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A child stands next to the pile of rubble that was once her home

On 19 January, a bulldozer ran through some shacks by the side of a railway track. In a matter of hours, some 50 families were made homeless.

Of course, I don’t blame the poor guy who was driving the bulldozer – what an unpleasant job! Nor do I blame the railways for wanting these people off their land – ostensibly, the reason for demolition is to shore up the railway track to prevent any possibility of a derailment. But it is unfortunate that the demolition took place in the middle of winter, forcing many people to sleep out in the cold.

For the government, these people are a nuisance. I’ve heard one official opine: ‘these slumdogs are all actually rich and have houses elsewhere, but just live here to get handouts’. Others remark snidely: ‘they have money for drugs and alcohol, but not to pay rent’. I’d like to see some of these officials spend a day and a night in a shack that shakes as trains rumble by, to see if this changes their perception. And of course, no-one is perfect, and people often turn to abuse to numb the pain of such a vulnerable life – but the solution to this is economic justice, not condescension and condemnation.

For me, these people are friends. I know them by name: Mainuddeen, who I helped get a disability pension for. Shahruck, the boy with muscular dystrophy. Ateeq, who is in intense pain with bladder cancer, yet maintains a stoic approach to life. Afreen and Tehsin, girls who help me teach other kids how to read. Islamun, Ruby, Chandni – so many widows. Nargis and Bhola – kids who aren’t fully there in the head, but are still fully part of their community. I know their faults and foibles – and they know mine. I’ve seen them at their worst and at their best. They’re not numbers – they’re people.

And how do people respond to such a cataclysm? Some have gone back to the villages they left decades ago. A few have managed to scrounge together some money to rent a room in the pakka (brick and mortar) slum where I live. But most are still there shivering by the side of the railway track.

The resilience of the poor never ceases to amaze me. In the evening a few hours after the demolition, . Some are defiant: “we are not going to move until we get compensation from the government”. A few reflect politically and philosophically: “the Earth is the Lord’s, no-one owns it – not us, nor the railways.” Most are meeker: “it’s in God’s hands, we’re not sure where to go.” Many show a wry humour: gesticulating at a shattered pile of tin and bamboo, a 14-year-old girl jokes: “Welcome to our new house, do you like it?” One lady expressed an level of gratitude which astonished me: “We are thankful to the railways that at least they let us live here this many years.”

Pray for these people as they struggle to survive. Pray for us as we try to work out a response. And pray for a world where there is justice and equality, where people have secure accommodation. A world where nobody has a bulldozer driven through their home.

Tom is currently working in South Asia with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. This story was first published on 27 January 2021. Reproduced here with permission.

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