Coincidentally, as I was wracking my head to find some way we could contribute to better living conditions at the firestruck jhuggi, Global Urbanist posted an article on a shack fire in Cape Town. There too, they are seeking appropriate ways to rebuild; however, it was heartening to read that Cape Town’s municipality had a disaster relief department that provided 3 days of food and basic kit for the poor to rebuild. Here in Gurgaon, the government response to such incidents is negligible. Leave alone failed systems, I feel this is a reflection of a loss of basic human empathy. Jhuggi residents are classified as ‘migrants’ and the local government wants to take no responsibility for them whatsoever. So, as Arti, who is part of the team working on the Jalti Jhopdi project, the only long term solution to get givernment attention to these transient jhuggis is to get migrants on the voter list here in Gurgaon.
Arti and me went back to the jhuggi today to inform residents about the timing of the distribution we will do tomorrow of utensils, chappals for kids, mosquito nets and earthen pots. One bit of the jhuggi has acquired tin sheets for walls and have built cardboard and tarpaulin roofs. The other half are still struggling, using torn saris etc as walls for now as they wait for the contractor to mobilize more material. Mud kilns (chulhas) have been built and those who had resources have bought some bare necessities and begun cooking, some have created the traditional mud floor, thus leveling the ground to spread sheets or other floor material; but the struggle is still on. Regular life is far from restored and we hope the distribution tomorrow will help. We managed today to get a shamiana tent done on one side to shelter the children from the daytime sun; but the ground underneath it isn’t level, so unfortunately people may or may not sleep under it tonight.
Coming back to the shelter issues, there are a few serious concerns. One, there is not enough space between the jhuggis to prevent another fire. In fact, the only jhuggi that was isolated from the rest was able to douse out the fire and was only half burnt. Obviously, they were the first back on their feet!
Insulation is the next big issue. As of now, cardboard and tarpaulin roofs offer no insulation at all and the tin walls ensure that the jhugis are heat traps. We quizzed them about housing back home in Bengal. In their villages, they said they build mud walls and have now use tin sheets for roofing as opposed to the traditional thatch which is hard to maintain. However, to protect their homes from heat, they create a false ceiling inside with bamboo or thatch, which they fill with mud to create a cool interior. the air gap between the false ceiling and the tin is the insulating layer. They were unwilling to do this for their jhuggis because they perceive themselves as migrants with a transient existence here and are unwilling to invest in their homes. Never mind some of them have been here for over six years!
Clearly, some sort of community mobilization (perhaps in the form of self-help groups for specific objectives) would be needed for life to improve in jhuggis such as this, but this will not be easy in settlements where there is a high turnover of occupants. We need to think about what can be the right interventions for transient jhuggis such as these, where occupants have absolutely no tenure, where there is little community feel, where residents feel like outsiders, have no legal status and no government help is forthcoming; where anything but temporary dwellings will not be built because residents are not interested in investing and because land owners will be threatened by more pukka structures, resulting in eviction.
We need to have solutions for better housing and sanitation for jhuggis like this that exist all over the country and especially in rapidly urbanizing areas like Gurgaon where the need for cheap labour is fulfilled only by migrant populations. Just like governments expect builders to pay development charges for bringing municipal services to their developments, local governments must take responsibility to provide quality temporary housing on rent to migrants who are essential to the local economy. These are people that play a vital role for Gurgaon. We saw during the Commonwealth Games when migrants were chased away, how the city was crippled. They deserve better. How can we help?