'End of life as they know it', reports the TOI.
Thousands of residents are being evacuated by MHADA following the 4th collapse of a century-old building in Mumbai. The media has already rushed out and labelled it an epidemic.
I've spent approximately 4 years of my working life in such a building. When JAM started up, it was the only kind of office it could afford. Our first such abode was a 100 sq ft large and located at building no 52, 3rd Marine St in Dhobi Talao.
To reach it one had to climb a rickety flight of stairs. A portion of the building had collapsed some years ago - only the front was still standing. In defiance of the laws of physics, in all probability!
Here, I learnt a few things about residents of condemned buildings - not all of them are really poor. One of our immediate neighbours was a Catholic family - a lady and two young infants. The father - I was surprised to learn! - worked in the merchant navy.
Why would a family that earned enough to move elsewhere choose to stay in a 100 sq ft space? A space where you had to cook your food in a corner of the 'living' room, and queue up for a communal toilet every morning?
The same question bothered me at our second office: 1/23 Bhiku Building, Veer Savarkar Marg ( You might recollect seeing the spiffy 'murti' showroom 'Aakar' while stuck in traffic on that road sometime. First floor of that same building).
Here too, we had a Catholic neighbour - an old lady with her son and daughter-in-law. By this time I'd figured out that chawl furnishing did not vary much. Chiefly, it consists of:
* One really Large Bed which serves 2 purposes: you sleep on it; store your worldly possessions under it!
* One TV - precariously perched on a metal/ wooden shelf
* One stove in the 'cooking corner'.
During the course of our 3 years in that building the daughter and son-in-law managed to create and give birth to a baby girl. I could not help but wonder... kab? kaise??
Maybe the old lady had turned helpfully hard of hearing by then.
Stuck in the past
Another old couple residing in the same building - but in a much smaller size chawl -had 2 sons living in Dubai, and one quite well to do daughter in Thane. Despite pleas from the kids, this couple would not consider moving.
'Yehi hamari life hai', they believed. This was their comfort zone; their extended community.
Yes, the prime location of the building had attracted many builders who promised to convert the mess into a skyrise - along with flats for the original tenants. But doing this required the signatures of all existing tenants and owners and getting that was proving impossible.
Many tenants believed they would be out in the cold - and that was not a fear unfounded. There are horror stories of families stuck in 'transit' camps for years and years. There are horror stories of tenants never receiving their promised flats. And so on and so forth.
But at the heart of the matter lies the unwillingness of most chawl residents to contemplate change. To be happy with whatever they have, and not strive for more - whether individually, or collectively.
Take the merchant navy family. If it did move, yes there would be some initial separation anxiety from the old milieu. But in a few months time the luxury of space, of modern amenities like personal bathrooms, the privacy - all these would make it impossible for them to move back!
Time to pay up
I personally feel the squatter mentality has to go - rents frozen since World War II have to revised upwards. Perhaps not all at once, but a start must be made somewhere!
Many rent-controlled properties are sub-let at handsome prices; others used as commercial space. So it's hardly a case of protecting the poor. A survey can be undertaken to identify those who are really unable to cough up. The rest must start paying up.
Will this pinch? Yes, just like the home loan I've taken to buy a house in distant Vashi pinches me!
Bottomline: There are many possible solutions - none of them easy - but nothing at all can be achieved unless people stop resisting the very idea of change!
Perhaps it's the young people growing up in this sub-standard housing who will be the change agents, persuading their parents to think beyond greed and beyond convenience.
At least, I hope so! If you do not willingly embrace change, it will tip-toe into your life and silently smother you. In the case of these old buildings - quite literally!