While every corner of Mumbai gets linked to the Metro and the expressways, residents of Damu Nagar struggle with a much shorter commute – but a far more difficult connection. That is: accessing the field where they still have to defecate in the open. They have to, as residents point out, step over a one-foot wall, then walk through a pile of garbage with a strong smell of faecal matter in the air. It’s an open field with dry grass, and maybe the few trees here provide a little shade for some privacy?

Not really. “There’s no such thing as privacy here,” says Mira Yede, 51, a long-time resident of Damu Nagar. “If we women hear any footsteps, we have to stand up.” Over the years, the field has been notionally divided into left and right sections for women and men to use, respectively. But, says Mira, “it’s too short a distance: A few metres away, maybe. Who has measured it anyway?” There is no physical barrier or wall between the two sections.

For the residents of Damu Nagar, many of them first or second generation rural migrants, this is an issue that outlasts elections in this part of the Mumbai North constituency. One that bothers them even as India is seeing phased voting to elect 543 members of parliament to its 18th Lok Sabha. And yet, says Mira’s son Prakash Yede, “today a narrative is created that everything is good in the country.”  Prakash is talking to us on the threshold of his residence which has a metal sheet for a roof that probably raises the heat within by a few degrees.

“Nobody wants to speak about real problems in these parts of the country,” says 30-year-old Prakash. He draws attention to how Damu Nagar’s 11,000 plus residents cope with discomfort and risks arising from no access to toilets, water, electricity. Damu Nagar, a slum also known and recorded as Bhim Nagar in the Census, holds over 2,300 homes of rickety walls, tarpaulins and roofing sheets. These are perched on a hillock within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. You have to climb up to the houses through narrow, uneven, rocky paths, trying not to step into the flowing drainage water.

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: Prakash Yede in front of his house in Damu Nagar. He stays here with his mother Mira and father Dnyandev. Right: Entrance to Damu Nagar slum also known as Bhim Nagar

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: Residents of Damu Nagar have to step over a one-foot wall and walk through a pile of garbage to reach the open field where they defecate in the absence of toilets in their homes. Right: Civic bodies have not provided basic municipal services such as water, electricity and toilets in slums, claiming that these settlements are 'illegal'

Yet, like in previous elections, the votes of people here are not just about the lack of the most basic amenities.

“It’s all about news. News should be truthful. And the media are not telling the truth about people like us,” says Prakash Yede. He grumbles about misinformation, fake and biased news. “People will vote on the basis of what they hear and see. And what they hear and see - is all praise for Prime Minister Modi.”

Prakash himself sources most of his information from advertisement-free and independent journalism platforms. “Many of my age here are jobless. They are engaged in housekeeping and manual labour jobs. Very few, with a 12th pass, are in white collar jobs,” he says about unemployment among youth, a countrywide concern.

Prakash completed Class 12 and used to work as a photo editor for a private firm in Malad for a monthly salary of Rs. 15,000 – until Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology rendered his role redundant. “Around 50 employees were sacked. It’s been a month since I too have been jobless,” he says.

Nationwide, the share of educated youth among all unemployed people also increased, from 54.2 per cent in 2000 to 65.7 per cent in 2022, the India Employment Report 2024 tells us. That report was released in Delhi on March 26, by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Institute of Human Development (IHD).

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: 'News should be truthful,' Prakash says, 'and the media are not telling the truth about people like us.' Right: Chandrakala Kharat lost her husband in 2015 when Damu Nagar was engulfed in a fire caused by a series of cylinder bursts. She now collects plastic items from the road and garbage piles and sells them to scrap dealers

Prakash’s income was a milestone in his family’s progress, one he had only achieved in the last couple of years. And his was a story of a triumph following a tragedy. In 2015, Damu Nagar was engulfed in a fire due to a series of cooking gas cylinder blasts. The Yede family was amongst those who suffered. “We fled with only the clothes on our body. Everything else turned into ashes – documents, jewellery, furniture, utensils, electronics,” recalls Mira.

