Guwahati, India: How informal settlers are building resilience in the face of compounding shocks

In Guwahati, India, residents of informal settlements are making collecting efforts and spreading awareness to tackle the impacts of COVID-19 and monsoon floods. Syeda Mehzebin Rahman and Minakhi Tamuli report

This is the twenty-fourth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Guwahati is a sprawling city beside the Brahmaputra River in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. Being the capital city, Guwahati is undergoing rapid development, displacing the informal settlers of the city.

Babu basti and Uzan bazar basti, two informal settlements of Guwahati, were established decades ago on the lands belonging to the railway. While their topography is varied, they share similar stories. They are occupied by families who arrived, struggling, in Guwahati to seek better opportunities. Despite their all having legal identities, there is not a single day when the residents are not worried about eviction.

Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a not-for-profit organisation, has been working with the residents of these informal settlements for many years and advocating for their rights.

The plights of the informal settlers during COVID-19 and monsoon floods

The COVID-19 pandemic added to the crises faced already by the residents of Babu basti. In the month of March, when the residents heard that the government would impose a complete lockdown and urge people to stay at home, they ignored it as a rumour. But soon the reality hit them hard as they were asked not to come for work.

Bindu Singh is a resident of Babu basti who has been living in the basti for the last 21 years. She is a domestic worker like several others residing in the area. Being the sole earner of the family, her income helped take care of her ailing mother, divorced elder sister and her child. Initially, she spent days and nights wondering how to face this unprecedented crisis without any earning options.

A few miles away, the residents of Uzan bazar basti were facing a similar situation. “There was a time when people in the community saw a stranger sneezing and they gathered around him to interrogate. Some even claimed that he was there to spread the disease and that he should be beaten up” recounts Arvind, a young resident of Uzan Bazar.

The majority of the residents in both the settlements have lost their jobs during the lockdown and not all families held BPL (below poverty line) cards. But residents like Arvind and Bindu were determined to fight back and support others in their settlements.

When the communities had just started to deal with the lockdown, in July, the settlements were severely hit by floods. The heavy rainfall with consequent flooding and landslides wreaked havoc in most of Indian states, including Assam.

Collective efforts to deal with dual crisis

Since March, they have depended on the relief support provided by multiple organisations.  For that, Bindu, along with some others in Babu basti, had to approach many organisations, including YUVA, to appeal for food relief and fulfilment of essential needs.

Due to the lockdown and subsequent restrictions, the people were completely dependent on digital communication, which came with its own set of struggles. Although most of the residents of Babu basti had mobile phones, they didn’t have electricity to charge them, making the gadgets useless.

Before the lockdown, they used to charge their phones in the nearby market, paying Rs 5 per hour. Sometimes they used to visit neighbouring bastis that had an electricity connection to charge their phones. During lockdown it became impossible for them to do so.

But eventually, communities managed to negotiate and convince the neighbouring bastis to allow them to charge their phones, but only after paying Rs 5 per hour and sanitising their phones before handing over. They also had to wait outside for hours till their phones got charged.

Due to the devastating effects of the floods, Bindu and other residents were forced to stay in makeshift shelters that they built on high raised areas. “We all lived by the railway line, which is located in between Lala and Dharmanagar, two others informal bastis”, she shares.

The makeshift shelters and toilets resulted from the collective efforts of the residents. They supported each other to shift their valuables to the high raised areas. Over the years, people have learnt to build high raised bamboo houses to save their belongings from floods, but this time high raised houses were also inundated.

“This time the floods approached without any warning and the flood level exceeded twice the level it had crossed earlier. Also, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown left people with no money to buy bamboo and raise the platforms of their houses, forcing them to survive sleepless nights under those shelters”, Bindu shares.

While staying at the makeshift shelters, there was a constant fear of landslides among the residents. Furthermore, they could only build one temporary toilet which was very unhygienic. The lack of toilets made it very challenging for women and young girls on their menstrual cycles. They would skip going to the toilets, as they didn’t feel comfortable using toilets with men standing all around.

“The women in the community would wait for it to get dark to use the toilet. We were worried about our children and the health issues like cholera which usually accompanies the floods”, says Bindu.

Youth-led efforts to create awareness

Seeing the unprecedented crisis brought by COVID-19, young people in the informal settlements like Arvind and Deepak, took it upon themselves to alter the situation.

Since the last 8 years, Arvind and Deepak have been working closely with 8 other youth of Uzan bazar basti to start a youth club in the region, mainly to protect the children of the community and for the development of the basti. Finally in December 2019, they managed to set up the club.

As the number of COVID positive cases started to increase in India, Arvind and Deepak, together with their club members went door-to-door creating awareness and sharing essential precautionary measures. They demonstrated to people how to wash their hands, wear masks and maintain physical distance.

To arrange money for food, they made a list of all contacts in their networks, and approached them for funds and food. Some of them also contributed their salaries in this initiative.

“We woke up early to work in the fish market to earn money to support the relief work. We also visited various shops in our locality and tried to convince them to provide ration at a lower price as it was for a good cause”, Arvind shares.

With all this effort and no support in the beginning, they distributed dry ration in the entire community. Eventually, they started getting calls from organisations like Shishu Sarathi, YUVA and others.

“We became their on-field volunteers and today with all the support and hard work, we have managed to intervene not only in Uzan Bazaar basti, but also in Kharguli area and provide food to around 400 households” Deepak proudly shares.

Amidst the relief distribution, Arvind contracted the virus which led to chaos in the community. But his speedy recovery and continued determination, gave hope to people, making them less fearful of the consequences of getting the virus.

“Thinking of how we started, only with a goal and no means to achieve it, makes us happy to see our accomplishments, to finally see people believing in us” they conclude.

Interviewer’s perspective

Floods in Assam cause massive havoc to the lives and livelihoods of people annually and this year’s flood damage was coupled with the spread of the deadly virus throughout the state. People were unable to prepare themselves for the devastating floods, which created a further blow to them in the recent months. While they were receiving humanitarian relief due to COVID-19, the floods made them vulnerable: many became homeless and adopted makeshift shelters, in fear and with uncertainty about their lives and livelihoods. In these times, when the interventions of the administration were insufficient and no room for hope was seen, the collective efforts of Bindu, Aravind and Deepak reflected the power of human strength and willingness to survive the hardest times. Their motivation to create a safer space for their community gives us hope and positive energy to work towards justice and equality.

About the interviewer

Syeda Mehzebin Rahman is based in Guwahati, Assam, Northeast India. She is currently working with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) on the issues of habitat and informal workers’ rights in the city. She is also currently a global focal point to the United Nation Major Group of Children and Youth (UNMGCY) Constituent Group for the New Urban agenda (2020 – 2022).

Minakhi Tamuli, based in Guwahati, Assam, Northeast India, is a believer of social justice and currently works as an Associate with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) for an Inclusive City Development.

About the interviewees

Bindu Singh is a resident of Babu basti, who has been living there for the past 21 years.

Arvind is a 21 year old young man living in Uzan Bazar basti. He played a crucial role in supporting his community during the pandemic.

Deepak is a 18 year old young man living in Uzan Bazar basti.