In resettlement colonies across Mumbai, women face an uncertain future, struggle to make ends meet

In May 2017, Sakshi Lad’s house in Andheri's MIDC neighbourhood was one of the nearly thousands along the Tansa water pipeline that were razed to the ground by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Until then, Lad, 30, an employee with an electronics company, had walked the two-kilometer distance to work on foot. Relocated to a room in Mahul's resettlement colony, she then had to cover the 30-km commute by bus, train and shared rickshaw, taking up to two hours. Three months after moving, she was asked to leave her job for reporting late to work and calling in sick.

“I had to leave home by 6 am every day. The long commute made me feel weak and tired,” says Lad, who has been suffering from an undiagnosed low-fever for the past few months. “I also had to attend to the household chores — cook, wash, clean, fill water. Even though I wanted to continue working, it became increasingly difficult to manage.”

Sakshi Lad (second from right) along with other women from project-affected families in Mahul

Sakshi Lad (second from right) along with other women from project-affected families in Mahul. All photographs taken by the author

Visible work, invisible women

Lad is among the many women from project-affected families displaced to resettlement colonies across the city over the years by infrastructure and transportation projects. Most rehabilitation projects in Mumbai are those which are in-situ, which means they are at the same site. Resettlement projects, on the other hand, are those which involve the shifting of sites. Here, in addition to the uphill task of adjusting to a completely new neighbourhood located several kilometres away from their former homes, the women also bear the risk of losing their supplementary sources of income. “In our experience, we have found that it was the men who really work and earn for the family, but there is some support income which is also provided by the women,” said an official from the planning authority, who did not wish to be named. “However, it is very difficult to individually identify in which family which women are contributing in some way. They may not necessarily report everything in the baseline survey.”

As per the state rehabilitation and resettlement policies, families that are affected by work on infrastructure projects like road widening, constructing flyovers or foot over-bridges under the Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project have been relocated to Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) Housing. Under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project, families living along the railway tracks and roads are relocated to permanent dwellings and given legal title to their new housing. The long distances and meagre payments, coupled with nearly five hours of unpaid domestic work in their own households, have begun to take a toll on women’s participation in the labour force. “The overall paradigm has been of looking at resettlement as a replacement of shelter. All other dimensions are completely lost,” said Dr Amita Bhide, who heads the Transforming M-Ward Project. M-Ward, which is situated at the city’s edge, is home to the largest resettlement colonies in Mankhurd, Mahul and Vashi Naka. “In resettlement settings, activities that require a community space like drying papads or vending are difficult… the buildings cannot accommodate them.”

Making ends meet

Some women from project-affected families grapple to break free from the building format to survive, day-in and day-out. They clock-in nearly 18 hours of work, alternate between multiple jobs and travel long distances to make ends meet. Young, school-going children in the household are often pushed to partake in the daily grind.

Kalavati Sauda

Kalavati Sauda

For instance, it has been nearly a decade since 55-year-old Kalavati Sauda was relocated to the densely packed Lallubhai Compound, an SRA resettlement colony in Mankhurd. For nearly four decades until then, Sauda, a migrant from Sonepat, had been working as a domestic helper and cook in five houses in Tilak Nagar. “Since all families living in this compound had been relocated, there were no job opportunities for me here in Lallubhai. And in the adjoining middle-class housing societies, nobody wanted to employ a new person in their homes.” Sauda had to return to her old jobs even after being relocated; the electricity and maintenance bills coupled with additional costs on transportation between Lallubhai Compound and Tilak Nagar left her with little savings. “It was getting difficult to survive… I was waking up earlier than usual and even losing money for no fault of mine. An additional source of income became a necessity,” says Sauda, who lives with her daughter and grandchildren.

Last year, Sauda sensed a business opportunity in the resettlement colony she had been compelled to call home. A neighbor worked as a night watchman in a housing society in Gautam Nagar. “A casual conversation with him made me realise that there were watchmen employed in societies in the nearby areas, who craved for home-cooked meals during their late night work hours.” Soon after, she and her daughter started preparing dinners comprising rice, dal, chapatis and a curry for 15 watchmen every night. Her school-going grandchildren help deliver boxes. “I work for nearly 18 hours every day,” says Sauda. “I don’t have a choice.”

Self-help collectives

In most cases, the project-affected women remain invisible, and their labour unaccounted for. The International Labour Organisation ranks India’s Female Labour Force Participation rate at 121 out of 131 countries, one of the lowest in the world. “In this kind of project-affected displacement, poor women are treated as objects, not as citizens. None of their citizenship rights or entitlements is granted to them,” said Dr Vibhuti Patel, chairperson, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “They lose out on their social capital, which has a drastic impact on their livelihood opportunities. In addition, their household work remains invisible as it is ignored in estimating national income.”

The idea of building a collective becomes easier when there is a common thread linking the women — a common sense of ownership. For instance, at New Vidarbha Co-operative Housing Society in Santacruz (East), a group of 15 women living on different floors of a 10-story SRA building meet every day to stitch pouches and bags.

Nasreen Khan

Nasreen Khan

Armed with sewing machines, creativity and newly learned marketing skills, the women get together at a common space located on the ground floor of the building. “We struggled for several months to claim this space for ourselves,” says Nasreen Khan, 28, who helped put together the Unnati Udyog Gad in 2017. The women in the group had spent eight years in a transit camp next door fighting big rats, sludge and space shortage, when their tenements located in Nehru Nagar slum, Golibar were being replaced with the new SRA buildings. “Most of us were engaged in home-based work even back then to support our families. It was really difficult to work from the temporary tenements…they had promised us that our pukka houses would be ready in two years,” says Mehzabeen Rizvi, 48, who stuck decorative sequins on dress materials and made imitation jewellery to earn a supplementary income of Rs 50 a day. “Since we now live in a building, there are very few opportunities to see each other. Working together does not grant us an income alone… it is also our only platform to discuss household problems,” Khan pitches in.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian is a Mumbai-based journalist and a senior research consultant with Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO working on informal labour migration in western India

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Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 19:18:59 IST

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