Every year like clockwork in midsummer Mumbai’s slum Maharashtra Nagar is demolished by civic authorities, only to come up again

The residents of Maharashtra Nagar have learnt how to cut their losses. So familiar are they with the yearly routine of demolition, that when the squad arrives at their slum settlement, with police in tow, they start knocking down their houses with their own hands.

“That way we can salvage our belongings. So that at least you can reuse some of the material,” says Rama Shankar Tiwari, a resident.

His house was among the nearly 2000 shanties demolished by the civic authorities last month. To Mr. Tiwari and the thousands of poor in the neighbourhood, this demolition drill must be suffered till the bamboos are erected once again and the heap of asbestos and tarpaulin finally begin to look like a home again.

What astonishes them, as well as a section of researchers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), is the clockwork precision with which the shanties in this particular area are razed every year. “It happens precisely every May for the past three years. Even the dates are same,” notes TISS professor T. Jayaraman.

This May, around 1,765 huts were demolished on May 7 and 8. Last May, the demolition was carried out on May 6, 7 and 8, according to Deputy Collector Dhananjay Sawalkar.

An assorted bunch of factors go into the making of this timely exercise. As per the Bombay High Court directive, demolitions cannot be undertaken after June 1 in view of the monsoons. “In March-April, the police were not in a position to provide bandobast as the State Assembly was in session. Before that is the festive period. We don’t generally demolish during Diwali,” Mr. Sawalkar told The Hindu.

He said the police had reported the presence of “Bangladeshi residents with criminal antecedents” in the area. In 2003, he said, FIRs were registered against 400 slum dwellers, a move which is to repeat itself. Adding to this concern is a series of letters for over the past four years from the Navy urging the authorities to remove the settlement citing security threat to the Naval Armament Depot (NAD) nearby as reason.

From the records made available to The Hindu, eight letters were written between 2009 and 2012, all between January and April, calling for action against “unauthorised” construction. The NAD has flagged off high security risk to “sensitive installations” in their communication.

“NAD Trombay is responsible for storage, repair and maintenance of a large quantity of highly explosive stores and weapons and therefore any threat to this installation may not only affect this depot, but BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre). High-rise buildings may be sustainable platform for possible terrorists to observe and attack the desired targets effectively,” states a letter dated April 30, 2010.

Referring to the height of the constructions, another letter dated April 2, 2009, warns: “Any projectile or rocket can be thrown inside the depot.”

The letters also point out that “as per the Government of India Gazette notification dated January 25, 1992, the Ministry of Defence has imposed restrictions on construction, addition/alteration and encroachment within 500 metres from the depot safety zone”.

Recent communication flags off other peeves like seepage of contaminated water from the area’s marshland inside the depot.

Indeed, the area is a belt of marshes, where people have constructed dwellings on raised platform. “Earlier, the whole area was in water so no one came to live here. Now that we have filled up the land, everyone eyes it. The bulldozers come right in,” said Heena Kadri, a local resident.

A study conducted by TISS points to another conundrum. Though the slum is termed unauthorised, that is the huts were built after the State government’s cut off of 1995, civic facilities have been provided. “Construction of a toilet block has been approved for the area from the MLA fund…Interestingly, construction of a toilet complex requires a no-objection certificate and the same has been given by the Collector’s office,” the study observes.

Given the size of the population, pegged by the TISS study at round 5,000, local political leaders have been vying to provide some basic facilities to the people, only to the annoyance of the administration. Shiv Sena’s Rahul Shewale, who is the councillor for the ward, was present during the demolition drive this year and stalled it for nearly two hours, an official said.

For Mr. Shewale, although he is opposed to the encroachments, supporting the people is an obligation that comes with being an elected representative. “There is a pre-monsoon demolition programme every year,” Mr. Shewale told The Hindu on the phone. “I had earlier proposed to the State government to levy heavy fines so that the settlers don’t come back. They should be excluded from the voter list so that politicians can’t exploit them as vote banks. This time I provided them food, building material and some financial help. Since they elect you, they expect you to provide them with facilities,” he said.

Local MLA from the Nationalist Congress Party, Nawab Malik, who gave funds for toilets, borewell and paver blocks, debunked the idea of vote bank politics. “Are they not people?” he asked. He said houses should be constructed for the people under the Rajiv Awas Yojana that requires no cut-off.

“This is the government land and it is my duty to protect it,” Mr. Sawalkar asserted.

Meanwhile, the people of Maharashtra Nagar are here to stay. Around nine trucks of mud were needed this time — the cost of rebuilding a house is nearly Rs. 20,000. Though the shanties are rebuilt in 15 days, as per an official’s remark, there will be another month of May. And another round of demolitions. The civic body keeps its appointment. The residents keep time.