Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The nowhere people of Sewage Basti

Along a narrow strip of land between the sewage treatment plant and a canal of the Sabarmati river on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Google earth shows some shadows for about 2 kilometres. If you get to this place on foot, you find it is actually sand dunes, with about a thousand migrants living there for 9 months in the year. They are tribals from Dahod district in Gujarat and from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh and working as construction workers on daily wages. This settlement is called Sewage basti.
Sewage basti, ringed in red, on the sand strip between the sewage treatment plant and the canal. Sabarmati river seen in bottom half where the froth of water foam from the plant enters.         
When a small group of us visited the settlement at 10 am on a chilly morning last week, several people are returning, walking along the sand dunes after having failed to find work that day. A metro line is coming up on the other side of the canal, and some find work there; others have to go further to a naka, or crossroads and auction the only asset they own: their physical strength. They are adults, teenagers, youth in their twenties, younger children, babies in arms. They sit on the dunes, warming themselves in the sun. 

We meet a group of people in what passes for a street on the sand. This community from Jhabua lives here for nine months in the year, and gets no services. No one visits them here, so our visit generates interest. They are faceless citizens of India here: no services reach them, and not even the police visit to demand their hafta as they do in so many other places. The women get no care during pregnancy: when they are 8 months pregnant they stop working and go back to their village in Madhya Pradesh to deliver their babies. Depending on how long they remain there, their babies may receive two doses of vaccines, or more, or less. The women themselves are unimmunized. The children are all illiterate, having never been to school. Some among the youth have studied up to Standard 5 before they began this life as migrants. With no official identity here, they cannot apply for any benefits at all. During the three months they return home, there is no work for them, they say - perhaps some work as agricultural labourers if they are lucky.

On the days they get work, everyone leaves for the worksite - the older children look after the younger ones, and those a little older help in construction work. 
Some of the Sewage basti migrants from Jhabua who could not get work that day. Behind the group is a house under construction.

Their homes are flimsy, made of branches of the babool that grows there, bent semicircular and embedded in the sand, covered with sheets of polythene. If sufficient polythene cannot be obtained, a thin blanket is used as a substitute.
Homes at the Sewage basti, made of tree branches, thorny twigs, polythene bags and sheets, and sometimes a blanket.

View of Sewage basti from the road. The crane in the background is where work is going on for the metro rail line.
Sewage basti is a community of nowhere people, literally living in a world of their own, and invisible to anyone else.