The most well-known face associated with the cause of the urban poor, Shabana Azmi has for years worked for the rights of slum dwellers in our cities. The chairperson of Nivara Hakk, an NGO which works with slum dwellers, the pre-eminent actor and former Rajya Sabha MP delivers a scathing indictment of the government’s shortsighted policies, which deprive millions of basic amenities. Currently on tour in the US for the play Broken Images, Azmi speaks to Lounge, on email, about the plight of the urban poor and the responsibility society shares for their well being. Edited excerpts:

The provisional figures of the current census say that 62% of Mumbai lives in slums. With such a large part of the population of India’s financial capital in slums, who should address their problems?

Homecoming: Slum dwellers have been resettled in Sangharsh Nagar Colony, Powai. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Civic amenities, education, livelihood, consciousness of their rights—what is the most pressing concern for slum dwellers and why?

All of the above. A slum is a slum not only because it is not made of brick and mortar, but because of the lack of civic amenities. The government refuses to provide water, electricity, sanitation, claiming that slums are illegal. Unless the government has a bank of land that it can give at subsidized rates to the economically weaker sections, the cycle of illegality will be perpetuated. Slum dwellers cannot afford to buy land at market rates. They end up paying more for water and for per unit of electricity than you and I do, except it goes to the slumlord who provides them temporary protection. It is a huge financial resource that should go to the government, but for short-sighted policies this does not happen. People come to the city in search of livelihood and try to stay close to their place of work because the public transport system is so poor. Education is important because it helps in finding jobs and demanding rights. We need to provide employment in rural India, where 70% of the population lives, so people do not have to migrate to cities in search of livelihood. Developing satellite townships, turning district headquarters into cities, developing rapid transport systems is the way forward.

The shifting of so many slum dwellers in Delhi/Gurgaon ahead of the Commonwealth Games didn’t lead to many protests. Was such a large-scale temporary resettlement fair?

The tragedy is that it will not be a temporary arrangement. They will find it almost impossible to get back because the poor do not matter; the root of the problem is not that slums are visible, the problem is that slums exist. When we talk of a beautiful city, is it just cosmetic beauty we are talking about? Should it not be about providing decent conditions of living for all the citizens of the city? We need to stop demolitions and upgrade slums rather than push them into the back of beyond where there are no job opportunities.

Are there any specific areas you are personally involved with?

Nivara Hakk, the NGO I have been working with for the last 25 years, has resettled 40,000 slum dwellers who were living in the National Park (the Sanjay Gandhi national park at Borivali) free of cost in a tripartite agreement between the government of Maharashtra, a private builder, Sumer Corporation, and us. It was a very long and laborious process. Struggle is a very important part of housing rights. My colleagues Gurbir Singh, P.K. Das and (late) Anna Kurien have faced bulldozers, brutal lathicharges leading to hospitalization, have spent nights in police custody for the Chandivli Project to give the slum dwellers their rights. But that seems to be the least of our woes. The biggest challenge is in forming a federation of sorts to ward off vested interests so that the communities can take charge of their lives—To ensure that this township (when completed there will be 80,000 people—it’s a virtual township) does not deteriorate into a slum once again; that the open spaces essential for living are not encroached upon by slumlords. We have a huge school that was built by the community giving up their balwadis. A politician is trying to take it over. We want it to be handed over to the municipal corporation that is willing to do so but political clout is depriving our children from getting decent education. The building has been lying empty for over two years. What a travesty for a government that claims it is serious about “education for all!" We are going to start a series of dharnas and protests. It is an ongoing struggle.

Over the years that you have been involved with trying to address the problems of slum dwellers, do you see any difference in their attitude—are they more vocal or conscious of their rights?

Yes, absolutely. Nivara Hakk’s principle is to empower the slum dwellers we work with. Whether we meet the chief minister or the municipal commissioner, they accompany us so that they learn that they have the right to have access to the highest authorities. But transformation is a very slow process and there is a long way to go.

Write to