively banal in 2013 Indian cities.

In reality, however, despite the apparent lack of originality of this story, Aghoray Bazar constitutes a powerful metaphor of urban poverty in India. The portrait of the slum would be incomplete without mentioning the main survival strategy of the local community, which is sadly and acidly ironical.  In the sea of dirtiness of the neighbourhood, the inhabitants have indeed specialized themselves in the fabrication of brooms. Aghoray Bazar’s brooms, made out of inexpensive coconut fibres, are cheap and get exported all across India. The slum hence indirectly participates, whatever microscopically, in maintaining the nation clean. But, cruelly, the tight claws of poverty make them incapable to get rid of the dirt in their own locality.

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In Aghoray Bazar, broom-crafting is a community as well as a family business. The quasi totality of the population earns its life by fabricating brooms and all the members of the family usually take part in the activity. Woman clean and single out the coconut fibres, children tie them with wood, and the men then go to the market to sell the finished product. Few children of the neighbourhood get the occasion to go to school, as their small hands are crucial for the business to go on. The brooms are then sent all over India by private contractors. Slum-dwellers sell each broom for Rs. 2. Households usually manage to fabricate approximately 50 to 60 of them each day. The average wage is thus about Rs. 100-120 a day per family. It should also be underlined that various males of the neighbourhood have been hired by the municipality as sweepers, and therefore get paid to clean the streets of Muzzafarpur.

Still, despite the skills developed by some inhabitants as sweepers, and despite the easy access to cleaning tools, Aghoray Bazar’s streets remain invariably squalid. The scarcity of free-time due to hard labour (after all, we do not ask middle-classes to clean-up the streets of their neighbourhood), the absence of supportive external agency (and especially of the State) and the absence of structured community mobilization may explain why till today no solution has been found to offer a healthier environment to Aghoray Bazar.

The tale of Aghoray Bazar, the broom-making slum who could not get cleaned, constitutes a real-life metaphor of urban poverty today in India. It is the story of a slum serving the rest of the society, by fabricating products of basic uses for us, but incapable of helping itself. It echoes the fate of all these destitute neighbourhoods full of servants, guards, drivers – hence full of those who make our cities work – and who remain marginalized due to a strictly limited access to basic services.

Aghoray Bazar’s tale is also the story of a community fitted with a genuine potential but incapable to capitalize on it. The dirtiness of the broom-maker slum symbolizes the difficulties of the urban poor to organize themselves in order to take the best out of their strengths. We should be here careful to avoid normative judgements. We are not trying to argue that slum dwellers are to be solely blamed; the lack of State support seems equally, if not more, responsible of the bad hygienic conditions of the neighbourhood. Instead, our point here is to show that making citizens aware of their capacities and offering them the possibility to coordinate could constitute a good opportunity of development for the locality.

To reverse the situation in Aghoray Bazar, no magic recipe seems to exist. Nobody can promise that the jhadoo (“brooms” in Hindi) will be turned into jadoo sticks (“magic sticks”). However, it is highly probable that community mobilization could help slum dwellers to become aware of their potential as a group. It might take time, and even engender local resistance. But, in certain cases, it will eventually help to sweep, little by little, poverty away.

The authors of this article can be contacted here: hugo.ribadeaudumas@sciences-po.org; abhishek.jha@pria.org  

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