Once it was a rich mangrove forest, washed by warm tides from the Arabian Sea creeping up the Vashi Creek. In 1992 this salty swamp gave refuge to distressed people fleeing communal riots in Mumbai. Successive waves of displacements, migrations and landfills later, the mangroves are mostly gone. Mandala is now a tightly packed slum settlement, fringed by a few struggling mangroves and vast dumping grounds, where the garbage of Mumbai burns continuously. Only sheer desperation drives people to fight for their right to live here. Averaging the better and worse of M (East) Ward, the Mumbai Human Development Report of 2009 finds its 'Human Development Index' to be an unbelievably wretched 0.05.1

"Do you see air?" asked Sabnoor Khan, "How does air feel? How do you know there is air around you? How do you make sure that there is enough good air to breathe?" Sabnoor was conversing with a class of 27 middle school children attending an after-school learning centre, supported by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, at Janta Nagar in Mandala. In the sweltering October heat, inside a windowless room, she was teaching children about 'Air'.

Sabnoor, a 22 year old arts graduate and herself a resident of the Mandala slum settlement, knows her children closely and shares their life experiences. Her classes are fun and full of spirited talk -- today the children blew up balloons and polythene bags, and discussed if you could prove that these are really filled with air. They blew bubbles into water and wondered what was inside the bubbles, was it water or air, and where did it come from? They dropped an air and a water-filled balloon, and asked which one fell faster. They asked what keeps an airplane up in the air.

Then Sabnoor asked, "How can you tell which way the air is moving?" Mandala's air is heavy, pungent with hydrogen sulphide from the mangroves, methane of decomposing waste, smoke from burning rubber, plastic and other trash -- it is a continuous assault, more or less at all times. The smell is how people tell which way the air is moving. As for the garbage fires, they get out of control for weeks and months: even 700 kilometers above the earth, NASA's LANDSAT sensors see and smell them.

Irritation of the eyes, Asthma, TB, all come from the air of Mandala. From the water come Typhoid, Malaria and Dengue. Those who survive the air and water can only try to make sense of it all, by questioning the democratic polity that tolerates such conditions. We evidenced this when the Corporator of the area visited the Bhim Nagar learning centre. He came expecting to deliver a motivational speech to the children. Instead, the children asked him questions.

"You promised us a road; why don't we have it as yet? We need toilets near our home; why are you not building them here? Why is there no school in our neighbourhood? We walk 2.5 kilometers from our basti to school! You ask us to use garbage bins but there is no road so how can the van to come and collect the garbage?"

It was a rare opportunity to question authority, and we could sense the lightness and liberation it brought to the children. For those brief moments they dared to imagine a different reality for themselves.

The Corporator patiently explained that this land is not 'legal'. The children asked, "What is 'legal'?"

"There are 'authority papers' for the land."

"Who has the authority papers? Whose land is this?"

"The land belongs to the government."

"Our parents made this land, and the government is ours, so isn't the land ours too?"

This simple logic had the Corporator dumbfounded. "You are children." He said, "Ask me about textbooks. Questions related to examinations. Motivation speeches!" Then he walked away...

We teachers strive to educate children, to show them possibilities beyond what we think is their limited world. But so often children come back with fundamental questions for us. A question that touched me deep came from Rahim.

Rahim is a curious 12 year old with a rare talent to tinker and explore. His basti is one of the least served and hence most vulnerable in the entire M Ward. They get no water supply either by pipe or tanker. The daily problems of carrying and storing water inspired Rahim to design and build an ingenious working model of a water pump. He constructed it out of waste plastic bottles, motor from an old toy car and a tiny propeller fan.

A real-life water motor for his mother remains Rahim's dream. In the meanwhile he contributes to the family income by making several trips daily on his bicycle, carrying back cans of water from a basti 2 km away, a basti that has been deemed legal and provided water through the work of an active corporator who lives there.

One day, on my way to Bhim Nagar study centre, I met Rahim on his bicycle. Why is he not attending classes, I wondered. "I have left school", Rahim informed me. "I don't understand anything that they teach." This 7th grader went on to explain that he already knew enough arithmetic to make 100 or 120 rupees a day. He could spend that time earning for his family. "Why should I go to school?" Rahim asked me.

Still, I persisted.

Tuba: Hmmm... Achha ye batao kuchch interesting seekhne ka man karta hai?

Rahim: Karta to hai. Per paisa....

Tuba: Thik hai... Aaj jao, jahan jaa rahe the... Kal milte hai. Study centre aana. Thik hai. Kuchch interesting kerte hain. Sochte hain.

I asked if he wouldn't like to learn some interesting things. "I do feel like it" Rahim answered ruefully, "but what about money?" I had no answer to this, so I told Rahim to go on with his task for now. I promised him interesting things to do and think, if he came to the study centre.

A year after these conversations, in distant China a novel coronavirus found its first human host. Transferred from person to person, carried on airplanes across the globe, in a few steps it reached Mandala. The virus brought more questions. Urgent questions like, what is social distancing for families at live in adjacent 10X10 square feet houses? How is hand washing possible when there is no water? How are symtoms of CoViD-19 different from continuing respiratory problems from the unbreathable air? Under enforced lockdown, with livelihoods gone, the people of Mandala wait for answers.


1Mumbai Human Development Report (2009). New Delhi: Oxford University Press. p.245. http://mohua.gov.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/6Mumbai%20HDR%20Complete.pdf