This report is the second of a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods. >Read the first part here
If wellness is only for the well-heeled, a slum is an unlikely setting for a modern gym. In Ambedkar Basti, however, men and women have joined the growing tribe of fitness fanatics, pumping iron in a newly opened fitness centre. Beyond spreading a feel-good liveliness, the gym in the South Delhi slum has an important role to fulfil: stopping young people from taking to drugs and crimes and keep the peace. With women out in strength, the gym has changed the social dynamics of the slum.
The Basti begins where the tarred road ends, a haphazard cluster of tiny concrete structures divided along an open drainage behind the Border Security Force residential complex at R.K. Puram, a middle-class neighbourhood. Valmiki community members who make a living as guards, sweepers and hawkers live here. There are 6,000 registered voters. The ground for several political rallies, the slum has been plied with promises of development, or basic civic amenities. Only nothing comes of them.
Last year was different. In August, a public toilet for men and women came up. In October, the gym opened.
As incredulous as it may sound, the sight of the gymnasium, with three benches, two barbells, a bunch of weight plates and a twister, led to a frisson of excitement in the neighbourhood. The slum youth poured in, and Raman Singh, gym owner, soon became a household name. He installed two ceiling fans, a music system, a water cooler and two full-length mirrors, and plastered the orange walls with life-size posters of Bollywood heartthrobs like Sanjay Dutt flashing their biceps.
“This gym helps the youth from getting into crime and drugs,” says Mr. Singh, 36, a slum dweller who aspires to be a politician.
As winter left the city shivering, the women in the slum could not resist the excitement of lifting weights and looking fit. Even earlier, some of them would often go to a nearby garden at R.K. Puram to work out. Sangeeta Singh, 26, would show them how to do abs and push-ups. A helper at an upscale gym in Khanna Stadium at R.K. Puram for seven years, Ms. Singh had learnt the basics of working out. By picking up words such as “running, dumbbells, abs and reps”, she established her reputation as a gym assistant.
Mr. Singh invited her to his gym, and asked her if she could train women there. She agreed and seven women joined first. From here, the social dynamics of the slum changed. For the women, the gym provided an outing, a release. “Everyone wants to lose weight these days. But here, women couldn’t go anywhere,” says Anita Kumar, who joined the gym to lose her post-pregnancy weight.
The gym now allows only women between 9.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m., and men would use it in the evening.
In a tight T-shirt and a scarf around his neck, Mr. Singh exudes the confidence of an amateur entrepreneur. Below his gym, he runs a food joint, selling potato patties and chowmein late into the night. Though he wants to make profits from the gym and eatery, he says there is a reformist agenda behind his entrepreneurial drive. It is the murder of his elder brother two years ago that led him to open the gym, he says.
“Drugs are a big problem here. We have lost our young boys, including my brother, in brawls,” he says. For the first two months, he did not charge gym members. But as winter passed, he noticed that attendance was dipping. Women had stopped coming and fewer men turned up. So a Rs. 200 fee was fixed.
In April, the gym has turned into a furnace. An undeterred Mr. Singh has added another room on the upper floor and as for equipment, three treadmills and an ab-rocker will soon fill the “cardio section”. “Women don’t want to lift weights, while men are interested in pumping iron. The upper floor will be the women’s section,” he says.
The downside to the story? The gym has started attracting some young unemployed men who are causing concern for the women. But the women are not giving up yet. “Exercise has helped some lose weight and for the others, it is the only excuse to step out of their hutments,” says Suman, who joined the gym but left it in two months after she was harassed by men on the streets.