On dilemmas about property

When I was in Mumbai, I would talk of property from the point of view of an outsider. In that space, I was largely a participant-observer. Now, in Bangalore, I am involved in the everyday conflicts about property. Let me talk of some of my recent experiences in Thilaknagar.

Thilaknagar is touted as one of the most successful slums in Bangalore (I don’t know here what the benchmarks/parameters of this measured sucess are).

In the month of July, the street in my lane was dug up so that it could be concretized. It was agonizing to be part of this process because for fortnights, the muck would lie on the street and rains would make it sloshy, but the contractor would nowhere be seen. (This would have been the usual rant of inefficiency in the language of Civil Society!)

About two weeks ago, fervent activity (re)started and the concretizing of the road became much more quick paced. Amma and her family living opposite my house were much involved in this process. I could sense the excitement in Amma as she helped the female labourers in their work. She took a kind of visible leadership role in the process. I have never seen her this way.

Now, the twist to the story comes here. Beneath my rented house is a little store room where the motor pump is kept. The landlord asks me to keep it locked since he fears that the pump may be stolen some day. My predecessor in the flat used to allow a day-wage labourer to sleep in the store room. I stuck to the tradition and decided to keep it open for him. Along with the day-wage labourer is a dog named Ramu who also sleeps with him. (I was once told by this day-wage labourer that Ramu and he were living here even before the two-storey building was constructed!)

On the second last day of the work, the contractor and his crew started laying the wet concrete on the road. As usual, Amma was at the helm of affairs. I was unaware of all the organizing that was happening. I got ready to leave the building. As I landed on the last flight of stairs, I found Ramu inside with chain on his neck. He was put inside the building and the gate was shut from outside. I realized that Ramu was kept inside because otherwise, he would keep moving about, disturbing the concrete work. But what I found violative was the fact that without asking me, Amma and her family had put Ramu inside.

I protested and asked for Ramu to be let out. Amma asked me to keep Ramu inside and lock the gate. “It’s only a matter of some time!” she said to me. I refused saying that my landlord would be upset and that Ramu was not my responsibility. I walked off in anger.

When I returned back that evening, I found that Amma and her son had chained Ramu to the door of my gate and had put their barrel and cycle inside the store room. I was even more angered and shouted at them saying, ‘you are encroaching on my property’. As I said these words, I could not believe myself but I had said them and I had meant them. I realized then that the question of property and individual rights was much more complex than it appeared to be.

What angered me was that Amma had taken it for granted that Ramu was my responsibility when he surely was not.

The road was concretized and everyone was happy and in a festive mood, celebrating Diwali and Eid. Amma had even laid Rangoli over the street elaborately, wishing everyone happy diwali!

About two days ago, I came down at about 11 PM to dump the daily garbage. As I walked down, I heard a noise as if someone were pissing. I assumed it must be Ramu. But when I reached below, it was the day-wage labourer who was pissing just outside the store room. He was embarrased that I had noticed him and I was shocked. I felt like screaming – here I am leaving the store room open for him to rest and then he does this to the surrounding area? But then I caught myself up and realized that there was no public toilet around for him to pee. And if there were one, it would cost him Rs.2 per trip, which would be a sizeable amount given his daily wages.

And then one talks and lauds about public space and community space! Here is my street/lane in Thilaknagar and the very boundaries and limits of the community/public space are unclear. What kind of community is here is also very unclear. I usually find that people dump garbage outside my gate and I do not know who does this on a daily basis.

I started keeping my garbage bag by the side of the road since this ensures that the fellow picks it up every morning. Last night the woman living in the house by the side of the street asked me not to keep the garbage there because that is part of her house. I was irritated …

What kind of property are we talking about here?

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