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It's Like That

“Don’t cry, someday nice things will come.” (Vijay)

Families disembark the train at Churchgate Station/Mumbai

Trains overloaded with weary passengers run in a continuous loop, day and night, into the cavernous, crowded stations in Mumbai. Families bedraggled and wide-eyed upon arrival at their destination grab their bundles and boxes of personal belongings and step onto the platform, while tired daily commuters and those travelling to another part of India rush past them to board their trains to somewhere.

They leave their quiet villages to look for employment in India’s mega cities. On the train they are packed into shared pockets of space in the cheapest general seating section, sharing unreserved bench seats with many others over the long hours and days it will take to complete their journey. Those who can’t find a seat sit intertwined on the floor, trying to catch sleep with their head in their hands. They carefully ration out their traditional food from tiffins or newspaper bundles that their families packed for them, and drink from plastic bottles filled with the familiar taste of water from the village well. Rural villages and small towns pass by in a slow blur, as the train chugs forward toward what they hope will be a new life with opportunities in a city far away from all they know.

Photo by Samiksha while onboard a train to visit family in her village.

With no option to fear the city, they place their belongings on their head and trudge out of the busy train station into the continuous blaring and beeping of car horns, and see more people than they would encounter in a lifetime in their villages. Some families will stay put in the train station, using it as a temporary shelter and some will find a place to sleep on the street. If they’re lucky, relatives will offer them space to share in their one room home while they search for a room to rent in one of Mumbai’s three thousand, informal, unregulated slum clusters. They’ll begin their search for a home among the patched together hutments that cling to hillsides, huddle at the base of high rise buildings and sprawl into crevices between the infrastructure of highways and fly-overs. Some communities are built precariously close to the sea where the grey waves and the pounding monsoon rains slowly destroy the flimsy homes. In 2023, an estimated nine million people live in slums in Mumbai, while another forty thousand people live on the streets. Once the families settle in a community they will encounter slumlords, demolitions, religious conflict, crowded communities with little daylight, inadequate unhygienic infrastructure, and communal toilets shared with hundreds of others.

Village life in Sakri East, Bihar. Small plots of land are shared among family members.

Village lanes in Bihar, India's poorest state. There are many Bihari families living in Saki Naka.

Jyoti is one of five daughters born in a quiet rural village in Maharashtra, a full day journey by road to Mumbai. In 2002, when she was seventeen, her parents arranged her marriage to twenty-one year old Vijay. After their simple wedding ceremony in the village, Vijay found work for four days cutting cactus for twelve hours a day. He wore socks to protect his hands and earned 7 rupees (11 cents) per day. Next he found work digging a well for eight days, earning him 50 rupees (82 cents) a day. Realizing quickly that he wouldn’t find enough work in the village to support himself and his young wife, they made the decision to leave their families behind for the opportunities they’d heard about in Mumbai. To finance their journey they sold an electric fan for 400 rupees (6 dollars). The cost of their train ticket plus a small amount of food purchased during the journey left them with 30 rupees (50 cents) upon their arrival in the sprawling, disheveled city. Far away from their quiet village and everything they knew to be familiar, they boarded a city bus that would take them to Saki Naka. They’d heard they could find accommodation in a slum community in the heavily populated industrial area near the airport. Within a few days of arriving, Jyoti had a small accident and needed to go to a hospital. After paying the hospital fee, they were out of money, but not out of hope or the will to stay in the city.

They found a simple hut to rent for 500 hundred rupees (8 dollars) per month. Vijay found a job picking garbage on the street that paid him forty to seventy rupees (.65 - 1.15) a day, while Jyoti struggled with immense loneliness. She missed her family in the village and spent her days fighting tears while trying to make a home for herself and her husband. Their home was a small tin-walled hut in the crowded community, without a fan, electricity or water. They endured by using candles to light the small dark space, lining up for water at a communal tap, and Jyoti found a new task to keep her busy - sweeping out the rats and snakes that slithered into their dwelling every day. Along with hundreds of others, they used the filthy community outhouse for a toilet.

