Ahmedabad: No one in this neighbourhood gives a second glance at the television reporter and his cameraperson who have been talking about them for nearly 10 minutes.
For, being in the news has become routine for the 5,000-odd residents of Sarania Vaas, living outside Sardar Nagar in Ahmedabad, ever since the local administration built a half-a-kilometre long wall ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit to the city on 24 February.
And it’s not just a wall that separates the community of Saranias from the rest of Ahmedabad — there is a wire mesh, a patch of bamboo and other trees before the plain grey wall.
Just beyond the wall, there is a busy traffic intersection with shops, houses and hotels. Living about 2.5 km from Ahmedabad airport, the Saranias are an outlier on this “VIP route” that connects the airport to the heart of the city.
“Many prominent guests arrive from the airport; this crucial section, the VIP route, should not look bad. This is why the wall was built,” says Balram Thawani, the Naroda MLA under whose constituency the stretch falls.
“We haven’t locked them up. It (wall) was built so that Ahmedabad maintains its glory,” he adds, sitting at his office in Kuber Nagar.
Behind the wall, the Saranias have now built a wall of their own — just not of the brick variety.
There is indifference in the way Sarania women and girls chat among themselves while filling buckets at the public tap and in the the men who eye us, another set of journalists. They all keep their distance.
“There have been so many journalists who came before you, what difference will it make if we speak to you?” one of the residents asks when we approach them.
Around them is poverty and squalor — piles of garbage, mounds of soil, stray cows. This is the part of Ahmedabad, India didn’t want Trump to see. The wall was meant to hide the Saranias but it has put them, their poverty and their squalid living conditions right in the limelight. They now hope the attention will lead to improvement in their lives.
A village around which the city grew
While Ahmedabad may want them away now, the Saranias say they have been here before the area became part of the city limits. Some say they moved here from Rajasthan around the time of Independence and settled on the grazing land near Hansol village, now prime commercial property.
“We have been here for the last four generations,” says Keshiben, a 50-something woman dressed in the traditional ghagra and choli. “We were here when there was no Aashray plot (the residential complex), no Indira bridge, there was not even a tarred road here and Hansol village had only 10-12 houses.”
While the area around them became prime property as the airport and the stadium came up, the lives of Saranias has hardly improved.
The Saranias belong to nomadic tribes that are included in the other backward category in Gujarat. The community traditionally sharpened knives and undertook carpentry, which most of the men continue to do.
“We go roaming on the streets on bicycles sharpening knives, we don’t know anything else,” says Raghubhai, a resident of the neighbourhood, adding that he earns anything between Rs 250 to Rs 300 a day. The women working as domestic helps in the residential complexes nearby earn about Rs 3,000-4,000 a month.
The people the wall hides
“Do something about this water, it comes only twice a day and look at the number of people here,” says Reena, who prefers using her first name.
She is carrying two plastic containers and says it is a peaceful morning, as the jostling for water often gets violent. She says she spends three to four hours a day fetching water that trickles slowly in the public taps. “We use this water for drinking, but for washing and bathing we go to the river-front,” she adds.
Asked about her age, Reena asks us to guess. She neither has a birth certificate nor has she gone to school. She was born here, got married here and is raising her children here.
She works as a domestic worker in the nearby households.
“Don’t take my video, we have taken an oath to not talk to the media,” she says. “Our community leader said, ‘don’t talk to the media’.”
She, however, makes it clear that the lack of water supply is the most pressing issue of the community. Most of the houses have taps outside their house but no water supply, they have toilets but no sewage lines.
The sight of their children defecating on the pavements adjoining the road is what prompted the government to build the wall, the residents say.
“How will we keep our children clean if there is no water?” Reena asks.
A water tanker brings water twice a day but the demand far outweighs the supply.
ThePrint attempted to contact Vijay Nehra, the Ahmedabad Municipal Commissioner, through emails and messages but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
MLA Thawani said he had allocated Rs 22 lakh for the neighbourhood in the last two years, adding that it had given them a water supply line, street lights and pavement blocks on their internal road.
