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Mumbai, India

She didn’t like her parents’ village. Geeta was just five years old when they took her there the first time. It was in Karnataka State, in Southern India. She spent the entire visit waiting to return to the city; there were always too many people in their village house: aunts and uncles, her grandmother, her cousins. It wasn’t like her house in the city. Geeta did not understand that what she called “her house in the city� was a
hut in the middle of the street: two pieces of cardboard and a sheet of black plastic for a roof; two cots and a few pots and pans. All the city houses she knew were just the same.

Fifty years ago, Mumbai had three million inhabitants. Now there are more than sixteen
million, six million of whom live in slums. More than one hundred thousand live in the
streets, in huts they put up in public spaces – on sidewalks, railroad tracks, trash dumps. They are the poorest of the poor. Geeta was one of them; she shared the hut with her father, her mother, her two younger sisters and her brother.

But don’t think that my parents didn’t work. They both worked. My mother cleaned houses and my father took children to school.

In a rickshaw?

No, on a bicycle. He could take two or three at a time on his bike. He had a lot of experience.

Many public schools don’t accept pavement dweller children. They don’t have official
addresses, so officially they don’t exist. The teachers say they don’t study; they don’t pay attention; they are dirty. But Geeta’s mother managed to enrol her in a private school; she knew a teacher who offered to pay for it.

Geeta’s memories of her childhood are not unhappy: she went to school, played in the
street, and every night she ate the leftovers that her mom brought from the houses she cleaned. Geeta and her family did not have a bathroom, electricity or running water. Every morning at 5:00, Geeta or her mother had to go to a neighbouring workshop where the workers let them take some water from the faucet. Her mother used to bring her family old clothes that her employers gave her: until she was fifteen, Geeta never wore a new t-shirt. But she liked studying, and often she’d read late into the night, by a candle or a streetlight.

Her life was fairly peaceful, but the menace of demolition always lurked. Every so often, the neighbours complained, and city authorities came and destroyed her hut and
the ones nearby. Geeta and her family would wait until the demolition workers had left and then build their house back up in the same place.

We would go back, but we were always threatened. That was not good. Some neighbours said that the pavement dwellers were dirty, that we were thieves. And anyone could walk up to us and insult us for no reason. We were just there, defenceless, in the street.

When she was ten, Geeta began to help her mother at work, though she kept going
to school. Things got worse when she was fourteen: her father got lung cancer and her
brother had kidney stones. Because of the conditions they live in, pavement dwellers are often sick and often short-lived.

Drugs and doctors were very expensive, and Geeta’s family fell into debt. Geeta had
to work in three houses to help pay off their debts, and she couldn’t go to school any

I had always thought that I was going to be a good student. But suddenly all of that was over, and I hardly realized it. All I cared about was buying medicine for my father and brother, and helping my mom. I stopped thinking about the future…

At that time, her mother got in touch with some women from Mahila Milan. Mahila Milan
–Women Together, in Hindi – had started working some years earlier, in 1986, when a
few young social workers decided that what they were doing was not nearly enough. They formed a partnership with a NGO called SPARC –Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres. They thought it was crucial for street women to have a space of their own, a setting in which to gather, discuss their problems and seek solutions – “area resource centres.�

Active citizenship encourages collective action, which can yield more effective and better-targeted public services

They encouraged the women on the streets to undertake new forms of political action. When 500 street women opposed eviction from their huts, the young social workers supported them and so Mahila Milan came into being.

Soon after, the women got ration cards. In India, slum dwellers have a right to statesubsidized food, but, until Mahila Milan, with SPARC’s help, started to demand this benefit, pavement dwellers never got it. This was their first victory. At about the same time, they got in touch with the people from the NSDF, the National Slum Dwellers Organisation, who gave them strength and new ideas.

One day, when Mahila Milan already had several hundred members, the women from
SPARC came up with another idea. One of the pioneers explained, years later:

They asked if each of us could save a rupee a day. Yes, we can, we answered. OK, then we can help you to organise a sort of mortgage bank so that you can build houses for yourselves. We all agreed. And this is how our savings and loans system began.

The savings system was organised gradually. Every day, the women saved what they could. One of them would visit the houses of some twenty or thirty to collect the money. Though many were illiterate, their bookkeeping was careful. This money was used for emergencies – a sickness, a death, a bail payment – or to make a small loan to one of the participants to start a business. And, when they could, they tried to
save bigger amounts – which they kept in a bank account – to build, some day, houses of their own. Sundar Berra from SPARC explains:

Savings are a tool for organisation and mobilisation. The aim was to empower the poor so that they could negotiate with institutions from a different standpoint. The poor should not beseech the government, be reduced to the “gimme, gimme� position. Collectively, they have to save, look for land and think up projects for housing.

