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For Mumbai's slum-dwellers, climate change is slicing away the haves from the have-nots

By Zoe Osborne, Sunday March 22, 2020 - 07:50 EDT
ABC licensed image
Usha is one of an estimated 42 per cent of India's population who lives in a slum. - ABC licensed

In the dry season, Usha's tin roof traps the heat inside her shack until she feels like she is baking.

There is no ventilation and until recently, she didn't even have a fan.

When it rains, her house fills with water that drags black mould down her walls and seeps under her door, bringing with it the festering sludge of outside Mumbai.

Before she had a bed, she would lie in the sludge until morning.

There are millions of people like Usha in cities all around the world living without proper infrastructure, housing or employment opportunities.

As the world heats up and the weather becomes ever more extreme, the challenges they already face are intensifying.

Without the resources to empower themselves, most of them have little choice but to stay where they are and brace for what is to come.

Haves and have nots

Last year brought violent weather and environmental disasters across the world, and i

According to fiction novelist Suyash Shreekant, even his upper-class community experienced water shortages.

"People around me have fancy bungalows and you have Bollywood stars and celebrities… so it is always made sure that [we] have everything," he said.

Eventually, his building only received water a few hours a day, but because the neighbourhood had money, they never ran out.

"There is [the] option of buying water… Otherwise when the government water comes, if you have a tank, you fill it up, and of course all the major buildings have tanks," he said.

"A lot of our buildings even have direct boring going into the ground."

For Suyash's community, Mumbai's erratic weather is little more than an inconvenience.

India's class structure clearly delineates between rich and poor, and the attention paid to lower classes by government and upper-class society is minimal.

Usha doesn't remember the government ever offering her community support.

Before elections, politicians come to raise votes, but after they win, they never return.

Often, upper class society is not even aware of the poor's situations.

"Of course we noticed the rising price of onions [last year, for example] when buying the onions," Suyash said.

"But it doesn't strike us that 'Oh, it might be bad for the farmers'."

Adversity is escalating

An estimated 42 per cent of Mumbai's population lives in slums.

Some slums consist of just a few houses, while others are vast — Mumbai's famous Dharavi, for example, spans almost 2.2 square kilometres with a population of about a million.

Living conditions in these communities are rough. Slums lack effective infrastructure and the houses are fragile, leaving people already highly exposed to the weather.

This tends to compound every other problem.

Imagine self-isolating in these conditions: How could you "stock up" when you don't have the money? Even if you did, how could you store your bulk-buy? Many people don't have fridges let alone a proper kitchen or a toilet with a toilet paper holder.

Now that the climate is becoming ever more extreme, the adversity people face is escalating.

people in India. In Rajasthan, temperatures reached .

For people like Usha, retreating inside offered little reprieve.

Shopkeeper Jagdish Jaiswal and his son Shobhit live just a few doors down.

Last year was far hotter than any previous year, they say. Nowadays, they can't sleep without a fan even in the winter.

The drought also left India in the grips of extreme water shortages.

Almost two-thirds of the country's reservoirs held below normal water levels, adding to the already steady depletion of groundwater, which supplies 40 per cent of India's water demands — but is predicted to run out in 21 cities this year due to overuse.

Slum dwellers always live with limited water, but as shortages worsen, what little they have is likely to dramatically dwindle.

Water shortages, monsoons and floods

Usha shares one tap with 11 other households. Water only runs from 5:00am to 8:00am every morning.

She relies on just two buckets to drink, cook, shower and clean with.

If the tap runs dry, people borrow water or rely on government tankers. But even then, slum houses have no tank to fill and buying water is very expensive.

When the monsoon comes, water poses a different problem.

Many of Mumbai's urban poor don't have proper walls or roofs.

Jagdish's family lives under just a few strips of tin. During the rains, they use buckets to catch the drips.

"We take plastic sheets and put them on top of the roof," Shobhit said.

"Then when the monsoon is over, we remove them."

More dangerous are the floods. At an average of just 14 metres above sea level, Mumbai is highly vulnerable.

Last year, Heavy rains led to the collapse of three walls,

Slums are particularly vulnerable during the monsoon.

They evolve as shanty towns for migrants who, unable to afford accommodation, squat on whatever open land is available.

This land is typically low-value and often dangerously low-lying.

'Even the fish, they've kind of changed their route'

In low-lying slums, The resulting waterlogging has many complications.

The water stagnates easily, creating the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and therefore mosquito-borne disease.

There were in November 2019 than in the same month of 2018.