ThePrint saw the paver blocks only at one section of the neighbourhood. This, residents say, was paved only a fortnight ago. There were also five new public water stands built with eight new taps throughout the colony. Workers had added tiles on them.
ThePrint also saw two community toilets outside the colony, one of them free to use.
“These people are living on illegal land, how many facilities can we extend to them?” Thawani asks. He says he had proposed that the community be moved to another area but they have refused. “If the government vacates this land, they can build an office here, a college maybe.”
Poorly educated, they struggle to make ends meet
With their parents out working, most children are left to their own devices and with their older siblings. While most children go to the government school which is till Class 8, very few continue studies after that.
“Our children do not get educated, the parents want them to work as soon as possible,” says another woman named Reena who sits outside her home cooking a bajra rotla on her chulha. Her house has a cylinder like most homes here but she can’t afford the refill.
Her son, Sarju, 14, has been working in the garment factory for the last couple of years. “I quit studying when I was eight years old. I wanted to start working but now even if I want to study, I can’t,” he says, before sheepishly adding that he is a married man with responsibilities.
Sarju’s wife Anandi, also 14, lives in the house opposite his. While Anandi hasn’t started living with Sarju, they often eat their meals together. Anandi has also quit studies and is working, Reena says.
Most of the other young adolescents admit that they have been married as is the norm in their community. “Look at him, he is also married,” a little girl points to Ram, only 10, who refuses to step out of his house.
While the families have grown, the houses have shrunk. “Look, eight of us sleep in this house,” says Keshiben. The house consists of a raised platform with a gas connection, a narrow passage that leads to a bigger room that has a large bed. “Six of us sleep in the larger room and two in the kitchen.”
As the Saranias do not want to move out of their locality, and with limited space to expand, they have divided their homes into smaller houses to accommodate growing families.
“In the last one month, they came and laid the stones on the road to the house, the government will not move us after all,” says Lata, 35, who works as a domestic worker in four houses.
Her daughter, Nisha, 13, looks even younger due to her thin and short stature. She works with her mother and has not gone to her school for the last six months, “The teacher often taunted us, told us that since we are Sarania, we will not do much better than our parents before us,” says Nisha.
It is a sentiment that is often repeated about the community.
“Humari jaati ko buddhi nahi hai (Our people are idiots)” says Dasrath Rana, 37, who is the de facto community leader and who has held the post of mandal chairman since 2005. “To be their leader is a curse,” he adds.
Rana had even tendered his resignation when ThePrint had reached the locality, a week after Trump’s visit. Rana says he had barred people from speaking to the media because of the complaints of no development work having been done in the locality. “They don’t understand that the contracts are awarded and money isn’t given to us,” he adds.
He further says that the water issue is being solved but the bigger problem is housing. The 560 houses here were made many decades ago and the community now wants 800 more homes. “But if we are moved away from here, we will starve,” Rana says.
‘Cities walls off those who don’t fit their model of development’
The city cannot treat Saranias as illegal settlers especially since they moved to Gujarat at the time of Maharana Pratap, says Bharat Sinh Zala, an activist. “When India is granting citizenship to people from outside, it cannot deny their right to stay here,” he adds.
“They (Saranias) are going to get pucca houses, they don’t want that,” Thawani claims, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to remove the slums and has handed homes to 2.5 lakh people in the city, “If they cooperate, Ahmedabad will become a top class city,” Thawani says.
While this wall was built during Trump’s visit, the city municipal corporation had earlier put up the ‘green carpet cloth’ around the locality when the Chinese and Japanese heads came to the country, says Darshini Mahadevia, a professor at Ahmedabad University researching urban studies, poverty and inequality.
“The problem with India is that you have a model of development at the top and you try to fit the reality in that model. If you can’t fit everyone in the model, you wall them up.” she says.
The government has a tendency to blame the poor for their own poverty, says Zala the activist. “We have failed to reach out to Saranias and improve their lives,” Zala adds.
There are cracks in the wall, though.
There is Meera, 15, dressed in a light blue kurta and her hair neatly pleated, at the public tap. In Class 9, she is one of the only 15-odd children of the community who have studied beyond Class 8.
She has one dream. “I want to study until Class 10. Maybe even work outside.”