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Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

Rob with Housing leader and Anthony Prashant

Connecting with alliances in India by Robert Robinson

Mumbai India  – As a community activist and organizer, I have had the opportunity to travel around the world meeting with members of communities struggling against, displacement due to mega projects, gentrification based evictions and a lack of access to water and adequate sanitation. One such trip happened in late November and early December of 2016 and will be forever etched in my memory.

I was invited to India to attend the wedding of a recent graduate of the Master’s Program in Design and Urban Ecologies at New School in New York City where I am based. Masoom Moitra (the student) and Umesh Mangipudi’s wedding took place in Mumbai and had all the pomp and circumstance of a Bengali wedding and happened of over several days as is Bengali custom.

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

A Leader in the Moosa Nagar Slum

After spending my first week in Mumbai with couple and their families, I traveled to Hyderabad in the south of India to meet with a long time movement comrade Varghese Theckanath and the Montfort Social Institute . Varghese and I work together as members of the International Alliance of Inhabitants  a global network of grassroots organizations and locally based social movements, committed to defend the right to housing and to the city without frontiers. On successive days the Montfort Social Institute hosted a domestic workers meeting and a housing meeting. I was inspired by both groups and their abilities to organize in multiple cities and come to consensus on a list of demands. There wasn’t much difference between the struggles of domestic workers in Hyderabad and domestic workers in the US. In fact the group was inspired by Domestic Workers United-New York City and their struggle for a Bill of Rights. Later that evening we visited two slums/Informal settlements called Moosa Nagar and Kamal Nagar. Residents of the settlements vary from singles to families. Varghese spent over 10 years living an organizing in the Moosa slum. We were met upon arrival by a catholic worker named Brother Inna Bala who took us on a tour of the two slums. Brother Inna is a protege of Varghese and his commitment to the people and the education of the children in the slum was quite evident. Much like the residents of Brazil's favelas and the Shack-dwellers of South Africa the residents of these two communities constructed homes for their families through sheer self-determination and ingenuity. However, as I toured the two slums it was evident folks there are lacking in adequate health care, access to clean drinking water and sanitation and other necessities of life. The two settlements exist under a highway overpass and have very little protection from the rain. However, there is a huge sense of community as children run around playing games, laughing and getting into mischief. Adults sit in corners sharing a laugh or some libations. I found both communities struggling to survive but making the best of a bad situation.

Day two  at the Montfort Social Institute started at 3:00pm with housing activists, community organizers and members of grassroots organizations starting to arrive for a housing conference. We started a bit late (4pm) but we had about 40 people in the room. A round of introductions and then Varghese introduced me as a comrade from International Alliance of Inhabitants and a founder of the national US housing movement; Take Back the Land. What ensued was a very lively conversation around a contextual analysis of the US in the current moment with Trump being elected president. I discussed some of the housing struggles in the US over the last twenty years. There were plenty of questions and the group was fully engaged. Varghese closed out the meeting by challenging the people in the room to think about some of the strategies and tactics that could be borrowed from the US and implemented in Hyderabad.

After dinner Varghese took me to a men's homeless shelter which you may have guessed was both emotional and inspiring during my time there. The group consisted of well-educated men and some without much education. However a majority of the men were employed but could not afford housing on their earnings. The staff of the shelter, one of which was formally homeless, connects the men to entitlements and services that will eventually lead to their independent living. I had the opportunity to share my personal story of being homeless and at the same time offer a message of hope for the men and a promise to bring their story of struggle to anyone that would listen. It was the toughest visit I've made so far but a situation that was easy to relate to.

I traveled back to Mumbai on Thursday morning.  Dharavi is a locality in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. Dharavi houses one of the largest slums in the world. It is where an organization called PROUD (People's Responsible Organisation of United Dharavi) resides. Anthony Prashant a leader of PROUD for over 30 years and a member of International Alliance of Inhabitants  was my host for two days. Like Varghese, I first met Anthony at gathering of IAI in Medellin Colombia 2014.