When Jyoti became pregnant with their first child she was excited to return to her village for the birth where her mother helped deliver her healthy baby daughter. Vijay stayed in Mumbai, always on the lookout for a better job, and found temporary work as a general labourer for eighty rupees (1.30) a day.

Jyoti and her mother

Then came something that would test their tenacious will to survive in the city. In 2005, when their daughter was just over a month old, Mumbai experienced unprecedented monsoon rains that flooded the entire city. Within the space of a few hours, their hut was flooded to the roofline. Vijay held his newborn daughter over his head as they snatched some of their floating possessions. They waded through filthy, waist deep water, to climb up to the elevated main road. There they witnessed vehicles and drowned animals floating in the street. For two excruciating days they perched on found objects on the side of the road with their newborn daughter until the rain abated and the flood waters receded. On the third day, they, and hundreds of other families, walked back into their flood ravaged fragile community and started to sweep out garbage and dead rodents from their huts. A few years later, they added a son to their family.

Slums are informal settlements with a slippery, tenuous hold on the property they sit upon. Families live in constant dread of demolition drives where the government gives little notice that the community, or portions of it, will be demolished to make way for infrastructure projects. In 2023, through a government scheme, families who can prove through a long stream of paperwork that they’ve lived in a slum from 2001 - 2011, and are being displaced, will be offered the opportunity to purchase a 300 square foot home in a SRA (slum rehabilitation building) for 250,000 rupees ($4000). Slum communities hold significant sway with politicians who require their support for upcoming elections. Using slums as massive, easy to manipulate vote banks, politicians often promise slum communities toilet blocks and other services to temporarily improve their living conditions in exchange for votes.

SRA Building where displaced families from demolished slum areas receive a one room apartment. (Above: exterior of building/Below: interior hallway with doors leading to apartments)

SRA buildings are considered by developers and the government to be a fair way to house the millions of families who currently reside in slum areas. In 2017, many families living in Saki Naka were relocated to far flung areas of the city to reside in SRA buildings after the bulldozers arrived and made dust out of a huge swathe of the community. The promise and excitement of a better life in these buildings is quickly eroded when the stairwells turn to dust, the elevators don’t work, the water supply is limited and much needed internet connectivity is spotty. With no apparent services for garbage disposal, garbage is thrown out the window into the narrow gully between buildings increasing the rodent supply and giving dengue and malaria carrying mosquitos the perfect conditions to multiply. The air quality in some of the SRA communities isn’t fit for human habitation.

Village life is what families living in big city slums yearn for, but a life in the village won’t provide a livelihood for their families. Migrants are the life-blood of the mega cities. They provide cheap labour for industries, restaurants and factories, clean up garbage and sewers with bare hands, cook for families, drive, sweep streets, and look after children of their employers. Their work days are often 12 hours long, 6 or 7 days a week. When their work day is over, they return to their make-shift home in a slum community to serve their own families.

In 2014, Vijay found steady work as a labourer. A few years ago, exhausted by years of constantly relocating within the slum community caused by government demolitions, or evictions by landlords, they borrowed money from an acquaintance of Vijay’s to purchase an 80 sq. ft., one-room brick home, perched atop another home. Vijay, so proud to be a home owner, got to work installing tile in the tiny kitchen area, and Jyoti happily grows edible plants in small pots just outside their door. They have a toilet, a shower head, and running water. Their daughter is studying in college and their son is in grade school. It’s not the life they might have hoped for all those years ago when they arrived in Mumbai, but they are grateful to have four walls to call their own. Vijay’s low paying steady employment allows them to pay the interest on their loan and purchase small amounts of rice, lentils and vegetables each day. They are cautiously optimistic and their excitement about their new home is governed by their lived experiences and years of hardship. Over the years they’ve been joined in the community by Vijay’s brother and his family and Jyoti’s two sisters. Jyoti isn't lonely anymore. Her children are her life and she's made friends. Vijay is a proud father and a husband who works to provide for his family. They, like many others, make a yearly journey back to their village to visit elderly relatives and keep a claim on their village plots.

