Many years ago, in December 2004, when demolitions of slums by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was at its peak, slum dweller Santosh Thorat was reborn as an activist. As one of those whose own home, the one he had built with his own hands, was demolished, Thorat understood the plight of people who fell victim to the BMC’s slum-free drive. After he had picked up the pieces of his life and relocated his family of seven to a makeshift roadside tent—where the December cold was their constant companion—Thorat returned to the demolition site.
There, he helped other people collect their belongings and set up tents close to that of his family. Later that day, Thorat told himself that instead of demolishing homes of the poor, the civic body could give the funds earmarked for demolition to the poor—to restore, maintain and upgrade their homes. Speaking to Outlook in his small house n the Annabhau Sathe Nagar slums in Mankhurd, Thorat discussed his idea of slum rehabilitation. “It is not about throwing people out of one place to another. The poor too need the stability of a pucca (concrete) home,” says Thorat. “Their whole idea of razing slums was to make the city clean and slum-free. To do this, they were pushing the poor on to the roads and creating slums elsewhere. Demolition is not cheap. It costs a lot of money. So, I thought this money could be used for upgrading the homes of the poor instead of razing them,” says Thorat.
Today, the dwellers of the over 4,000-household-strong slums in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs of Mankhurd and Shivaji Nagar look up to Thorat as their leader. “There is no one here to be a leader, so they have made me that. I am involved with their daily problems of displacement and help them cope with other everyday problems of life,” he says.
Like his father—who migrated to Mankhurd from Ghetuli village in Maharashtra’s Jalna district— Thorat is a rebel. They belong to the Pothras community (a Dalit caste), where male members grow dreadlocks and give themselves lashings with thickly coiled rope whips to ward off bad luck of others, against a fee. Thorat’s father quit this profession and came to Mumbai over four decades ago, with his family in tow. He cut off his dreadlocks and made others do the same. They settled in Mankhurd, which has, over the years, become an important settlement for migrants from across Maharashtra. Dalits and Muslims dominate the slums of Mankhurd and Shivaji Nagar, which is close to the Deonar dumping ground and the highly-polluted Mahul area.
Thorat has worked at numerous construction sites as a security guard in the past. He has also worked at sites where the BMC would undertake demolition drives. “I would see the suffering of people who lost their homes after they were razed by bulldozers. I stopped working there and decided to help the victims of demolitions instead,” says Thorat. He joined the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao movement of social activist Medha Patkar and became the unofficial caretaker for his slum colony.
Today, Thorat has brought to his colony, centres for learning computers and sewing, processing ration, voter and Aadhaar cards, as well as new schools. At his Sunday meetings in various pockets, Thorat tells residents the importance of having legal documents. He tells them all about the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, a scheme which was launched in 2011 by the central government to provide quality living facilities and affordable housing to slum dwellers. This scheme also aims to increase employability and incomes of slum dwellers through skill development, and improve hygiene in and around the slums. “Knowledge empowers people. They have improved their living conditions through awareness,” he said. “Due to illiteracy, they are taken advantage of by real estate developers and goons. I help them get ration cards, Aadhaar cards and voter cards.” About 80 per cent of the migrants who live in the Mankhurd-Shivaji Nagar slums cannot afford pucca housing.
The 52-year-old interacts with at least 500 people every day. Though he has on numerous occasions thought of giving up his activism and return to his village to settle down there, he has not been able to shake the dust of Annabhau Sathe Nagar from his shoes. “I keep getting pulled into it by people’s calls of distress. When a demolition takes place, I reach there and help them save as much of their belongings as they can, and then rebuild their homes elsewhere. Even if slum dwellers are paying tax and have all legal documents of ownership, their houses get demolished. There is no logic for demolishing homes of the poor,” says Thorat.
Illiteracy is very high in his neighbourhood. Though a number of NGOs work in the area, education is still not high on their priority list. And when every member of the family—including children—step out to earn an income to put food on their tables, illiteracy wins every time. However, Thorat admits he has been able to change the mindset in a small percentage of the people, and managed to get some parents to enrol their children in BMC schools.
Though Thorat is modest about his work, the respect he is accorded by his neighbourhood tells the tale of a crusader who continues to make a difference in the lives of slum dwellers of Mankhurd.
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