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.

Taylor Barnes
Santosh Thorat holds his child in a Mumbai slum. He was hired by police to keep protesters away from demolition bulldozers – then discovered to his horror that his own neighborhood was to be torn down next. Today he advocates using demolition funds to improve the lot of slum dwellers.

Santosh Thorat, a young father of five, had picked up an extra day's work. He left the two-story home in the east Mumbai slum of Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar, the home that he'd built himself and shared with about 17 others. They were all the children and grandchildren of his dalit (untouchable) caste father, whose job had been to serve his village by whipping himself when bad luck came upon them.

A bulldozing crew had recruited Mr. Thorat as a temporary security guard to quell protesters in Mandala, a slum within walking distance of his own. It would be his first time working on a demolition.

"That day when I went to work, I thought, 'I don't want to do this,' " the small, scratchy-voiced Thorat says. He watched a crying mother who had returned from the store to find her home flattened.

"Even though I was working with the police, I wasn't really with them at heart ... because I also live in the slums," he says.

The next day's assignment was to bulldoze his own neighborhood. Don't flatten my house, Thorat pleaded with his bosses, who knocked down other parts of the slum for two days. On the third day, they told Thorat to take some time off. They demolished his house. By the fourth day, his family was living in a tent.

That was during the peak of Mumbai's demolition drive, December 2004, when an estimated 85,000 dwellings were bulldozed in a matter of months. Activists estimate that 300,000 people were left homeless.

Like his father, who had moved to the city from a village about 300 miles away to find construction work and garbage-picking jobs, Thorat had pieced together odd jobs in the building trades and as a temporary guard for the police to support his family in Mumbai (also called Bombay).

And like his father, who rebelled and cut the long dreadlocks his caste was expected to wear – leading other untouchables to cut theirs, too – Thorat decided that day to turn to protest. His idea was simple: What if the funds used to bring down slums were put toward developing them instead?

"If all they want is to make Mumbai slum free and neat and tidy, and they think that Mumbai looks dirty with the slums around, then instead of spending money on demolishing they should have given them money for restoration and for the upkeeping of the houses," says Thorat through a translator as we sit in a room on the wobbly second story of the dim home he rebuilt within a year of its demolition.

That's now largely the plan being pushed by the government of India, a nationwide project called Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, introduced last year. It aims to make India slum free in five years – not through demolition, but through the construction of affordable housing and upgrading of current settlements.

An estimated 60 percent of the residents of Mumbai, whose metropolitan population is estimated at 16 million, live in slums.

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.

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.

Related story: Planting saplings in tree-starved Mumbai

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