Swaminathan Aiyar is insensitive – Ravi Shanker Kapoor

Slums Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar

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Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is considered a champion of open economy, which—as a natural corollary—also implies great concern for respect for individual liberty. And since liberty is inextricably linked with individual self-esteem and the rule of law, one expects Aiyar to promote these concepts. He has, however, done quite the opposite in a recent article with self-explanatory title, ‘Slums are hubs of hope, progress and dignity’ (The Times Of India, March 31).

“Yes, slums are dirty, but they are also entrepreneurial hubs where India’s poor are climbing up the ladder of opportunity and income,” he wrote. “The census report shows that 16.7% of slum households are factories, shops and offices. These are humming commercial centres, not dead-ends.”

He derives a specious conclusion: “filthy slums” are the “entry-points of the poor into the land of urban opportunity. See them as havens of dignity for dalits and shudras. See them as hubs of rising income and asset ownership, which have already generated several rupee millionaires.”He goes on to show how conditions in slums are better than those in villages: “No less than 70% of slum households have TVs, against only 47% of total Indian households. The ratio is just 14.5% in Bihar and 33.2% in UP. Even Narendra Modi’s shining Gujarat (51.2%) and Pawar’s Maharashtra (58.8%) have a far lower rate of TV ownership than our slums!”

That somebody should see squalid habitats as the havens of dignity for the poor is not just in bad taste; it also smacks of egregious insensitivity. In slums, men and women live like cattle, bereft of the basic civic amenities. Privacy is practically non-existent. There is scarcely any plumbing; toilets are either very dirty or in the open. The smell of garbage and excreta is all-pervading. Children have no place to play; many of them are forced to earn a livelihood; a large number of them are abused.

It is a tribute to the fortitude and enterprise of slum-dwellers that many of them become rupee millionaires. But this is in spite of living in slums, not because these dwellings are entrepreneurial hubs. Slums numb human sensibilities, degrade all feelings, and create an ecosystem in which all but animal instincts are meaningless. The denizens can’t breathe comfortably, drink good water, feel the luxuriance of earth, and experience the limitlessness of the sky. In such localities, the elements get polluted with the toxicity, trash, and prejudice of the society. Slum-dwellers float in this noxious matrix. Most of them rot in it.

Yet, for Aiyar, slums are hubs of hope, progress, and dignity! Such hallucinations are occasioned by two factors: wallowing in the mud of fashionable claptrap; and maintaining a safe distance from the ground realities. The claptrap is a blend of Gandhian sentimentalism (of glorifying poverty and the poor) and defeatism (since the situation is not going to improve, why not find some merit in it: if rape is inevitable, why not enjoy it as well?). At the same time, sufficiently remote and high ivory towers provide a good vantage point to the intellectuals like Aiyar to comment glibly on the hellholes where the poorest live. At any rate, the Aiyars and their children don’t have to live in slums.

Apart from making loose remarks about the misery of the most unfortunate citizens, Aiyar also condoned the undermining of the rule of law. “The poor can enter cities only through existing or new shanty-towns,” he wrote. “This is illegal, yet fully accepted by politicians as a legitimate form of entry. So, shanty-towns are frequently regularized before election time.”

Politicians don’t raze slums, he adds. “Rather, they are improved through supplies of water and electricity. Many slums simply steal electricity, with the tacit backing of politicians plus bribes to linesmen.”

Notice how casually he mentions bribing. Also notice how approvingly he talks about the symbiotic relationship between politicians and slum-dwellers. What he overlooks, or chooses to overlook, is the fact that eventually these people are reduced as just votes; the concomitant evils like slumlords and vote banks come into being. Intermittently harassed by the police and the local authorities, slum-dwellers often become the chattel of touts, slumlords, and politicians.

In short, slum-dwellers live in subhuman conditions and perennial fear of the administrations and cops; their self-esteem gets eroded; administrative processes are vitiated; and the rule of law is undermined. But Aiyar says that “we need more slums, more hubs of opportunity. The urban gentry want to demolish slums, but they are plain wrong. Instead we should improve slum sanitation, water supply and garbage disposal. We need more improved slums, upgraded slums, but slums nevertheless.”

Of course, he doesn’t mention how sanitation, water supply, and garbage disposal in slums can be improved when their very existence is predicated on administrative failure, invidious politicking, and law-breaking. It will be like a man trying to lift himself from the ground. It is practically impossible. Theoretically, it is surely possible though, as Aiyar has shown: intellectuals like him can levitate themselves to the rarefied realms of phony philanthropy and preach measures which are patently un-implementable.

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