Routinely denied basic rights and privileges that are their due, the marginalised and the downtrodden approach government officials for redress, and even stage protests to turn the spotlight on their problems. The path is long and hard, and too often they are met with apathy. Yet, their spirit is such that their determination only grows with time
“We have been sitting here through the day and night for the last few weeks in protest against the fact that our children have been refused admission in the private schools close to our homes,” says Sumitra. When Sumitra and the other protestors tell school officials that the denial of admission to their children and grandchildren is in violation of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009, they reply that underprivileged children cannot be accommodated because the government does not compensate them monetarily, as per the rules, in a timely manner.
Sumitra’s daughter is currently struggling with the expenses of educating her two children at a private school outside of the RTE Act, because, like many others, she is dissatisfied with the quality of teaching and the infrastructure provided at government schools.
Gayatri, a roadside vendor in her sixties, says that at times, underprivileged children from families such as hers are given admission in private schools and their fees waived under the RTE Act. However, they have to pay for their expensive uniforms, books and other accessories, and the children are ostracised and humiliated. The low-income group parents say they can consider paying at least a part of the fees at the private schools if the amounts are reduced, and are totally opposed to privatisation of school education. They have been trying in vain to meet senior officials of the Directorate of School Education to apprise them of these issues.
The education of her grandchildren is not the only issue Sumitra has to contend with. In her late forties, she has to care for her husband, whose liver has been badly damaged by alcoholism. The family lives in Peenya, an industrial hub in North Bengaluru, and the services and staff at the primary health centre close to their home are unsatisfactory. This means that Sumitra has to take her husband to a private nursing home for treatment.
Sumitra works in a garment manufacturing unit, toiling long hours in a poorly lit, badly ventilated room for low wages. She has developed chronic backache because of the appalling working conditions she has had to put up with for over a decade. She is also responsible for Devi, a woman in her late twenties, and her two young children, who live with her because Devi is unable to cope with the physical abuse her husband metes out to her. The pile-up of challenges only makes Sumitra more determined to highlight and question the denial of basic entitlements to people like her.
Mary and Nirmala, both domestic workers living in Byappanahalli in East Bangalore, face different issues. “Most of the few hundred families here have single room houses that were constructed with subsidies from the government,” they say. “However, we have no documents to prove that we own these houses.” They have not succeeded in getting the papers in spite of approaching the authorities concerned. “The risk of being thrown out of our homes without prior notice is increased by the lack of house ownership documents,” says Afreen, another woman from the area. They faced the threat of eviction when the Bengaluru Railway (Namma Metro) line and station were being constructed a couple of years ago, but managed to stall it.
Narsamma, an elderly, unlettered Dalit woman is an agricultural labourer from a remote village in Anekal Taluk in Bengaluru Urban district. She lost her husband and older son to ailments which could not be treated as the local government hospital did not have either the requisite facilities or competent doctors. The family could not afford private hospitals, which were in any case hard to access because of poor roads and minimal connectivity by public transport.
“At present, my younger son who is in his early twenties is unable to work on a regular basis as he met with an accident. Hence, I am forced to work at least some days a week for less than Rs 200 in spite of suffering from severe backache,” Narsamma laments. Narasamma has a plot of ancestral land, which has been unlawfully occupied by a person from a dominant caste.
After having sat in protest in front of the tehsildar’s (executive magistrate of a tehsil or administrative unit) office, she has been told that a title deed for the nearly two acre plot is being drafted. “I hope that when I am able to take possession of the land, my son and I can grow ragi on it and earn a livelihood,” says Narsamma, whose determination seems to have grown with time.
In a different sector of the city, another battle is being grimly fought. Lissy (name changed) who is around 50 years of age, lives with her son beneath a tarpaulin sheet on the footpath of the main thoroughfare in Ejipura, a locality in Bangalore. They are part of the nearly 5000 socio-economically disadvantaged persons whose houses were demolished in January 2013.
The homes, referred to as economically weaker section (EWS) quarters and provided by the government, were demolished under the pretext of allotting the residents better houses at Sarjapura (in south Bengaluru), and 22 families set up temporary homes on the footpath. However, four years, a Karnataka High Court order and multiple campaigns by the displaced persons and human rights activists later, the promised houses are yet to materialise.
“Apart from the dust and heat, we are susceptible to dengue and stomach, skin, respiratory and eye ailments because mosquitoes, rats and cockroaches are plenty in number,” says Lissy. “During the rainy season, the water seeps into our fragile shelters and the cold wind adds to our misery. If we raise our voices against these problems, we face threats from local ruffians, but silence is not an option.”
Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a committed community health practitioner in Bengaluru who has been assisting the Ejipura evictees in various ways, is among those who have been pressuring the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) health department to fumigate the area, clean the sewage and remove the construction materials lying near the footpath.
Investigations by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Karnataka, and the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), Delhi, show that the land in question was acquired by Maverick Holdings and Investments (where the son of a former director-general of Police of Karnataka is the managing director/ chief executive officer) with the stated intention of revamping the EWS quarters.
The means of acquisition have been questioned, and collusion of local elected representatives of the people alleged. That aside, the focus now seems to be on constructing commercial buildings at Ejipura, not on providing a solid roof over the heads of the families who have only a frail tarpaulin sheet between themselves and the elements.