“Vinod Tawade [then education minister of Maharashtra and MLA from the Borivali Assembly constituency] had promised that we will get a pucca house in a month,” says Prakash remembering the assurance they received after the deadly fire.

It’s been eight years since that promise. After that, they voted in the 2019 General Elections and in the state assembly polls the same year. Life remained the same. Prakash’s grandparents were landless agricultural labourers from Jalna district who migrated to Mumbai in the 1970s.

His father, Dnyandev, 58, still works as a painter and mother Mira is a contractual safai karamchari . She collects garbage from households. “Including Prakash’s salary,” says Mira, “three of us were able to earn 30,000 rupees a month. With prices of cylinders, oil, grains and food items [still not as high as they are now] we had just begun to manage well,” says Mira.

Each time their efforts at rebuilding their lives began to work, new disasters would strike. “After the fire, there was demonetisation. Then corona and lockdown. There was no relief from the government,” she says.

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: The Yede family also lost all their belongings in the fire in 2015. Vinod Tawade, the erstwhile MLA from the Borivali constituency had promised residents pucca houses. Eight years on, the promise remains unfulfilled. Right: Prakash used to work as a photo editor for a private firm in Malad. But Artificial Intelligence cost him his job. He has been unemployed for a month

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Damu Nagar, perched on a hillock inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, has around 2,300 homes. Narrow, rocky and uneven paths lead to the rickety houses

The Modi government’s “Housing for All (Urban)” scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana- Mission aimed at providing houses to all eligible families by 2022. Prakash has been trying to see that his family is ‘eligible.’

“I keep trying to avail the scheme’s benefits for my family. But with no income proof and valid documents, I might never be eligible for it,” he says.

He finds even more troubling the  state government’s notification to alter the rules of the Right to Education ( RTE ) act for the state of Maharashtra made in February this year (2024). According to this notification, if a government or government-aided school exists within one kilometre of the child’s residence, he or she must take admission there. This means private, including English-medium schools, are barred from giving  admission within the RTE’s 25 per cent quota for children from marginalised communities. “That actually stands the RTE Act on its head,” Prof. Sudhir Paranjape of the Anudanit Shiksha Bachao Samiti (Save the Aided Schools Association) told PARI.

“With such decisions, we can't afford quality education. The only law, which would guarantee that, no longer exists [with this notification]. How will we progress then?” he asks, anguished.

Quality education for the next generation is the only way forward for Prakash and others in Damu Nagar. And there is little doubt about the marginalised status of Damu Nagar’s children. The majority of residents here, some of whom have been living in this slum for four decades, are neo-Buddhists – that is, Dalits. For many, their grandparents and parents migrated to Mumbai from Jalna and Solapur during the great 1972 drought that ravaged the state.

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: A gazette notification issued by the state government this year says that private schools are exempt from the 25 per cent Right to Education quota if there is a government-run or government-aided school within a one km radius. This could lead to marginalised children from Damu Nagar losing their right to quality education, says Prof. Sudhir Paranjape of the Anudanit Shiksha Bachao Samiti. Right: Women of Damu Nagar have no access to safe toilets. 'Whether you feel unwell or have any injury, you still have to climb with a bucket of water,' says Lata Sonawane ( green dupatta)

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left and Right: Lata with her children in their home

It's not only the RTE that is difficult to avail and sustain. Prakash’s neighbour Abasaheb Mhaske’s efforts to build his small ‘Light Bottle’ venture, has also failed. “These schemes exist only in name,” says 43-year-old Mhaske. “I tried getting a loan from the Mudra Yojna. But I couldn’t get it. Because I was blacklisted. I had missed one – just one – EMI on my previous loan of 10,000 rupees from a bank.”

PARI has been regularly reporting on the situation of access to various health and welfare schemes for the rural and urban poor. Read: When free treatment comes at a hefty price and My grandchildren will build their own house .

Mhaske runs his workshop and his family in a 10x10 feet room. To the left, as you enter, is the kitchen and mori (bathroom). Adjacent to it, all the materials required to decorate the bottles are systematically stored in cabinets.