Now the three organisations have been working together for many years: NSDF, the oldest, founded in the 1970s, organises and mobilizes the urban poor; Mahila Milan
administers and manages the community’s resources, and SPARC provides technical and
logistical support. Their Alliance works with more than 200,000 slum families.

Geeta met the women from Mahila Milan and SPARC when she was sixteen, through her
mother. They asked her if she wanted to work with them. She would have to collect savings and do some bookkeeping. Geeta was excited; she could help her community, earn a small salary – just over a twenty dollars a month– and give up cleaning houses.

What did you do with your free time?

I never had free time. When I finished working I had to look after my house, my sisters, and my sick father. I was always busy.

She would have liked to keep studying, especially dance. But she was never able to.

Five years ago, when she was twenty, Greeta and her family moved into a three-by-four-meter room in a chawl, a tenement where each family occupies a room with no bathroom nor kitchen. Geeta kept working at Mahila.

What is the advantage to the fact that Mahila Milan is a women-only group?

First, in my country, if men and women are in a group together, the men decide everything. But there is something else. Husbands would often hit their wives if they went out after dark. When they got together at Mahila, the women were able to leave their houses. At first the men resisted, but when they saw that their wives were able to solve certain problems or bring a demolition to a halt, they kept quiet. And they started to look at them differently: after all, they were the ones that got things done.

And they stopped beating them?

Well, not entirely, but they beat them less. Now, if a man beats his wife, the women from the committee go to their house and try to work things out, to convince the man not to do it anymore. And they are often successful.

A few months ago, Geeta was able to move into a place of her own: a twenty-square-meter room with a bathroom in one of the eighteen buildings that the Alliance is building in Mankhurd, on the outskirts of Mumbai. Almost two thousand families are living in the new neighbourhood.

We were around throughout the construction to make sure that they were doing a good job.

One of the women from Mahila says:

We learned in the process: if we were not around, they deceived us, using less cement or rubble instead of sand. But we kept a close watch. We didn’t want a house for just three years. We wanted a real house.

They got what they wanted, and they are pleased: having a house has changed their
lives. They feel different now:

On the street, no one respects you. Here, you have your own house, it’s yours and they have to respect you. Here, even if you don’t have a thing to eat, you have your own place in the world.

–says one of the women.

Another explains how drastically the life of her children has changed:

They are no longer ashamed, they can say where they live. And it’s going to be easier for them to find someone to marry. We all feel better, more confident.

Living in a house also improves access to health and education, so the children of these
women are likely to get better jobs. But they also face new problems:

The street was so noisy that you could not hear the noise the kids made. Since we moved here, they seem to be shouting all the time.

And some more serious ones: they have new obligations – maintaining the building, paying the electricity bill, taking out the trash, looking after safety – and new complications: many of these men and women work downtown, as food vendors, recyclers, labourers, maids. Now, they live faraway and have a long commute; in some cases, they have lost their source of income. But they do not give up.

Neither did Geeta. She is still working at Mahila, where she is in charge of the bookkeeping for many groups, earning almost US$70 a month. But she still doesn’t have any time for herself. She has to take care of her mother, her unmarried sister – who is studying – and her younger brother. Her father died a few years ago and her other sister got married, which was a relief:

Was it hard to get the dowry together?

No, because it was a love match, not an arranged marriage. We only had to give a chain and some gold earrings.

When she has a little free time, Geeta goes to the movies with her friends or has a picnic at a temple.

And you don’t want a boyfriend?

No, I have never been interested in that, have never had time. I have had candidates, but I am not interested. Besides, my girlfriends tell me that having a boyfriend can be a headache.


You have to have time to see him, you have to listen to him, to go where he tells you to. It’s a waste of time. If I want to get married one day, I’ll ask my family to choose a suitable boy and arrange the wedding. And if not, I’ll stay single.

Geeta has a sweet look in her eye, shining white teeth and gnarled feet. She does not wear any jewellery and her red and black sari is faded.

I can earn and eat, and marriage is not the only purpose of life. Besides, I don’t want to have dreams of happiness: if they didn’t come true, I wouldn’t be able to stand it.