Jahangirpuri, home to more than 200,000 people, stretches across endless blocks in north west Delhi. Much like informal settlements across India, it is woefully inadequate in terms of basic service delivery: residents spend hours queuing for water and often depend on a network of social workers to get access to other utilities. Jahangirpuri has recently been ravaged by communal violence and many Muslim residents’ homes and shops have been hastily demolished without notices being issued.
This excerpt from Grey Sunshine by Sandeep Rai, chief of city operations at Teach For India, sheds light upon some of the long-standing realities, challenges and hopes of this community. Published in 2019, the book chronicles the journeys of students and educators in some of the most challenging environments in urban India. Jahangirpuri’s public school system, socio-economic dynamics and aspirations reflect stories of loss and resilience across the country.
Understanding the tussle between Yasmin and her father demands a closer look at the realities of Jahangirpuri, one of Delhi’s poorest slums. Yasmin has only a 2 per cent likelihood of fulfilling her dream. Assuming she needs a bachelor’s degree to teach, she’d need to be one of the seven lakh female Muslim students enrolled in higher education. That may seem like a big number, but consider that more than 3.4 crore Indian students attend college. Going strictly by the numbers, it is next to impossible that she will ever become a teacher. And her family’s track record mirrors that statistical reality, with none of her older brothers, sisters or parents having made it past eighth standard.
It’s a reality that will soon put enormous pressure on Yasmin’s future. Jahangirpuri is one of Delhi’s many resettlement communities, formed in 1975 during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. Her now infamous declaration of Emergency forced millions of Indian families out of their slums and into reconstructed pukka houses spread across the northeastern landscape of Delhi. More than forty years later, the majority of these families and their descendants – comprising more than 200,000 people – still live here. The alleys of Jahangirpuri are bustling with people, stalls and activity that span the full twenty-four-hour cycle of the day.
They’re also incredibly cramped. Every home, rarely larger than 46 square metres, often houses multiple generations: siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and even cousins. Jahangirpuri is divided, alphabetically, into twelve blocks. Over the years, an inevitable order of segregation has settled in within these communities – a separation that mirrors the larger divisions of Indian society. D Block, by and large, houses the Hindus. B and C Blocks house the Muslims. EE Block, with a rent that’s 10 per cent higher, houses families that are marginally more economically advantaged. Even today, it’s largely anathema for people of different religions or castes to loiter into a block that isn’t a part of their ‘predetermined territory’.
Last but not the least, there are the Bengali migrants. These are people who have steadily trickled into Delhi over the decades and now live on the outskirts of Jahangirpuri. Residents talk about the Bengalis with a tone of fear and disdain. Everyone has a story of running into them. They are stories that usually end in violence.
Yet, between the blocks of segregation and the violence that crosses these contrived boundaries, the community includes several shared public spaces: small gardens, places for the community to gather, restaurants and even a rundown cinema that only twenty years ago was the place to be. The Azadpur Sabzi Mandi, one of the biggest employers in the community, thrives with people and business. Right in the middle of Jahangirpuri is the government-run Industrial Training Institute, a vocational centre that offers livelihood skill development courses for youths and adults alike. Established in 1985, it operates with a mandate to give ‘technical training to the backward and weaker sections of the society’.
Yet, nowhere in Jahangirpuri will residents find access to colleges or any other source of higher education. There are two government-run primary and secondary schools, but nothing beyond the twelfth standard. When I asked a local public official his thoughts on this, his reply was telling: ‘Let’s be realistic about what’s possible with this community, shall we?’
The school, which Yasmin and more than half of Jahangirpuri’s children attend, has an ominous feel that envelops the entire building. A big, rusted metal gate greets you at the entrance. Past the gate is an open, barren field surrounded by concrete multistorey buildings on every side. As I walk past the field and into one of the buildings, I immediately hear a shrill scream in the distance, to my right.
