-by Shruti Syal
This place is MASSIVE. That’s massive in capitals.
Veering right under the highway, we spot the board for Taj Enclave and find ourselves pitched on a crowded, dusty road, crammed with everything from carts to cars, potlis to people. Unlike all the settlements we’ve seen so far, there’s a large wrought iron board perched on two tall iron poles, announcing a welcome into Geeta Colony. Amongst that mad rush of people we spot some curious onlookers who trail us as we venture from pillar to post, taking pictures of the little stretch of drain. The water is stagnant, completely.
As I mumble something to talk to Salomi, and turn around to see her response, I discover she’s somewhere else in that throng of people and vehicles.
“Udhar didi“, says a chap who’s walked up to me to ask what we’re up to, and pointing at her across the road to the side where the drain flows downstream, if at all this stagnant pool of fluid can manage to trudge anywhere.
It’s the same routine with every site. What are you doing? Why the drain? Yes, it’s dirty. Yes, we’re thinking of doing something…what, we don’t venture into, but it’s going to be quite a feat getting an explanation down for the ears of the residents of these informal settlements.
And then that bemused smile, one showcasing both amusement and respect, sometimes even a little empathy. Yep, empathy, the kind you give little kids who do something seemingly useless but cute nonetheless.
The kids come running from the other end, but work done, and with the sun glaring down, we have to head to the most downstream point of the drain. As it is, the settlement size is a major deterrent in working on this site unless we’ve got our permissions, numbers, and protocols down to the T. And we’re told there’s a major blockage upstream where the drain comes from. A little concrete road-cum-bridge likely collapsed in the rains and the water upstream is likely being dredged rather than the bridge being repaired.
So we head further down.
I’m not certain this photograph really does justice to the mighty junkyard we saw.
It’s hard to distinguish between the mounds of plastic and colourful rickshaw shades. It’s really…BIG. All I could do was keep shaking my head at Salomi, and since we were in agreement that this site was a no-no for now, we veered onto the latest news on women’s living conditions in India, and the mass murder of the family of an obscure actress in Indian cinema by her property-hungry husband, and the mass graveyard in which the six bodies were dumped, dead or alive. Scan this dumpyard, and it’s not hard to imagine the types of locations you could do such heinous things at, where it would go unnoticed for god knows how long.
I don’t know if I’m left with distaste because of the talk of murder, or the fact that so many people live at or near places that can evoke an easy realization of how such depressing things are possible. I do not doubt that we will have much to learn from these people about life, home, and community. But that’s a lesson for another day.
There’s another shocker down the road. Walking along the drain, we discover fields literally 3 feet from the gully carrying the near-stagnant wastewater.
Carrying, and how. That box of thermocol is not sitting on a bank. That’s water, or what’s collected from within the wastewater along the edges. It’s downright filthy.
And yes, Delhiites, this is the kind of place most of our food comes from. Welcome to the floodplains of the Yamuna. This is literally it.
This nifty little device, sitting prettily on the 2 feet-wide path separating the filth in the drain from the fields, pumps water from underground for the cultivation.
Forgive the childishness, but…yuck.
We’ve grown up knowing “wash your vegetables and fruits”, but the impression was always of washing off stuff like pesticides. External. Now I’m realizing this water, incorporated into the very million-odd cells that makes up that single bean, pea, brinjal, tomato, onion, and whatever else on my plate, also needs to be washed out.
I like Jamie Olivier because he walks into his backyard, yanks half a dozen herbs out of the ground and brings them onto his table, and they’re gorgeous, and clean, and likely eaten without any intervention other than a spray of water and a dash of olive oil. Wishful thinking for Indians?