Ugly tidings were round the bend for Kalpesh Shivkar when a registered letter arrived from Pilot Constructions Pvt. Ltd. in March 2010 requesting him to vacate his house in the interests of redevelopment.

This was followed by an impassive notice issued by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation pasted on his door, directing the Shivkar family to pack up on the clause that “their premises were required by the corporation for public interest.”

A formal eviction order followed in December directing the family to shift to a transit camp in Lower Parel. Naturally, Mr. Shivkar and his family would be rehabilitated in a 500 sq.ft. apartment, said the builders.

When he refused to vacate his seven-decade-old home, the first bulldozers promptly arrived in January next year. While they razed his neighbour's home, Mr. Shivkar managed to get a stay against the demolition.

While he managed to escape ‘redevelopment' for over a year, the spectre finally caught up with Kalpesh as the bulldozers finally mowed down his home last week.

Since the demolition, followed by beatings and arrests, the Koli people's struggle for their hearths and homes has taken a grim turn in Sion Koliwada with a powerful politico-businessman lobby dictating their fates.

According to a spokesperson for Pilot Constructions, only Mr. Shivkar and a dozen other tenants like him were holding up the project by demanding an extortionate price for their new apartments and indulging in agitations allegedly abetted by anti-social elements.

The community has been residing on tenancy basis since the days of the British Raj, when ‘Sion Koliwada' was owned and constructed by the Bombay Improvement Trust. In 1935, the BIT merged under the Bombay Municipal Corporation, and an Improvement Committee was constituted to take care of structures like the chawls in Sion Koliwada.

With the locality having been on the radar of builders since 1994, the first demolitions began in 2006, when Pilot Constructions (owned by Sudhakar Shetty of the Sahana group of developers) began constructing a 13-storey building by displacing a school and two chawls on a small strip of land owned by the State Education Department.

At the time, the 190-odd families presently living in chawls had no intimation or information that this was to be a ‘rehabilitation building' for packing them in.

According to several residents, Mr. Shetty held a meeting sometime in 2007 — when the building was already half-way through — and mooted a redevelopment scheme to transform Koliwada.

As the project was going to be implemented under Section 33 (7) of the Development Control Regulations (DCR) for Greater Mumbai, 1991, a 70 per cent consent of local tenants was mandatory.

The builders claim they have 75 per cent consent of the ‘Shiv Koliwada Housing Co-operative Society' — a society they allege has been ostensibly formed by residents appointing Pilot Constructions to redevelop their chawls.

The residents have alleged this so-called society is a sham, set up by hardened criminals with the aid of forged signatures.

At least 105 tenants have submitted affidavits pledging they have not given their consent to form this society, appoint any builder for redevelopment nor participate in any General Body meeting called by the society.

As a counter, the Kolis even formed their own society by the proposed name of ‘Shree Mothyadevi Co-operative Housing Society.'

According to lawyers representing the community, this ‘redevelopment scheme' could not be imposed on the community as they are the original tenants of property belonging to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation.

According to advocate Anjali Awasthi, no Co-operative Housing Society located on land belonging to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) can appoint private builders without a lease agreement.

“As per Sec. 92 (dd) of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, this lease of land belonging to the MCGM cannot be granted to any co-operative housing society without the State government's approval,” said Ms. Awasthi.

Further, it is mandatory for the Municipal Commissioner to invite tenders for redevelopment work where the expenditure exceeds Rs. 50,000, which in the present case it does.

Importantly, it is mandatory for this consent to be verified by the Mumbai Building Repairs and Reconstruction Board (MBRR) as per Appendix III of the regulation, Ms. Awasthi said, adding that only when the MBRR was satisfied could the Floor Space Index (FSI) be allotted to the private builder/developer (clause 4 of the same regulation).

“Land belonging to the Municipal Corporation is not for the private profit of any developer,” she said, adding that the community would challenge the entire scheme in the High Court.

However, Deputy Municipal Commissioner Milind Sawant clarified that under regulation 33 (7), the prerogative to appoint a builder lay with the Co-operative Housing Society, even with regard to land belonging to the MCGM.

On the question of consent verification, Mr. Sawant said this was required only on land belonging to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), while the MCGM was the competent authority in matters pertaining to property owned by it. The MCGM gets the consent verification done by the Improvement Committee as per a resolution, he said, speaking to this correspondent.

“The builder then obtains the Letter of Intent (LoI) from the Building Department after the 70 per cent consent verification has been approved by the IC,” he said, adding that a lease agreement could be secured after the redevelopment work was completed.

Legal subtleties apart, the Kolis argue that they would be wiped out from spaces where their forefathers have resided for centuries.

“The builder invariably will swallow up a large chunk of the area for his commercial use. Anyway, we are not interested in his project,” says Bhavesh Vaity, an Assistant Professor of Management Studies at Chetna College.

Incidentally, Congress MP from Mumbai South Central Eknath Gaikwad has set up office in the newly constructed 13-storey rehab building.

“I have no stake or any interest whatsoever in this redevelopment project. The Shiv Koliwada Housing Society members have given me a temporary office to sort out problems between the residents who do not want to move in,” he told this reporter.

According to Mr. Gaikwad, the Kolis had apparently approached every political party, but he was the only one to have stood by them. “The builder [Sudhakar Shetty] is willing to give them everything: a hefty goodwill sum, free maintenance, a 500-sq.ft. flat. What more do they want? Why be so obstinate?” he asks of the Kolis.

At a forced press meet staged by the Shiv Koliwada Co-operative Housing Society this Monday, the builders told TV channels the tenants were happy in their newly constructed apartments.

Not a single resident from the Koli families attended the conference, which was populated by members from the builders' clique. Despite consistent threats from the builder's henchmen, they doggedly prefer to agitate.