Jyoti, on the balcony of her new home which sits atop another home. Since this photo was taken, Jyoti has created a potted garden on her balcony and a railing has been installed.

Vijay and Jyoti in their new home making dinner for us, their two children, and her father who was visiting from the village.

Vijay and Jyoti, like many millions of other families living in slum communities, learn to survive through ingenuity, resourcefulness and their incredible will to endure adversity and hardship. Something we’ve heard many times from many families when we enquire about their hardships is, “we are used to this”.

The trains continue to pull into the station loaded with hopeful families and young men who are drawn to the city where they will live amongst a crowd of unfamiliar faces in search of steady work, hoping to be able to send money back to their families; hoping for good luck; hoping for a way to make a living.

-Currently in Saki Naka, a slum home rents for 6000 rupees to 8000 rupees per month. The average wage of a daily wage worker is 15,000 rupees per month. (A 80-100 square foot slum home average cost to buy is 400,000 rupees.)

Average fixed monthly expenditures for a family of four:

- school fees: 1500 rupees per child (depends on the school/some fee structures are less, some much more)

- gas cylinder for cooking: 1800

- electricity (one light bulb/overhead fan)/water supply 1300 rupees.

- Government subsidized rations of grains and pulses are available from ration shops. Only families with the necessary paperwork requiring a fixed address can benefit from ration shops.

- Each family shops daily for vegetables and fruit from street vendors with fluctuating prices.

-There are markets where used clothing that has been washed and repaired is sold for a few rupees per garment. Women make their own blankets from used saris and clothing.

- Few homes have room for a bed or any furniture and prefer to sleep on mats on the floor.

- It is becoming easier, and enticing, for families in the community to receive high interest loans from appliance and motorcycle dealerships. Some families, excited by the chance to have a small washing machine, a motorbike for family transportation, or a television, take advantage of this new way to purchase, often resulting in further straining of their meagre income leaving them with no way to service their debts.

- A visit to a doctor, a dentist, or a medical emergency requiring a hospital stay, or managing a chronic illness requiring a regime of medicine, isn’t possible without taking loans from slumlords, family members or community saving schemes.

- having a bank account is necessary to access government schemes. Very few families have savings of more than a few rupees often tucked away in a hiding place in their home.

- money schemes are common among neighbours in slum communities. One person is responsible to collect, record and safe-keep a few rupees per month from each participating family. When a participating family suffers a hardship or an emergency situation, they can approach the group for loan from the scheme which must be paid back into the scheme.

How your donations were used from April 1, 2023 - August 31, 2023

The 2023-24 school year is now underway. Below are a few school fees that needed to be paid immediately. In the coming months, Indu will pay school fees as required until we return to Mumbai in late fall.

School Fees:

Nandichhaya Vidya Niketan School

-Afreen Shaikh: 10,000 rupees/161 CAD

-Rai Ratnesh Pramod: 10,000 rupees/161 CAD

-Rai Abhinesh Pramod: 10,000 rupees/161 CAD

Chandrabhan Sharma College of Arts, Science and Commerce

Power Vihar Complex/Powai

-Karan (Badar Jaskaran Ramesh): 24,910 rupees/403.00 CAD

LMC School (Sakri East, Bihar)

-Noorsaba Shaikh : 5000 rupees/81 CAD

Medical fees:

Sofiyan (Ayan) Shaikh:

A serious stomach ailment required a four day stay in the hospital (three days in the intensive care unit)

-medical fees/doctor fees/hospital fees (ICU)/medicine: 29,402.51 rupees/476.06 CAD


-Aagya Bind/birthday party: 800 rupees/12.91 CAD

Total: 1,455.97 CAD

(The exchange calculations are based on the current exchange rates)

Vijay and Jyoti have benefitted from DWP donations since 2009. Their daughter's school fees have been paid from donations from kindergarten to college. There have been ration donations, hospital care and general help given to the family when needed.

If you’d like to see weekly news updates/photographs about the community and the families check out the DWP Instagram or Facebook page. We post about four times a week with good news stories, issues that come up, how we spend the donations, school news - anything that is a story to tell, good or bad, sad or happy.


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