By Alice Heathcote
Annawadi sits beside the road to the Mumbai airport, on “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late”
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
After much insistence my mother, I recently started reading ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,a non-fiction work from Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo. The book follows the lives of the inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. The main character, Abdul Hussain, is a Muslim teenager who turns an increasingly success profit through reselling the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. He begins to dream of a life outside of Annawadi, and even a wife who ‘does not care that he smells’. His success catches up to him however, when his next-door neighbor attempts suicide and he is falsely accused of her murder.
At this point, the true tragedy begins to unfold. In the legal vacuum of Annawadi, the Indian police are anything but a force for good. Despite the fact there are hundreds of residents to prove his innocence, Abdul is charged. The police know his family has money stored away and they have an angle now for getting a slice. Police officers arrest the accused and demand bribes; when Abdul’s mother refuses to pay most bribes, family members are imprisoned and beaten. The story gives us an inside view of the Indian criminal justice system, in which success will attract resentment, unwanted attention from authorities and a higher price tag to buy yourself out of jail.
In these settings, in Annawadi and elsewhere, a type of entrepreneur emerges; a savvy business person who sees the opportunity present when people live in a legal vacuum – the slum lord. There’s no doubt these slum lords provide valuable services – protection from the police, arbitration for neighborhood disputes. It’s no coincidence that in ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’, it’s only Asha, the rising slum lord of Annawadi, who can offer Abdul potential protection from the police. Of course, she demands a price. But then again, nothing’s for free. Why do you think we pay taxes for our police and courts?
In the West, the slumlords are personification of evil: they are thugs against the state; mafia breaking the law. Yet from the Brazilian favelas to the Indian slums, people in illegal settlements know who they most have to fear. The slumlords may break the law, but the system was never designed for them anyway.
This is an often overlooked fact when contemplating slum redevelopment. You are essentially moving people from one legal system to another as slumlords lose their power and constituents. You are taking people from one informal system, which despite its unpleasantness, may at least engender some of their trust; to the formal system, which has been a fierce and terrifying enemy. Hopefully these same people now effectively get protection if their property rights are clear. But if you’ve lived your life seeing the police as the vicious playground bully, it’s going to be awhile before you can trust them as a friend.