Suresh Kumar’s Story: Migration, Caste and Class build Dharavi

This article is based on an interview of Suresh Kumar and research by Nikhil Latagajanan who is a journalist, documentary filmmaker.

On a Sunday afternoon, Suresh Kumar sits in his house in a narrow lane near T-junction Dharavi recalling memories of his childhood. At 43 years old, Kumar is from the second generation of Tamil migrant Dalits staying in Mumbai.

Suresh’s memories tell his story, which like that of many others in migrants and residents, weaves itself through the history of Dharavi itself.

Dharavi is a locality situated in the central part of Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra and the financial capital of India. Nearly one million people live here, most of whom are second or third generation migrants from different regions. It’s popularly known as one of the largest slums in the world today. Before transforming into a slum, Dharavi was a village of Agri Kolis, a fishing community and the original inhabitants of the seven islands that formed Bombay then. At the end of British rule, as Bombay became the financial and the commercial centre, it transformed into a hub of small industrial units producing leather goods, pottery garments, printing, steel fabrication, recycling, and so on. This economy began attracting migrant workers.

Migrant workers like Suresh Kumar’s family.

Suresh shared what he has known from people in Dharavi. “They say that the migration from Tamil Nadu to Dharavi was happening for the last two hundred years. There were no railways back then so people used to walk for more than a month to cover the distance.”

At that time, people who came to work in Dharavi didn’t necessarily stay permanently, there was a lot of back and forth to their hometowns too. Suresh Kumar’s late grandfather P. Muthaya first came to Mumbai with many other people from his region. But, he did not settle permanently but stayed only for 2–3 years before returning to his native village in Tamil Nadu. Later, Suresh Kumar’s father. M. Raju migrated sometime in the mid-1960s along with his brother and, at that point, settled down permanently in Dharavi. Raju initially got jobs as a household worker with wealthy merchants in Mumbai, as a cook in a hotel, and as a cleaner. Then, an opportunity in railways as a mechanical fitter opened up. Slowly their life started seeing changes. In the meantime, Suresh and his siblings were born.

Elders residents born and brought up in Dharavi like Jena Bhai (80) and Pandiyan Selaiya (68) fondly recall much older times. “We knew when Suresh was just a child and had moved to Mumbai,” says Jena Bhai.

They said that the Tamil Muslims migrated first to Dharavi and established tanneries as Mumbai was already a hub for industries and trade. The migrants from Tirunelveli and nearby regions, who were mainly engaged in agriculture and farm labour, were brought here by the tannery owners. The main reason they migrated was the caste and class problems they faced back in Tamil Nadu. The second reason was that they were the castes who were traditionally used to work with animal skins. A large number of tannery workers were Dalit workers that included Tamil migrants and local Marathi labourers, primarily from rural Maharashtra.

Soon, work diversified and so did the backgrounds of the migrant workers. Seeing Dalits and their slowly growing economic mobility, OBCs from Tamil Nadu also started making their way to Dharavi.

Suresh says caste issues morph when you settle permanently in Dharavi. Traditional rural untouchability and agricultural indenture issues begin to look like class issues in their new homes. “In fact, we start to earn a bit more when we come to Dharavi. From one angle, our class situation improves but caste exists,” he says. For example, it was common throughout India for people to use their surname to identify their caste but not in Tamil Nadu. Periyarist movements had changed the norms for caste affiliation to their names. But after migration to Mumbai, this is reversed. The later generations of Tamil migrants in Dharavi strongly hold their caste identity. They started using their caste names with their names. Such as Nadar, Thevar, and so on. As caste associated with their names and identities, caste groups have each formed their own associations. They hold elections and win by spending as much as possible and by distributing food and liquor.

“Some of these caste groups also follow Hinduism keeping an association with Brahmins. There are no Tamil Brahmins in Dharavi. They reside mostly in areas like Sion and Matunga. Within Dharavi, the majority of the Tamil population are only SC and OBC. But they somehow invite the Brahmins for performing rituals at marriages and other events.” says Suresh. “Although the Tamil Brahmin doesn’t reside here, you can witness the hold they have on Dharavi’s Tamil communities.” he says.

And these issues are mixed in with class struggles and aspirations as well.

Suresh laments most about education. The education he could have had.

He had studied in a government school in Dharavi until the 7th standard. Here, Tamil had been the medium of instruction. He was then transferred to another school in Matunga for the 8th standard but their medium of instruction was English. This was overwhelming for young Suresh. His father had low-income work in railways so he could not afford private schooling for the children. As a result of all this, Suresh had to quit education and hence could not get a good job himself, unlike the students who studied in better schools.