“I sell these lights by roaming around Kandivali and Malad.” He collects empty wine bottles from wine shops and scrap dealers. “Vimal [his wife] helps clean, wash and dry them. Then I decorate each bottle with artificial flowers and threads. I attach wiring and batteries,” he says, and briefly explains the process of making ‘Light Bottles. ‘First, I install four LR44 batteries connected to copper wire LED light strings. Then I push that light inside the bottle, alongside some artificial flowers. And the lamp is ready. You can operate it with an on-off switch on the battery." He brings an artistic touch to these decorative lights that some people fancy for their households.

“I am passionate about art, and I want to expand my skills, so that I can earn more and give a good education to my three daughters,” says Abasaheb Mhaske. Each bottle costs between 30 to 40 rupees to make. Mhaske sells each light for 200 rupees. His daily earnings are often less than 500 rupees. “I make 10,000 to 12,000 rupees a month after working for all 30 days,” Which means he averages sales of just around two bottles a day. “Hard to feed a family of five on that,” he says. Mhaske is originally from Thergaon village in Jalna taluka .

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: Abasaheb Mhaske makes and sells 'light bottles' in Kandivali and Malad. He runs his workshop from the family's 10x10 feet room. Right: A bottle made by Abasaheb, decorated with artifical flowers. He gets the bottles from wine shops and scrap dealers

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: His wife Vimal helps to clean, wash and dry the bottles. Right: Each bottle costs 30-40 rupees to make. Mhaske sells them for Rs. 200 each and earns around Rs.10,000-12,000 a month. This means he is able to sell around two bottles in a day

He returns alone to his village around June each year to cultivate soyabean and jowari on his one-and-a-half-acre farm. “I always fail. Never get a good yield with poor rain,” he complains. Mhaske has stopped farming for the last couple of years.

Prakash, Mira, Mhaske and other residents  of the Damu Nagar slum are a tiny, almost negligible fraction of India’s over 65 million slum dwellers recorded in Census 2011.  But, together with other slum dwellers, they account for a sizeable number of votes in the R/S municipal ward of which they are a part.

“Slums are a different duniya (world) of rural migrants,” says Abasaheb.

On May 20, the people of Kandivali will vote for the Mumbai North Lok Sabha seat. The sitting member of parliament from this constituency, the Bhartiya Janata Party’s Gopal Shetty, won by a margin of over four and a half lakh votes against the Congress party’s Urmila Matondkar in 2019.

This time around, the BJP denied Gopal Shetty the ticket. Instead, union minister Piyush Goyal is contesting from Mumbai North. “BJP won twice [2014 and 2019] here. Before that it was Congress. But from what I see, BJP’s decisions are not in favour of the poor,” Abasaheb Mhaske says.

PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli
PHOTO • Jyoti Shinoli

Left: The narrow lanes of Damu Nagar. Residents of this slum will vote on May 20. Right: Abasaheb Mhaske, Vimal and their daughters in their house. 'I feel this election is [...] to retain the rights of deprived citizens like us'

Mira Yede is suspicious of EVMs and finds paper ballots more credible. “I find this voting machine bogus. That paper voting was better. That way, I got more assurance of who I voted for,” says Mira.

Unemployed Prakash’s views on news and misinformation; safai karamchari Mira’s lack of trust in EVMs; and Mhaske’s failed efforts to set up his own small venture with government schemes. Each has a story to tell.

“I hope to vote for a good candidate who really echoes our concerns,” says Prakash.

“Whoever has won so far, it never brought any development for us. Our struggle was the same. Whoever we voted for. It is only our own hard work that sustains us, not that of the winning leader We only have to put in the efforts to build up life, not the winning leader,” Mira remarks.

“I feel this election is not only for the basic amenities. But to retain the rights of deprived citizens like us,” Abasaheb concludes. In other words, the people of Damu Nagar will be voting for democracy.

Jyoti Shinoli is a Senior Reporter at the People’s Archive of Rural India; she has previously worked with news channels like ‘Mi Marathi’ and ‘Maharashtra1’.

Other stories by Jyoti Shinoli

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and 'The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom'.

Other stories by P. Sainath