Kengeri Upanagara: The Urban Outpost

So near and yet so far…..

Heard much about their struggle to get their rights over the land that being within urban city limits revolved around getting it declared as a slum and build permanent structures. Remember seeing photographs in the paper in which a large number of Hakki Pikkis were protesting on the streets dressed in their traditional clothes….women in their colourful but raggedy skirts, men in their langotis (loincloths) and along with their children brandishing their bird traps and nets threatening to go back to their bird hunting in the forests if they were not given the land they were in possession of . And having seen Pankaj Gupta’s, “My Bangalore” I felt we already knew many of the characters personally despite not meeting them….like Ganpat of the oil massages!

And yet never had the time or opportunity to meet and connect. Glad that this film and the community conversations have made this possible.

Young photographer, Manavi joins us this time along with good old Partha who comes chugging on his bike with Lohit. Akhilesh, Sameet, Chandar, Srikant and Thyagraj join us directly on their bikes from Bannerghatta.

After many hits and misses in finding the place we land up in the famed Kengeri Upanagara. The urban outpost of the Hakki Pikkis from across the State who wish to access Bangalore. The signs of citification hit you as we walk into this particular slum colony.

This “settlement” is structurally unlike any other that we have seen so far. The long narrow, half built small tenement housing appears more like a jail than a home for the free spirited Hakki Pikkis. Spirits however that refuse to be contained and burst through the incredible spirit of enterprise that sprawls around on the streets that are more their home than the concrete walls that are trying to enclose them. The trademark flowers, the doll making with felt cloth, the colourful parrots that strewn on the pavements all are signs that the community has not lost their wings!

Naveen, Kumuda’s friend who has enthusiastically offered to guide us, greets us with a big smile at the entrance. His own ‘home’ is Madanapalli, beyond Kolar. Hit by drought and famine, many from there have spread out and settled in other regions. His settlement however still survives. But barely. He insists that we must go there to see and capture the abject poverty in our film. This is the story he wants to tell.

Apart from Naveen we are happy to bump into some familiar faces from our earlier travels.

Mayura from Angadihalli waves to us from atop the bike he is sitting on. A sense of deja vu…. it echoes of the same pose he struck in Angadihalli! He and his wife live here when they are not visiting Angadihalli. She is standing for the local Corporator elections we are told.(and subsequently we heard that she has won).

Gajendramma from Korantgere….who turns out to be the wife of Anantaraju who sang us that powerful song and sent us off with a load of mangoes! She also turned out to be the sister of Kallesh who is one of the main leaders in this colony. She is voluble about their situation, both here and back in her own home town:

“We also want to be teachers, government employees…the government has left us like birds. We just move around from place to place. They dont allow us to do our business. We travel all over and are caught by the police since we dont have any papers. Give us the paper that will allow us to conduct our business wherever we go. Or give us land to settle down. To get this land how many legs and hand had to get broken. My brother, Kallesh, has so many cases registered against him. The mafia was sent to chase us away from here. In Koratgere also we are troubled by the local farmers who dont want us to get the land. Four months ago there too we faced so much violence. We got beaten up there too. Both the young and old sat on dharna in front of the Gauribidnur Taluk office. Then we were promised 2 acres per family. We are now waiting for the land. We are a very ‘system jaathi’ which works hard to survive!”

We learn more about the Ayurvedic enterprise from Suresh and Ganpath, the two oil men we meet and who not only supply us with oil but also subject some of us to fairly vigorous head massages! Suresh actually demonstrated how he makes the oil and showed us the numerous herbs that go into it….lavancha, gulganjee, jata maasi, bavancha, pambod, yedmuri, balmuri, amla….all of this and more he throws into the cauldron full of boiling oil….bubble, bubble,boil and trouble….and voila the magic oil that is a panacea for all hairy ills is ready, bottled and ready to be dispatched by courier for various online clients. He proudly shows us some online transactions and courier bills and gives us his visiting card that proclaims him to be the owner of “Neelambari Herbal Ayurvedics.” Like many urban based marginalised communities the Hakki Pikkis too are proficient in blending technology with tradition for survival. A grateful doctor from Kerala helped him get his business registered when he was happy with the effect of the oil on his bare head! He has traveled extensively across India selling the oils …Gujarat, Bombay, Maharasthra, Delhi, Kerala, Goa. He does not deign to sell on the streets but exhibits and sells at various government and private exhibitions. He is planning now to go abroad like many of his other more successful brethren.

