Magazine article New Internationalist

Squatter Citizens: MUMBAI, INDIA

Magazine article New Internationalist

Squatter Citizens: MUMBAI, INDIA

Article excerpt

Sugandhi: 'As soon as my life became better, I wanted to do something to help other women.'

As you turn into the narrow lane leading to Sugandhi's house in Kaju Tekdi, Bhandup - an old industrial suburb of Mumbai - it's easy to recognize her home. There's usually a group of boys sitting outside chatting, playing cards and people are constantly walking through the door. Some just come here to hang out, watch TV, talk, ask for advice, borrow a book or discuss local problems. It's also the first place people go in an emergency at any time of the day or night - when a woman is beaten up, when local goons come to evict, when someone is ill or when a child needs admission to school. They all turn to Sugandhi. In the 15 years since becoming an activist, she has turned into the one-point firebrand solution for her neighbourhood.

People here knew her as Pavitra as a child. Her in-laws changed her name to Sugandhi when she married. Her parents migrated to the big city from the mountains of Garhwal in north India when she was just six and disowned her when she eloped with Francis, who was not from her caste or religion. When Francis lost his factory job and responsibility to support the family fell totally on Sugandhi, Francis took to the bottle. There were fights at home, often violent. He was ill for many years and finally passed away in 1987.

That's when Sugandhi got involved in activism. She joined the local Tenants Association, Bhadekaru Kruti Samiti. Though the land on which the slum was built belongs to the Government, those who put up rows of tenements here are now landlords. 'For years landlords have done nothing to maintain their homes. If tenants tried to make any improvements like fixing a leaking roof or getting a water tap, the landlords would bring in the mafia to throw them out,' says Sugandhi. 'So, we helped them form tenants' societies so that they could fight together for their rights. Today, 54 such societies have been able to get ownership of their land.'

But there's still a long struggle. A few years ago, a builder wanted to grab a plot of land that housed 17 families. So he got some security guards to fence off the land and drag women and children out of their homes. One guard even had a gun. 'I rushed to the spot, asking our young boys to gather many people. The security guard got scared and ran into Hotel Suraj on the main road. …

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