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

A Rooftop View of Dharavi Slum

The Dharavi slum was founded in 1882 during the British colonial era. The slum grew in part because of an explosion of factories and residents from the peninsular city center by the colonial government and from rural poor migrating into urban Mumbai (then called Bombay). It is currently a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, diverse settlement. Estimates of Dharavi's total population vary between 700,000 to about 1 million.

Dharavi has an active informal economy in which numerous household enterprises employ many of the slum residents. It exports goods around the world. Leather, textiles and pottery products are among the goods made inside Dharavi by the slum residents. The total annual turnover has been estimated at over US $1 billion. Dharavi has suffered from many disasters over the years. It currently covers an area of 217 hectares (535 acres). 

We met in the PROUD office with Anthony and several PROUD members young and old, male and female. The office is a single room in one of the slums with a bulletin board and several chairs. I shared my personal story of how I came into organizing after a stint of homelessness and time in a shelter. The members appreciated my openness and willingness to share not only my story but the struggles of movements around the world. They were fascinated to know the struggles they are facing are not exclusive to Dharavi but there are similar struggles in the US and elsewhere. We talked for three hours and the members had great questions and wanted to know how they could learn more about work in the US like Take Back the Land and other housing struggles. We ended a great conversation committing to stay in contact with one another.

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

Social Housing in Dharavi.

On Friday, my final day in Dharavi, Anthony took me to see social housing and recycling. The government of India has put together a scheme (program) that will allow folks who can document their time in the slums to move into an apartment free of charge. The cutoff is the year 2000. It was 1995 but advocates negotiated with the government to allow more people access and the cutoff date were eventually changed. It should be noted that while it is a good thing folks will move into apartments they are rather small. The apartments are less than 300 square feet. While the space allotted is below the standard of most countries around the world, people are accustomed to these conditions in India.

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

Recylers at Work in Dharavi

India as a country leads the world in recycling. Just like canners here in the US, many people in India make their living recycling. They recycle everything.  Metal, cloth, plastic, glass and other materials are recycled. I was surprised at the awareness of the recyclers with respect to what these things are doing to the earth. They feel recycling is a must!! Our intense conversation took place in the flat of a long time recycling leader. The recyclers are negotiating with the government to get land to build a recycling plant. We had dinner together and I thanked everyone for two informative days in Dharavi.

As my visit to India was coming to a close I was hosted on the final weekend by Girija Gupte a professor of Sociology at the University of Mumbai. I first met Girija in my role as board member of the Left Forum  in New York City. Girja participated in a panel organized by Mary Taylor and myself on Global Solidarity at LF 2015. She also has a relationship with Malav Kanuga a PhD student at the City University of New York Graduate Center who hails from India. Girija was no less accommodating than any of the folks I had met on my journey. In fact she made her small tidy apartment mine. Making sure I was comfortable and feeding me like an auntie I hadn't seen in some time. One will never go hungry if you are befriended by Girija.  She set up an incredible program for human rights day Saturday Dec 10th and followed that by organizing another incredible tour for Sunday Dec 11th .

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

A View of Buisness Area in Bandra Slum

The incredible two days began with a visit to Bandra Mumbai and the Committee on The Right to Housing (CRH). Upon our arrival in Bandra we were met by Kalpana and Tai who took us on a tour of the slums/informal settlements of Bandra. There we met a variety of residents including owners of businesses in the self-contained community including, barbers, tailors and pottery makers. They all welcomed us showed off their work and thank us for stopping by.

