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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.