Moving Slums to the Middle Ground: A Nukkad Natak
HARMAN SINGH DHODI

Nukkad natak (or street play) is a traditional form of Indian theatre that deliberately mixes the principles of performing arts, music and dance with that of social activism to create  awareness among the general public. The roots of nukkad natak can be traced to politics. It comes from the culture wing of political parties, mostly left oriented, and became a popular medium of bringing issues to the people in the 1980’s. Nukkad natak have been extensively promoted for issues ranging from the pulse polio campaign, water misuse, and India’s caste system to domestic violence against women, suicide, depression and drug use.  

The script that follows looks at yet another social challenge: injustice in climate adaptation paradigms. Around one in four of the world’s urban population lives in slums or informal settlements of low- and middle-income countries. These settlements are often located in environmentally degraded and risk prone areas and lack proper shelter or basic services like water, sanitation, drainage waste management, etc. This makes them highly vulnerable to climate change impacts like flooding and exposure to natural processes along with pollution and related health impacts. Yet, the urban poor in these cities lack representation or sufficient say in decision-making  for climate change. It, therefore, is no surprise that the planning in Global South cities is directed more towards treating the symptoms of climate change rather than building the capacity of their vulnerable population. Another critical aspect is the retreat of slum dwellers from their deprived settlements, who have little say in the decision-making about whether to retreat, when, where and how, thus raising concerns about equity and justice. 

The script for this nukkad natak attempts to expose the vulnerability of slum dwellers in Dehradun, a small Indian city lying on the foothills of the Himalayas.

Indian Slums

Moving Slums to the Middle Ground

Characters

NARRATOR
CHILD
MOTHER
BUREAUCRAT #1
BUREAUCRAT #2
VOICE/CLIMATE CHANGE


Prologue

NARRATOR

Come one, come all! Namaste and welcome to nattak — the Indian theatre. Kindly put on your seat belts as we travel to a small slum of Dehradun, a city located in the foothills of Himalayas. Our estimated journey time is five  minutes and our time of arrival is an Earth without Climate Change! We hope you have a pleasant journey with us. (Bell rings indicating scene change)


Scene 1

A CHILD is seen playing with his toys and singing rhymes in an old shanty slum of the city of Dehradun.

CHILD

(Singing) The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Sudden loud evil laughter in the background along with an alarming wind. Things are ringing against each other.

CHILD

(In a scared voice) Who is there? What do you want?

Continued loud evil laughter in the background.

CHILD

(Screaming) Ma! Ma! Save me Ma!

MOTHER

(Rushes in the scene and hugs the child) Don’t worry child, I am here…

CHILD

(Scared) What is happening Ma?

MOTHER

(In a calming voice) Nothing my child. We must have done something to displease the gods. But don’t worry, we will pray to the God for forgiveness.

VOICE

(Loud and bold voice) Hahahaha! I am no God’s wrath and I obey no God.

CHILD

Who… who are you?

VOICE

(Arrogantly) I cannot be seen but you will feel my presence. I cannot be touched, but you will feel my heat. I cannot be quenched but you will sink in my fury. I am the creation of your kind, but I will be the end of you all. I am “Climate Change”! 

Your kind has fueled me over the decades with your pollution. And now I have grown strong enough to unleash my fury! Your kind has mistreated my  beloved nature for your selfish desires. But not anymore! And you two happen  to be the first one on my path of revenge. I will huff and I will puff, and I will  blow your house away! You will drown in my vast waters. No one will escape my fury!

MOTHER and CHILD scream and beg for forgiveness. The ringing and the wind get intense and  the entire scene collapses with a thunderstorm. Bell rings, indicating scene change.


Scene 2

Two BUREAUCRATS are seen walking over what looks like a destroyed slum. Both of them have an umbrella with them and seem to enjoy the weather.

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Singing, excited) When the sun shine, we shine together
Told you I’ll be here forever 
Said I’ll always be your friend 
Took an oath, I’ma stick it out to the end 
Now that it’s raining more than ever 
Know that we’ll still have each other 
You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh

BUREAUCRAT #2

The weather is so pleasant! Ahhhhh! (relaxed) My wife said she will be making samosas with chai. And look at me, (annoyed) missing delicious samosas over this stupid investigation of this shanty slum.

BUREAUCRAT #1

Well, you should have thought of this before joining the government my friend. And we are just here to investigate for losses. And this is just a slum, what losses would be here? (assuring) It would hardly take us 10 minutes! And then we will go back to your home and enjoy samosas and chai.

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Sarcastically) Well, I was planning for a romantic evening with my wife and you are planning to be a weed among the roses.

BUREAUCRAT #1

Hahahaha!

Distant crying sounds are heard.

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Looking around) What is that sound?

BUREAUCRAT #1

Let’s go and check it out.

The scene collapses and a bell rings, indicating scene change.


Scene 3

Back to Scene 1, but this time the house is nowhere to be seen. Everything around seems to be in ruins, while the MOTHER and her CHILD are sitting on the ground and crying. The BUREAUCRATS enter.

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Annoyed) Oh ho ho ho! Why are you two creating a nuisance here? What has happened?

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Arrogantly) You slum people are always crying over one thing or the other. Can’t you two quietly enjoy this pleasant weather?

MOTHER

(In denial) Pleasant? What is pleasant about this weather? Can’t you see? All our houses have been destroyed. All our valuables have either drowned or are nowhere to be found. There is no food to eat, no clean clothes to change into,  no roof over our heads. And you expect us to enjoy?