It was also a delight to watch Ganpat demonstrate his skills of massaging with the magic oil. He showed the impact of the oil on a brittle broomstick that he got to contort and bend persuaded by his deft fingers! He even persuaded us to subject ourselves to some form of vile Chinese torture when he massaged our temples with barely one drop of a potent wild garlic oil that had us wincing and rolling around with laughter despite the unbearable burning. We were assured that our streaming eyes indicated that all the bad humours had been drawn out. Little Jingibai, Jeevitha, Nikhita and Ranjita look on with ghoulish delight!

It is truly a small world when we discover that Ganpat  is the brother of Jayakeerthi, the big man of Angadihalli who took care of our creature comforts when we visited the settlement there.

Our last stop is in the aluminium sheeted church cum nomadic people’s public library where we have a long chat with Kallesh who has all the saintly demeanor of a Jesus Christ. The atmosphere inside is calm and peaceful belying the chaos and noise outside. While a yellow and red cross blesses us, a Bhrama Kumari eye in the sky balefully looks at us through yellow rays. A huge bongo set and sound system are placed next to the pulpit completing the picture. It is obvious that this leader, cum social worker cum pastor has gone through much conflict and violence to acquire the strength he has to reach out to the enemy or turn the other cheek. “I have 25 case against me” he says with his gentle smile. “But the one who threatened me the most then is now my friend.We came here 25 years ago to the environs of Bangalore. First some settled in Doddigunta in Cox Town, then Koramangala, then Guddadahalli and then to Upanagara. First the BDA people tried to chase us away.Then the local people, largely Brahmins did not allow us to use the borwell. Those who brought us here abandoned us to our fate. Only my family stood strong here. There was a great battle we had to fight. Our houses were demolished twice. A newspaper reporter helped us to stay on here. A lot of attempts were made to chase us away with the help of the local MLA. But the Savitri Bai Phule Sanghatna and Dalit Sangharsh Samithi also helped us by going to the SHRC/Lokayukta etc. We got relief only five years back when the Slum Board declared this area as  a slum.” And now they have after much delay sanctioned money for the building of the houses, the construction of which he is overseeing to ensure proper quality.

But Kallesh is clear that the Government has no sustainable vision for the future of the Hakki Pikkis. “They have forgotten to pay attention to us after bringing us out from the forest to the city.” But his message to his own people is also very clear. “We must hold on to what the Government gives us. We can do whatever business we want but we must not lose what we have.” He regrets the lack of unity in his people who easily get swayed by money. He himself was offered a lot to sell out his people. The four acres of land they are now in occupation of is worth more than Rs.200 crores but he has not only succumbed but is also stopping his people from selling. He is putting into place many plans to make their way of life sustainable including building a training centre and a marketing network. “Our place is like a safe place for the Hakki Pikkis from all over the state” he says. The seasoned organisor he is, he is clear that without organising themselves they can get nothing. “The Government is not doing justice even to the farmer who is feeding us. Will they really come to the support of the street vendors like us?” he asks with great wisdom. Through the Akhila Karnataka Hakki Pikki Helpers Association he is now trying to reach out to other fledgling settlements like Chikanpalya and help more of his people get resettled.

As we leave he promises that he will surely support the Bannerghatta community in getting their rights over the land and also help to keep the flock together!

From Kengeri we proceed to travel to the curiously named Chikanpalya towards which many of the Hakki Pikkis we know seem to be flocking in droves.

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