Surveyor Series II

Posted by on Feb 6, 2015 in Blog, Surveyor Series

Surveyor Series is a dedicated blog space where team members who enter slums to collect data can share their individual stories. There is a disconnect between the information that makes it onto our formal survey sheets and the stories that the field surveyors hear and experience firsthand. When these conversations are consolidated and compressed into the cells of a spreadsheet, the complete richness and reality of life in a slum can get lost. These nuances, often the invisible signs of poverty, remain with the surveyors The purpose of surveyor interviews is two fold–to integrate the field experience with the data collected, and to provide a platform for the surveyors to share individual stories.. There is a gap in knowledge and experience, that can only be filled by those who actually go out and collect information through conversations. When these conversations are consolidated and compressed into cells in an excel sheet, many parts of the story cannot fit and are left out. These parts, often the invisible signs of poverty, remain with the surveyors.


Exploring the term “slum”

Slums are a physical and spatial manifestation of urban poverty. With this general definition, the term “slum” has become an umbrella word for any homogeneous or heterogeneous area that houses a low income community. I asked Kartik what he associates with the term. As one of the field surveyors, his definition comes not only from second hand information, but also from his experiences.

K: Slums means lots of noise in the area, place where we can see similar small size houses right next to each other. It’s a low income area with economic problems and open drainages next to homes. Lots of small roads and people living in congested conditions.

Having been at the job for over two months, Kartik explained that he has surveyed a decent number of places. But while talking about them, he felt a slight hesitancy in using the term “slum” as the area’s main label. I asked him why he does not like the word slum, or jhopdi as it is colloquially known.

K: Because the word gives a bad impression. Hearing things like “Hey these people are from slums, they live in slums” you automatically assume things about them, they’re poor, unfortunate, rowdies, thieves etc.

When we went to Kamalamma Jhopdi, and called the area by that name, many people didn’t know what we were talking about. There was an old lady who told us the area got its name from her mother-in-law, an elder named Kamalamma. She told me the area hasn’t been called Kamalamma Jhopdi for a long time.

In the starting, the area used to make and sell local alcohol. So when there were crimes there and the police would ask for the area name, it didn’t have any registered name because it has just started. So people would just say, “That jhopdi, the one Kamalamma is in, Kamalamma jhopdi”. And that’s what everyone started calling it. To get rid of that association with the past, they changed the name to Anjanappa Garden.

Many feel that slums have a negative impact on a community in terms of economic progress, opportunities for education, and health. However simply writing off all low income areas as “slums” could negatively impact the progress towards prosperity and quality of life of the residents. Specifically, the prevalent notion that slums are violent, while it might stem from true reasons, eventually does not solve the root of problems. Kartik recalled going to Jaibheem Nagar and asking the residents when the local hospital was built.

K: They said, “Well in that hospital they put a dead guy. It’s been four years since he had been murdered. So the hospital has been put in five years ago” They got all their dates and years from when and where murders have happened in the area. So I learned that this area is very violent.

Kartik also noted that there are a lot of rowdies (thugs that tend to use violence) affiliated with either political groups or organized crime gangs. The leaders of the gangs usually become councilors for the area and the vicious cycle continues. This begs the question of how these councilors get elected and reelected as often as they do. So I asked Kartik if he thought whether or not people are satisfied with their area leaders.

K: It depends on what facilities they get. The rowdy area leaders tend to have connections to political leaders and can get things done for people.

The basic facilities Kartik was talking about include access to tap water, electricity, and functioning sewage systems. But he says that the relationship between an area leader and the locals can also be tense and driven by fear.

K: And they point to the councilor’s building, which is tall and multistoried, and ask why his house can be so big and theirs has to be so small. They tell me, “we can’t even fold their legs and sleep in our houses, there’s that little space. How can the leader live so well and we can’t get better houses?”

The locals ask the surveyors similar questions often, hoping they can somehow help. The surveyors notice that even social workers have bad images in these areas because they make many promises about making the area better, but can’t get anything done. So how can conditions for people living in low income areas improve? And what can make that possible? Surveyors like Kartik and Selvam work tirelessly with data analysts in the P2P team to find ways to answer these and many related questions.


By Madhu Ganesh