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Rolling eyes, with monotonous voice) Uhhh! Okay, tell us what happened, and we will see if you deserve any help from the government.

CHILD

(Depressed) It came. It came and destroyed everything.

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Confused) It? What is it?

MOTHER

It has no religion and it obeys no God.

CHILD

It cannot be seen but you will feel its presence. (Gloomy) The presence that destroyed our home and ruined our lives.

BUREAUCRAT #2

Yes, but what is it?

MOTHER

It cannot be quenched but you will sink in its fury. The way we sank under its violent waters.

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Annoyed) What is it?

CHILD

It’s a creation of your kind, but it came after us. But it has promised, it will not leave anyone!

BUREAUCRAT #1 & #2

(Shouting) What is it?

MOTHER & CHILD

Climate Change!

A moment of silence.

BUREAUCRAT #2

Climate change? We already have an Action Plan for Climate Change(confident) We all will be fine. Climate Change cannot come near us.

MOTHER

But when you made the plan, did you even think once about us? Did you think what will happen to our slums? What will happen to our livelihoods? How will we face Climate Change?

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Proudly) Oh please! We have launched several schemes to provide housing to you all. To relocate you to a safer place away from the riverbanks. 

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Blaming) But you slum dwellers are so obstinate! Have so much pride in your slums. You will get your houses drowned but will not relocate  to the new  luxurious houses that the government provides.

BUREAUCRAT #1

You should be thankful to the government and just retreat!

MOTHER

And then what? Where will we work? How will we earn money? You will throw us at the edge of the city, and we will have no means to earn our livelihood.

CHILD

When Climate Change will come back for us, we will have no money to  protect ourselves.

BUREAUCRAT #1

Arreah! You will find new work there. We will provide you with drinkable water, clean house, reliable electricity. Only an idiot will give up on all this.

MOTHER

And you will charge fees or taxes for all the services you provide. Without a source of income, how will we pay for them?

CHILD

We do not want to live in such unfortunate conditions. But we cannot afford to leave this place. Can’t you provide us a new house here?

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Interrupting) No no no. We cannot do that! This slum is illegal. No public or private constructor will want to build here!

BUREAUCRAT #2

And a house on the banks of the river? Only a madman will want to live here.

MOTHER

And yet we do! How is it our fault that we cannot afford any fancy houses in this area?

CHILD

Can the government not help us in other ways?

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Superficially) Ufff! Okay, tell us what do you want?

MOTHER

We want food, we want clean water and other basic materials. We want funding to face such disasters.

CHILD

We want information on how we can deal with such unfortunate events. We have our own ways of dealing with the storm. But they are not enough. Can’t you educated people help us with this?

BUREAUCRATS thinking…

BUREAUCRAT #2

Hmm, these are not very difficult to meet. But we cannot allow you to live on the riverbanks or on illegal land. We want to provide you with safe and secure housing where you have access to all your demands.

BUREAUCRAT #1

We can provide you with resources and information on how to better prepare and deal with climate change. We will not relocate you, but we will help you to create your own and secure housing far from the river.

CHILD

(Joyful, surprised) You mean we will build our own houses?

MOTHER

(Joyful, surprised) This means you will provide us with a new livelihood?

BUREAUCRAT #1 & #2

(Nodding in agreement) Ahhaan. Yes!

Sudden loud evil laughter is heard again in the background as the wind gains momentum.

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Confused) What is this? What is happening?

MOTHER

It! It has returned! Climate Change! It will destroy all of us this time!

CLIMATE CHANGE

(Arrogantly) Hahahaha! I will huff and I will puff, and I will blow you all away! No one will escape my fury!

BUREAUCRAT #1

What should we do?

CLIMATE CHANGE

(Proud) I am the creation of your kind, but I will be the end of you all.

CHILD

(Boldly) Enough! Through participation, we will raise our voices and demand for action. We will not let our slums drown in oblivion!

A bell ring is heard.

CLIMATE CHANGE

(Shocked) What! No, you cannot act against me!

BUREAUCRAT #2

(Assertively) Through inclusion, we will consider everyone’s needs and opinions. The government will build capacity to combat climate change!

Another bell rings.

CLIMATE CHANGE

(In denial) No! You are supposed to build pollution, not inclusion!

MOTHER

(Ambitiously) Through education, our slums will develop new practices to face the rising waters while protecting our people and their livelihoods.

Another bell rings.

CLIMATE CHANGE

(Hurt) Ahhhh! Your education cannot prevent me from growing stronger! I will return with even more power!

BUREAUCRAT #1

(Assuring) Through mitigation, the government will consider the vulnerable population and will reflect these in its climate plans and initiatives.

Another bell rings.

CLIMATE CHANGE

(Crying in pain) Stop! This cannot be happening! No!

EVERYBODY

Through unity and system change, we will defeat Climate Change!

Continuous bell ringing in the background and the weather gets stable. Silence.

CHILD

(Singing) The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout. 
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain.
But the spider knew: the rain may come again.
The spider called all its friends & asked for their support.
And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up with its cohort.

Silence.


Epilogue

EVERYBODY

(Protesting) The winds have changed; our lives have changed.

Now system change, no climate change! (2x times) 

System change, no climate change! (2x times)

End of play.


Author’s Note:

Some real world examples of successful community and government lead partnership projects include Orangi Pilot Project and Alliance of Indian Partners for Water and Sanitation, provision of piped water, sewers and storm drains, electricity and bus services to informal settlements by  government in Latin America, and upgrading of houses by the South African government and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Alliance. These projects were an inspiration for this script.


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