After seeing Mumbai's slums bulldozed, he now works to save and restore them
Crews once bulldozed thousands of slum homes in Mumbai, a metropolitan region of about 16 million people in India. Santosh Thorat sees a better way: Help residents fix them up.
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Mumbai is India's city of dreams, attracting 500 new residents a day. As Indian urban centers like Mumbai swell, 70 percent of the newcomers probably won't be able to afford housing, says a report from the McKinsey Global Institute.Skip to next paragraph
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Thorat became a leader and caretaker of his 3,000-household slum, along with the organization Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (the Save the House, Build the House Movement). By January 2005, he was helping to reconstruct homes not only in his own community but around the city.
The growing intensity of housing protests has forced the state government to respond, says Amita Bhide, an urban expert at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who has researched the Mandala slum. The government's demolition drive has subsided significantly.
Thorat has emerged as an effective leader on the day-to-day problems caused by the displacement of slum residents in ways that outside groups have difficulty emulating, Dr. Bhide says.
Thorat experiences the precarious slum life daily, says Simpreet Singh, a fellow activist who isn't a slum dweller himself. He "knows the people better and lives what the people live," Mr. Singh says.
As his young son leans against him, doing homework in a thin notebook, Thorat quietly lists what he's helped bring to his slum: a computer center, a sewing center, a new school, and 350 ration cards for subsidized food.
"Nobody here is a leader as such," he says with a shrug when asked why he's the one who addresses the Sunday meetings of the slum residents. "But because I'd been in the police force earlier and have experience, people look up to me."
His advice to other rural villagers thinking of moving to Mumbai: Don't! He tried to move back to his family's village and open a bakery. But then he heard the demolition crew was returning – 350 dwellings came down in May in Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar – and he came back to protest.
He can't afford this life of day-to-day activism, Thorat says on a drizzly Sunday.
"I say every day that I will not go for the protests, I will go look for work," he says. "But I end up going, as people keep coming to me and asking me."
•Supriya Singh and Diwaspati Shekhar contributed to this report.
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