One thing to note here is that with Scheduled Castes (SC) migrants from Tamil Nadu there is also a lack of access to the options of Reservation (Affirmative Action). The Maharashtra government does not consider them SC. Though their ancestors were SCs of Tamil Nadu in Dharavi, they are just termed Backward Classes. That means they do not have the necessary certificates to avail the schemes for SC.

This has consequences in many areas — no reservations in jobs, education, their children cannot get scholarships, and they cannot fight elections even though Dharavi is an SC-reserved constituency. They also cannot file complaints under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

One example illustrates the precariousness of being Dalit socially and economically but not legally and officially. In January 2016, when Rohith Vemula was institutionally murdered, protests were reverberating throughout the country. At Dharavi too a protest rally was organised to demand justice for Rohith Vemula. This gathering was brutally attacked by RSS members leading many in the community becoming severely injured. The police initially refused to file SC/ST atrocity complaints, instead harassed the protesters who were students and general residents from the Tamil SC community.

These kinds of discriminations combined with the emerging family responsibilities in a new town created pressure for Suresh to work. He started working in a garage, then in courier services, and finally settled in the driving profession from 1998. He is now a professional driver in a corporate office at Bandra Kurla Complex.

But Suresh has battled circumstances and done fairly well. He has 3 brothers. one older and two younger. Everybody lives in Dharavi but in their separate places. Unlike his siblings, he developed himself and his family socially and economically and he is the only one among them who managed to purchase his own house in Dharavi where he lives with his wife Vennila and his two sons Kartik and Aran, who are 14 and 9 years old respectively.

Aspirations for better lives linger in his mind though. “Dharavi was a slum then and it is a slum now. Just a few small changes happened. A few years back there were no walls but just tin sheets — now there are brick walls. There were wooden partitions between the ground floor and first floor, now there are concrete slabs. Nothing has changed in terms of infrastructure or facilities. Just a few big buildings were constructed on the outer roads, but it is the same old thing inside Dharavi.” he says. “If I could have got better quality education and a good job then he could have also moved out of Dharavi.”

Unlike his father and grandfather before him, Suresh Kumar says he works in a different time and in the private sector and so understands the value of education better. He does not want to repeat the mistake that his parents did so he got his children admitted to a good school so that they can study well and move out of Dharavi to live a different life

Many in Dharavi today feel this way. There are a lot of issues in Dharavi such as pollution, water supply, drainage, and so on. There are many developmental plans sanctioned by many previous governments but the funds kept disappearing and the plans were not implemented as required. Because of these conditions, for the past 15–20 years, many Dalit and Bahujan families are migrating out of Dharavi. Those who got access to education and better jobs are now preferring to move out of Dharavi and shifting to the suburbs like Mira Road, Nalasopara, Dombivli, and Nerul. They are the second generation of the original migrants, born and brought up here only in lower class and caste families. When they climb one level up in the class from lower to the middle/upper-middle, they leave Dharavi. It then became a pattern that people are renting out or selling their houses in Dharavi and staying somewhere else.

While aspirations for better lives and conditions like these have resulted in some people leaving Dharavi, people from the low-income groups won’t leave Dharavi since it has its other advantages. Dharavi is situated in the middle of the city so it’s easy to commute for work from here. Plus small the leatherwork, other scale industries inside Dharavi itself generate a lot of employment for low-income labourers and artisans. The Dalit and Bahujan migrants of Dharavi whether from Tamil Nadu or any other states are mostly engaged as workers in different sectors. Many of them started their own business such as export or in small service sectors.

While Suresh does lament and hold aspirations, he does make the best of his life in Dharavi. As a family person, he says he has a very strong, friendly bond with his wife, Vennila. “ She plays a very vital role in both our lives. She is the driver of our social and personal growth,” he says.

Vennila, in turn, shared that they were friends much before their marriage. When they got married, in the initial period she never used to go out in the meetings or gatherings related to social issues. So Suresh started taking her along with him, encouraged her to take part in activities and even lead them.

Later they formed a social group named Jai Bhim Foundation to strengthen their work. Vennila herself has also formed a women’s collective to work towards gender issues. With Jai Bhim Foundation they work toward the betterment infrastructure and education facilities for Dharavi residents.

And now they are passing their thoughts to the next generation. Both their children Kartik and Aran automatically become part of the movement they are leading. They have open and friendly relationships with their children and want them to get educated to create better lives for themselves. Hence whatever the situation is they never compromise on their educational needs and actively participate in their studies. They have a dream for their children that they should develop ideologically, socially and economically to pursue whatever they want in life and in doing so help others as well to grow.

“There are two types of India: one is Gaon (villages) and the other is Basti (colonies),” says Suresh. “Dharavi too is a part of this segregation. This segregation of people is all linked to caste and class differences, which itself was the start of migration into Dharavi in the first place.”

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Dalit History Month

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