Then it was off to the office of CRH where we met with the women leaders. They listened intently as I gave a contextual analysis of housing struggles in the US and connected those struggles to India and other countries around the world. The women had many questions about the work of Take Back the Land an seemed overly inspired by the message of self- determination I tried to deliver and they were fascinated by the possibility of occupying vacant buildings. They asked great questions and wondered how we could stay connected. In fact one of the women was so inspired she asked "where are you staying? I'm so inspired by your message, I would like to cook and deliver an Indian meal to you."  Thank you to Girija Gupte and the staff of Committee on the Right too Housing, including Shweta, Tai and Kalpana. My list of people I will never forget is rapidly expanding.

Sunday December 11th marked the second day of an incredible two day program put together by Girija the sociology professor. She connected me to a political science graduate named Bilal Khan who is passionate about the struggles of a community called 'Ambujwadi', Mumbai. We all had breakfast and introductions at Girija's place before Bilal and I left for the visit to Bhabrekar Nagar. One the way to Bhabrekar, Bilal and I had a lively discussion during the taxi ride. It was obvious to me that this young man was passionate about changing the lives of the Indian people for the better. A believer in human rights he picked my brains for organizing strategies and wanted to know more about the work of Take Back the Land.

Like most of the slums/informal settlements I visited, 'Ambujwadi' was overcrowded, lacked proper sanitation/sewage and there wasn't potable water available until some of the community exercised self-determination and constructed a water filtration system. It was our first stop in the community. We were greeted by a group of residents Mushtarif Firdous, Shagufta Mohammed Javed, Fatima Shaikkh, Jamil Akhtar, Shaik Farheen, Mohammed Javed Shaikh and Alam Ansari at the filtration system. The group explained the purpose and the reason the system was installed by the people. Make no mistake about it, the women run the water filtration system and look after its resources on a daily basis. After several glasses of water shared with the group and several photos we moved on.

Building solidarity across borders, connecting alliance in India

Entering Bhabrekar Nagar Slum

We walked to the office of the organizing group in Bhabrekarnagr and had a great conversation with many residents about the struggles to get re-habitation. They were at one time residents of Ambujwadi and there are more than one thousand families fighting for re-habitation in Bhabrekar and about five hundred families since 2005. The question that comes to mind is; will this community become divided in its struggle-- since the government's scheme (program) for re-habitation has a cutoff at the year 2000? On to a meal of rice and lentils and the normal demand of the Indian people that I eat and enjoy and then eat some more!  A delightful community!  And I enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share with everyone.

We had to leave in a hurry for a meeting in the home of a Professor Uday Mehta a Marxist-- and yes, we hit it off well. The group of activists and organizers shared a contextual analysis of the US and India and discussed the many ways people are struggling against a system that works against us. I discussed the struggles of social movements in Brazil and Africa and explained why—now-- is the time for global solidarity. Social movements must come together and build power! As with the endings to other meetings we all promised to stay connected.

Monday Dec 12th. My final day in Mumbai and India

Sheela Patel is the founding director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, (SPARC) which she organised in Mumbai in 1984 as an advocacy group for the pavement dwellers of Mumbai. I was connected to Sheela and SPARC through another student from the New School named Shibani Jadhav. In fact Shibani's thesis was on resettlement projects in Mumbai and she collaborated with SPARC to produce an excellent thesis. Staffers, Aseena, Monali and Maria also attended the attended the meeting and shared an incredible analysis of slum dwellers not only in India but of similar struggles around the world. SPARC is a member of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan. We had a general conversation about the challenges SPARC's faces such as organizing and advocating without agitating. While they realize the cutoff year of 2000 for re-habitation doesn't serve the biggest need SPARC has made some big strides with respect to housing and sanitation and have been recognized and respected by the government. Sheela and I discovered we are connected by so many social movements around the world we know we have to stay in touch. As is custom in India they shared lunch and more casual conversation. This was a great ending to my discovery tour in India.


Robert Robinson is the coordinator of USA Canada Alliance of Inhabitants a sister group to International Alliance of Inhabitants; a founder member of the National Take Back the Land Movement in the United States and a Staff Volunteer/ Community Organizer with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. (NESRI)


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