Hope in an Urban Underbelly

India witnessed unprecedented urbanisation in the last decade and is likely to do so in the years to come:


About 377 million people from India’s total population of 1.21 billion are urban dwellers. With more than 10 million people migrating to cities and towns every year, the total urban population is expected to reach about 600 million by 2031.” 


What would this mean to the scarce and strained resources in urban agglomerations? For one, we are definitely looking at a vast number of people living in dehumanizing conditions. India’s slum population, estimated at 75 million in 2001, is projected to increase to 93 million by 2011 (Report of the Committee on Slum Statistics/Census under Dr. Pranob Sen, Statistics & Programme Implementation, 2010)


A case in point is the financial capital of India, Mumbai, where 41.3 percent are in the slums. This means the majority of Mumbai’s population can be found in an area “where dwellings are unfit for human habitation by reasons of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements, and design of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to the safety and health” (Census 2011, definition of an urban slum)


Our story unfolds in a similar backdrop at Annabhau Sathinagar, a slum cluster in Mankhurd, with the lowest Human Development Index among the 24 wards of the city.


“I would have never imagined myself to be a role-model. How could I? At Annabhau Sathinagar, I was a part of a group that indulged in street-fights and substance abuse. All of us were drop-outs and had no inclination towards studies or a career,” says 17-year-old Nitin Bawasker. Nitin lives with his mother, younger brother, and maternal grandmother in the latter’s one-room home at Annabhau Sathinagar.


Most of Nitin’s neighbours are migrants, from Maharashtra and other States, who moved to Mumbai in search a better life, and ended up in low-paying daily wage work. Substance abuse is staggeringly high. A research report by Prasad and Singh notes:


"More than sixty percent slum dwellers consumed intoxicating items and alcoholic drinks. Around half of the slum dwellers had a habit of using cigarettes while three quarters consumed chewing tobacco and more than one fourth consumed alcoholic drinks. Majority of slum dwellers started consuming alcoholic drinks when they were aged 20 years and above."


Nitin has no recollection of a family life. He has a younger brother but never got along with him.


 “My father works as a garbage collector in Belapur. He earns Rs. 9000 a month [est. £100 a month] and spends it entirely on alcohol. He would beat us up under the influence of alcohol.  Two months ago, unable to put up with the abuse, my mother asked him to leave. Since then, my father has been living with his friends at Belapur. We don’t get to see him at all except in the evenings when he would drop by to have food. We don’t miss him,” Nitin says, fighting to keep his voice steady and impassive. His mother is a domestic help in Vashi, earning Rs. 5000 a month [est. £60 a month]. “My mother leaves home in the morning only to return late in the evening. She works very hard to feed us and keep us in school. I wish I can relieve her after I graduate and start earning well,” Nitin says.


As someone who dreams of completing his graduation today, Nitin claims to have dropped out of school two years ago. When asked about this turn around, he replies, “It was because Dilraj bhaiya (Youth Mentor at Magic Bus) never gave up on me,” he pauses, “He invited us to attend a Magic Bus session two years ago. I was a part of this big group who thought street-fights were cool and being feared is equal to being respected. We went for the first Magic Bus session and quickly dropped out. We thought it required too much discipline to turn up for sessions every day. We were truants with little or no regard for discipline,” Nitin explains with a laugh.


Dilraj, who is a Youth Mentor at Annabhau Sathinagar, explains how he convinced Nitin to come for the Magic Bus sessions regularly. “We had just begun our programme at Annabhau Sathinagar when I met Nitin in one of the sessions. He came across as a confident boy with a powerful voice. I thought he would make a great Community Youth Leader and approached him with the offer. He turned it down saying that he was too busy for such things,” Dilraj recollects. “It took me eight months to convince him. I found out more about his situation. I spoke to speak to him about his responsibilities. I used to counsel him to think of his younger brother and mother, and not just loiter around with friends. There was no one in his family to speak to him about these things, to remind him of his responsibilities. Gradually, he started realising how he was wasting his time when his mother and his family needed him,” says Dilraj.


A lot of Nitin’s friends dropped out of the Magic Bus programme but a number of them stayed back. “We started realising our responsibilities. We understood that in order to be remembered we had to inspire people instead of threatening them,” Nitin accepts.


Dilraj’s counselling helped Nitin see his responsibilities to his family. It also helped him understand the value of education. He re-enrolled in a night school with Dilraj’s help. At the same time, he started working as door-to-door sales person for Life Insurance policy. “I started earning Rs. 6000 a month [est. £75 a month]. It was a huge relief for my mother. I negotiated with my employer to adjust my workhours so that I am not late for school,” he explains. The night school Nitin goes to is one among the 210 night schools in Maharashtra, out of which 150 are in Mumbai alone. “We have classes inside a Municipal school from 6.30 in the evening till 8.00-8.30. Most of my classmates work like me in the daytime. We are all looking to clear our Civil Service examinations,” Nitin says.


Despite working by day and going to school at night, Nitin never fails to conduct a Magic Bus session. He gets up early, gathers children, takes them to the field, and teaches them various lessons through activity-based sessions. “While others would give excuse of work, Nitin would ensure he completes his sessions before leaving for work.” says Dilraj. Dilraj believes that Nitin has been one of the reasons behind the success of Magic Bus’ programme at Mankhurd.


“I feel happy when they call me ‘bhaiya’ and look up to me for advice and guidance. I try to help them with all I have learnt at Magic Bus. I want them to understand the importance of education and not give it up ever. It is a rewarding role and I look forward to meeting the children every day,” Nitin shares.


Nitin dreams to become a businessman one day. “I will start something of my own instead of working for others.” he signs off.


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