With Google Earth, India Can No Longer Hide Its Shantytowns And 'Slumdogs'

An NGO in India has started to use Google Earth satellite technology to shine a light on whole neighborhoods of wretched slums, which authorities had long pretended didn't even exist. But not all are happy about what happens when people suddenly

Sangli seen from above on Google Earth.
Sangli seen from above on Google Earth.
Julien Bouissou

SANGLI - Before Google Earth existed, the slums of Sangli, a city of 550,000 in southwestern India, was acknowledged on government maps by nothing more than some clumsily outlined, empty spaces. But then, from high in the sky, the eye of a satellite saw what no municipal geometer had taken the trouble to show: small islands of huts with dilapidated roofs spread throughout the city.

Thanks to the satellite images available on Google Earth, a full picture of these forgotten slums has emerged. They now have borders; they are mapped; they have an identity. And using these images, Shelter Associates, a Pune-based NGO, has begun rehabilitating the slums. For the first time in their lives, 3,900 families in Sangli are going to be moving into apartments.

"Google Earth's maps are true to reality. They help us reshape and rehabilitate the slums in a way that makes sense within the overall city plan of Sangli," says Pratima Joshi, the director of Shelter Associates. The families don't just need a leak-free roof or proper toilets; they need to be relocated to a place nearby so they don't lose their jobs -- the salary of a domestic worker, a chauffeur or a security guard won't stretch to pay for two bus tickets a day. In Delhi, families who were relocated in comfortable houses in the suburbs returned to the city within a few weeks.

So Shelter Associates teams examine the satellite maps carefully and calculate distances to come up with the best places to relocate families from the slums. Added to the information provided by the maps themselves are precious details gathered by field research teams about each existing family dwelling, such as whether or not it has electricity and running water, the size of the family living in it, and their caste.

In the center of Sangli, the slum where Sanjay Nagar Miraj has long lived was destroyed six months ago so that three-story homes could be built. While waiting for construction work to be completed, slum residents are housed temporarily between two cemeteries – one Muslim, one Christian -- in bamboo and sheet metal huts with tiny gardens.

Fatima Mate lives in one of the huts with her husband and three children. She doesn't dream of having a beautiful living room; what she wants are toilets and a faucet. "Living in the kind of house rich people live in isn't going to make me rich – but at least I won't feel ashamed of saying where I live anymore," she says.

Blind eyes and apathy

Mate and other inhabitants have re-baptized their soon-to-be rehabilitated slum "Sunder Nagar" -- beautiful village. Its residents will also be able to live in security, without the fear of being chased out by the authorities. They will soon be forming an association that will rent the land from the city for 99 years.

Still, there are other residents who are reluctant to leave their slum. Some want to protect their hidden (and illegal) distilleries. Others even own huts that they rent out, and local politicians don't want to lose an electoral base.

In cases like this, Shelter Associates staffers, carrying a laptop and a cardboard mock-up of the planned new housing, go door-to-door to try and get slum dwellers to change their minds. Bringing up Google Earth on the screen, they make the Earth turn with a simple movement of the mouse, and zoom in on India, Maharashtra State and finally Sangli. The images show residents that their new house is located near the hospital, a school and a market. The houses were designed with their help. There's a little enclosure on the ground floor where a few goats can be kept. The are no kitchen plans, as women prefer to sit tailor style on the ground to cook. All the apartments open out onto the same courtyard.

"That way, families who are used to living together won't find themselves feeling isolated," says Pratima Joshi.

The Indian government has allocated nearly 15 million euros for the rehabilitation and relocation of Sangli's slums. But the local government wasn't happy to see the arrival of the NGO. In early March, the district commissioner skipped the weekly Monday project meeting. The engineer in charge of building and public works in Sangli arrives 90 minutes late. "Everything would be so much simpler if we just relocated them well outside the city," says this functionary in charge of slums.

This kind of apathy and incomprehension from local government officials is as much an obstacle as the reluctance of some inhabitants. Still, thanks to the satellite images, authorities no longer have any excuses to delay projects or ignore the presence of the slums.

Could this slum rehabilitation model be used elsewhere? "It would be possible, but more difficult in big cities because of high cost and the rarity of available land," Joshi admits. But her NGO has already mapped a slum in Indonesia, and is scheduled to rehabilitate five slums in Pune, India's seventh largest city.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Google Earth

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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