The parents – like everyone else in Jahangirpuri – are starved for hope, and they have reason to be cynical. Statistically, about four out of every five kids are destined to drop out before they even get to the tenth standard. They will continue living in the cycle of poverty, just like their parents and the many generations before them.
Feelings of resignation and despair permeate Jahangirpuri. Some families have simply lost the will to dream because they’ve stopped believing that a better life is possible. Others have never known anything else and, as a result, believe that dreams of greater opportunity are nothing more than fairy tales. For some, like fourteen-year-old Arbaaz and his mother, the pain of their current reality is so overwhelming that any effort to change it seems futile.
Spending my days and evenings with the families and children of Jahangirpuri forced me to acknowledge, in ways that I hadn’t before, the deeply damaging effect of hopelessness on the very essence of the human spirit. Every family, child and public official had recounted incidents that were harrowing and alarming. Underlying their words was a starvation of hope that carried a permanent aura of darkness. It made me confront the pervasive power of despair to break the human will. If the 200,000 residents of Jahangirpuri are largely without hope, and the people intended to serve them are similarly despondent, can they even begin to believe in change and redemption?
On the rare instances when I’ve heard families daring to dream of a better life, they talk of neighbouring wealthy communities, like Adarsh Nagar and Shalimar Bagh. They speak of worlds with functional schools. They speak of alleys with no violence. They speak of cleaner streets. They speak, quite honestly, of the fundamental rights that any human being should be afforded.
Yet, very few of them have visited any of these surrounding communities. They’ve rarely left Jahangirpuri. They talk wistfully of the ‘children who grow up on that side of town’ and the ‘life in Delhi’s more “secure” streets’. These places are more the stuff of local myth and folklore – a world of better prospects.
After spending hours chatting with parents and children, I meander back to the local community centre where I am staying the night. Before I go to bed, I take advantage of the extraordinary view this three-storey building offers. From my open window, I can see the thousands of pukka constructions that have now become permanent homes for more than 200,000 citizens. I look at the river to the east and the waste dump to the north. The famous cinema that so many residents had vividly described is also visible. I try imagining it in its former glory, buzzing with action and energy.
As I gaze across Jahangirpuri, I think of my conversations with Yasmin and of the many memories that the families had so graciously shared with me. I think of the hundreds of families I had talked to over the course of my career; they had echoed sentiments that were eerily similar. And I thought of the thousands of children we had served but I had never actually listened to – whose struggles I had never fully understood. And, yet, I thought most of the promise of hope.
That’s the thing about folklore. However dreamy or far-fetched it may seem, it fuels hope and ultimately becomes a lighthouse for the children of Jahangirpuri to aspire towards. The truth, however, is that we need real stories of success to sustain their aspirations – to fuel their desire to hope. Betting on hope, for most people, amounts to nothing more than betting on a segment of your imagination. It isn’t strategy; it isn’t concrete. And it’s excruciatingly tough when you don’t have tangible evidence that tells you success is achievable.
Therein lies the ultimate dilemma. To eventually see success – to see a life with greater opportunity –perhaps what we need first is hope. Václav Havel, writer, political dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia, argues that during the era of Soviet domination the only thing that impoverished citizens of Eastern Europe needed was hope. They may have wanted many things such as more money and more diplomatic pressure from the West, but the only thing they actually needed was hope.
According to Havel, hope is more than a mere preference for optimism. It is an ‘orientation of the spirit’ that allows people to live in hopeless places, to deal with hopeless schools and still believe that a better future is within reach. When faced with the absurdity that conditions like those in Jahangirpuri force on the human spirit, it might be good to remember, as Havel posits, that ‘life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living without hope’.
Perhaps what the people of Jahangirpuri, and even little Yasmin, need the most is that very ‘orientation of the spirit’. They need more reasons to believe that betting on hope is worth their time.
Excerpted with permission from Grey Sunshine: Stories From Teach For India, Sandeep Rai, Aleph Book Company.