(This story first appeared here on 11 February 2013 in DNA’s Bangalore edition)
What have I learned in two weeks of trying to remotely coordinate relief work at EWS Ejipura? It’s hard to distill anything close to an overarching homogenous feeling.
There is grief, that is for certain. Every single home has been squashed into the ground and none of our scurrying around, tweeting or pleading could stop it. 115 families are now living on the footpaths surrounding EWS, while 30 families are now homeless in Sarjjapur, miles away from their homes, their jobs, their schools and their lives.
There is anger at the brutal efficiency that wrecked over 1500 families in less than a week who had been ignored for 9 long years in makeshift tin sheds. There is betrayal that we should have expected, as promises of temporary shelter and reprieve were broken by every high-ranking stamp worth its weight in the Vidhana Soudha. And add to that the colossal guilt that this was done to build another sanctum for our top-dollar, a parking lot that will magically metamorphosize into a mall, just like its predecessor on Magrath Road. Go to EWS now and there is nothing to show for the thousands who lived and dreamed and fought the odds here, but flattened land and a high fence pronouncing the dawn of the brave new age of the Public Private Partnership. Except that the public who are legally entitled to be here have now, either been kicked to the kerb or forced into tempos with their meager belongings and 5000-2000 rupees in hand to mythical rehabilitation sites across the city.
Doubt underlies everything. Single mothers, senior citizens and pregnant women wait for godot with their biometric cards and any scraps of paper generated over the years that qualify them for shelter or relief. Many of them have none. They have endured the cold, the shock, the harassment, the complete disruption of their lives, the loss of livelihoods and dignity as they are forced to look to us for relief, with no access to water or toilets or compensation.
There is immense respect for those who were on the ground way before the first tin sheet fell, lying in the path of bulldozers, braving assault and feeding thousands from their own pockets. There is shame that even the more sensitive among us had blind spots right in front of our eyes, as if we have the privilege to pick which battles to fight, only to ignore our immediate environment.
Finally, there is gratitude. I’ve easily received over a thousand calls this week, offering food, water, clothes, blankets, manpower, medicine and media support. Over 200 volunteers between their teens and 40s spontaneously offered help when we’ve needed them the most, braving intimidation by the police, hauling food and water on foot when barricades were put up, bunking work to put in 12 hour shifts of food distribution, rushing to the scene when things got ugly, helping those displaced find jobs, enrolling children into schools and hostels, treating the sick, surveying needs and staying with us to teach newer recruits. The city of Banglaore could perhaps teach those responsible for this disaster a lesson in humane rehabilitation, but that would mean letting them off the hook.
These last two weeks have only reaffirmed what we’ve felt in struggles across the country: the importance of the larger community to be an active witness in the face of suppression. The demolitions took place not in the Saranda forests, but right around the corner from Koramangala. Not one national news channel descended in the week-long demolitions, and so the need to document things that we are neither trained to see nor shown ourselves becomes key. If it were not for citizen blogs, social media and a few good papers, the exodus of over 5000 people from the heart of Bangalore would’ve been a blip on the news radar.
Despite the wreckage and weariness, I have learned to trust in the kindness of strangers and in the strength of ordinary individuals, whatever their affiliations. I have learned that you do not need to be a disaster relief specialist or a full-time activist to know how to care. I have learned to put cynicism aside and weigh cautiously on the side of hope. My city has shown me how.