Because the monsoon continued late last year, mosquitoes were able to thrive for longer.

Aside from spreading disease, flooding also affects the city's transport, housing and infrastructure.

During Mumbai's rains last year, millions of homes were inundated with dirty water, trains and buses were stopped, and flights were cancelled.

Rising sea levels complicate things further. Sea water backs up into Mumbai's drainage system, making it difficult for flood water to drain.

Kalpesh, the son of a shopkeeper in a Colaba fishing village, has noticed the sea edging closer to his home.

His father, Ashok Jain, said the ocean itself had also become more dangerous, with far more storms in 2019 than in the years before.

This is hardly surprising given how rapidly our oceans have been warming — in fact,

Tropical storms increase in severity over warmer water.

Higher temperatures strengthen storms and generate heavier rainfall, making the sea incredibly dangerous for local fishermen.

Rising water temperatures lead to , and push fish to divert their normal migration routes

"Even the fish [themselves], they've kind of changed their route," Kalpesh said.

"[People] have said that they have reduced considerably… [this might] be due to the storms or some other reasons, but they're not here anymore."

The biggest factor is education

When asked about the solution to their immediate situations, most of those interviewed for this story said they needed employment. That way, they could lift themselves out of poverty.

There used to be plenty of factory and labour work in Mumbai but now the city is becoming ever more white collar.

Mumbai's population is also booming, as migrants flock to the city for work.

Because of these dynamics, there are fewer opportunities available for low-skilled workers and more job seekers to compete with.

The biggest factor is education.

"It's the money that's the biggest issue," said Rajan Yadav, a metal-worker with a shop right next to Usha.

"There are [private] schools, there are colleges, but we can't afford them."

Public schools are free in India but according to Usha's community, the standard of education they provide is low. Because of this, much of Mumbai's poorest are being left behind.

Even the most menial jobs require some level of education and there is always someone more qualified.

Driving for Uber, for example, requires the ability to read and to use a GPS. Many slum dwellers are illiterate.

There is other work — selling vegetables, cigarettes, papers — but the money you can earn in these jobs is minimal and there is no chance of promotion. Other jobs like construction work are hard to come by.

Enabling social mobility

Many slum dwellers feel that the state should be providing a solution.

"Either you create jobs for people who don't have education, or you give them education so that they can develop," Rajan said.

But currently, the only real state initiative that can be applied to Mumbai's urban poor is a resettlement program under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), a government entity that handles slum policy and redevelopment regulations in Mumbai.

Because slums begin as squatter settlements, land owners have a right to evict them.

But if they don't do so within a certain amount of time, the squatters gain certain rights to that land that mean that if they are evicted, they have to be rehoused.

The SRA, and a few NGOs under it, work to create financially viable situations for developers and slum dwellers alike.

"Families have been able to educate their children in better schools… because they have safe housing," said Yorick Fonseca, the director of the Slum Rehabilitation Society, one of the NGOs.

"A lot of [people's] children have grown up to become doctors and engineers…. that is the kind of social mobility that we've been able to enable."

But only those who are the original inhabitants of slum properties are required by law to be rehoused.

If she were evicted, Usha, who rents her home from a slum landlord, would have nowhere to go.

'Employment is not more likely here'

There are other complications.

For example, the transition from slums to apartments can be challenging.

Previous slum-dweller Neeta was told her family would be able to move to an apartment after one year.

Fifteen years later, they were still living in a temporary shack with worse conditions than in their original slum.

To add insult to injury, even though Neeta's family has now made it to their new apartment it may not be viable for families like theirs to stay.

They are concerned they will have to move back to the slums after a few years because they can't afford to pay for their utilities.

"The expenses increase but employment is not more likely here," they explain.

"Maybe next month we will not have electricity because we aren't able to pay for it."

'We can't really do anything'

Neeta's family could retreat to their home in the countryside, but the situation in rural areas is often worse than urban poverty.

Climate-related extremes have destroyed farms all over India.

Neeta's home in Gujarat has been bone-dry for decades.

Rajeed's village's crops failed because of a plague of insects that came in droves with last year's rains.

In the end, Mumbai's poorest are facing an inescapable situation.

The only resource they really have is one another.

Pradeep Mishra has lived in Mumbai's Dhobi Ghats all his life.

As the ocean rises, it is likely that the Ghats will be one of the first areas to be swallowed by the sea.

But when asked what he will do when his home inevitably sinks, Pradeep just shrugs and smiles.

"If nature has to do something, it will do it," he says. "We can't really do anything beyond [sticking together]."


© ABC 2020

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