Living a Dignified Life

What is a dignified life? Is it just the access to basic necessities/tangible benefits that each resident of this nation must receive or is it more than that? This question has been pondering my brain ever since my visit to Jasola, theoretically an urban village but in actuality, a semi-slum.

These urban villages come under the umbrella of “Lal Dora” a term developed in 1911; these were exempted from the urban laws and regulations. They were also left out of the two previous Delhi Masterplans of 1962 and 2001. In addition to that, the land owners in these urban villages were given a free ride to construct buildings (in reality low cost poorly constructed dwellings) without requiring any permission from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Resulting in an unhindered and unplanned growth of an area, which has for decades now, been providing low grade, low cost housing to the impoverished population of our national capital.

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The lack of any checks has forced the people of Jasola to live in an area surrounded by open sewers with flies swarming right above the sewers and across Jasola. During the rains, these sewers end up flooding the streets and on some occasions the dwellings adjacent to the sewers. In order to prevent the flooding, the JAL board stops the water. Though this stops the flooding it results in the sewer getting clogged with fecal matter. Needless to state that the people are subjected to serious health conditions.

They lack access to government supplied drinking water and are completely dependent on locally supplied canned drinking water, price of which ranges from Rs 15-Rs30/per 10litre can. The toilets are either in abysmal condition or there are no toilets, forcing people to practice open defecation. Where there are toilets, they are common to all the residents of the dwelling, that is, close to 40-50 people share one toilet.

A vast majority of people occupying these dwellings are tenants, whose primary occupation is in the informal sector. It is not that they do not realize the importance of access to drinking water or proper sanitation or the negative effects of open defecation, their situation has more to do with their inability to lodge a complaint without any duress.

Here I would like to retrace a bit to address the question of-- what is a dignified life? —people occupying these dwellings not only lack access to the above stated necessities but also the agency to protest without any duress. A dignified life must not be just limited to access to the necessities that are essential for an individual’s survival but must also include the right to voice your discontent/dissent/dissatisfaction and the right to be taken seriously when such a discontent is voiced without any duress.

The people in Jasola and most likely in other such unplanned urban villages/impoverished regions are primarily dominated by impoverished tenants as mentioned above and thus their primary source of grievance redressal is their landlord, who may or may not redress their grievances or might even threaten them with eviction. Considering their abysmal economic conditions, the people choose to live in the same despicable conditions than picking a fight with their landlord.

An interesting fact of the area, is that Jasola is bordered by a palatial bungalow, high end flats for doctors working in the nearby Apollo hospital and DDA flats all of which have a proper sanitation system, availability to drinking water and they do not have to share their toilets with 50 individuals.

The government at the time of every election cycle promises to provide drinking water to the residents but has consistently failed to do so, to its credit the pipes for providing water have been laid, just that the officials fail to understand that empty pipes do not supply water. Hopefully, by the next election cycle this realization might dawn upon the government and until then the lowest rung of an urban society pushed to live in the periphery would have to survive paying exorbitant prices for drinking water cans, repeatedly spending on medical care as a result of the despicable sanitary conditions (another factor overlooked by the government).

Venkatraman Shekar