Sanjay Colony, Delhi

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Sanjay Colony from the train station

I’m actually enjoying Covid lockdown. I have the best of both worlds; I’m still going out to work three days a week, and the other days, since I can’t really go anywhere I’ve established a vegetable garden, resurrected my much-loved fruit-bread recipe, and started playing the piano again. I’m extremely fortunate.

But I have been thinking of the people of Sanjay Colony slum in Delhi. I toured the slum back in January this year. It sounds voyeuristic, but the tours are conducted by residents, no photos are allowed, and 80% of the fee goes to Reality Gives, the organisation that runs education programs in Sanjay Colony and the much larger Dharavi in Mumbai (made famous in the movie Slumdog Millionaire). This article describes the total lockdown of Dharavi, home to a million people, but I have not heard what is happening in Sanjay Colony so I can only try to imagine.

Sanjay Colony is home to around 45,000 residents. It is a bustling place with people working in different industries or running shops. Goats roam the outer roads, jumping onto carts, chewing on bits of paper or scraps of food. People seem happy enough on the surface of it, but their existence is precarious. At any time the government could decide to bulldoze their homes to build a new road or some other infrastructure. The forest that grew near the colony was cleared for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

I think of the women I saw, seated on the ground sorting through scraps of fabric from a nearby factory. The fabric is sorted for recycling. These women work out in the open in the blistering Delhi summers and freezing winters, seven days a week for round INR 200 a day. If they can’t work they get no money. I try to put myself in their position but the sheer relentlessness of it makes me feel exhausted and fearful and my mind runs from the thought.

I think of the men working in the printing factory housed in a large, dark, airless shed. We visited in the winter and even then the fumes from the ink were overpowering. Summers must be brutal. The only ventilation was from a tiny window high up on one wall, in which a fan sat still and coated in dust.

As Hema, our guide, led us through the narrow alleyways, where grey-green water ran along drains on either side, she was greeted by everyone. Barbers, bakers, clothing sellers, jewellery sellers, all waved and smiled. Children scooting out of the school gate high-fived her and, after staring curiously at us, ran off. Hema grew up in Sanjay and told us how much she loved always having family around, despite the cramped living space. There was much to envy about the community cohesion in Sanjay. Hema showed us a mosque, a church, and a Hindu temple. She said she celebrates all festivals from Christmas to Eid.

We entered one house and climbed the narrow, brick stairs to the rooftop. From here we looked out on the jumbled collection of houses, clustered together, all rough, red brick, and rusted tin roofs, some with satellite dishes attached. One house had a sink and a toilet cubicle on the roof–a rare luxury. The residents of Sanjay used to have to go to the toilet in the woods, a particularly difficult and often dangerous prospect for women. Now there are clean shower and toilet blocks.

Hema then took us to the health clinic. We pushed open a glass door and entered a room the size of my bathroom. Seating for about five people was arranged along the walls before the counter, behind which sat the doctor. He grew up in the slum and had been working there for the past twenty-two years. There was a bed on a raised bench against the far wall with a curtain that could be pulled across and a couple of cabinets full of medicine. As we sat chatting with the doctor a patient came in and the consultation commenced at once with all of us sitting there. Fortunately for the patient we didn’t understand Hindi.

If Sanjay Colony is in similar lockdown to Dharavi then all of this activity must now be silent as the inhabitants sit in their cramped spaces and wait for the virus to pass. In Dharavi, meals are being delivered to most inhabitants, so I can only assume (and hope) the same is happening in Sanjay Colony.

So when I catch myself thinking life is much easier and more serene for me in lockdown I remind myself of Hema and her family and friends and hope for their sake things return to normal as soon as possible

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