Bulldozer in the ring - the abandoned slum dwellers of Mumbai

Arab Sheikh stands with the wall of tiles he had got done after the first demolition.   | Photo Credit: Priyanka Borpujari

A few years ago, Arab Sheikh’s tin-roofed house in Cuffe Parade’s Ambedkar Nagar was demolished, while other houses with a concrete structure had been left untouched. The mason picked this cue, cemented the roof, and decorated one wall with abandoned tile slabs. On May 3 this year, that wall had fallen, after a demolition drive across four days razed 1,500 houses to dust for encroaching upon mangroves.

Santosh Raut drove a taxi till April. He saved up and invested ₹3 lakh to build a mezzanine floor over his house, so that he could turn the lower floor into a grocery shop. On May 1, he had performed a puja to inaugurate the store. The next day, store and house were demolished. “Now I don’t have a job, a shop or a house. How is one supposed to make any plans?”

Ambedkar Nagar is a dystopian vista now: sandwiched between the infamous and eerily-empty Adarsh Housing Society, and the high-rises across the sea. Between the water and the rubble is a stretch of mangroves, declared protected forests under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 as per a Bombay High Court order in 2005.

Another 500 houses were subsequently demolished in Malwani and Charkop. These demolitions were also carried out to protect mangroves, even as the Union environment ministry allowed the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation to fell 1,000 mangrove trees for the construction of Phase III of the Metro.

The struggle for housing rights, the attempt to provide legal housing, and the prevention of encroachments have been pulling in different directions in the city since the 1900s. Slum residents claim ownership of their homes before 2000 — which entitles them to relief from demolition — but the authorities insist these claims are bogus. The result: regular upheaval in the lives of residents, sandwiched as they are between demolition machines, half-hearted rehabilitation efforts and a politician-developer nexus.

“The city needs slum dwellers for their cheap labour, while the State, the market and society wants to deny their existence. It’s a failure that they are not paid well enough to be able to afford decent housing,” said Amita Bhide, Chairperson of the Centre for Urban Planning, Policy and Governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Mangroves before people

A piece of land can be notified as forest land only after a forest settlement officer has completed enquiries and settled claims.

However, in settlements in Chheda Nagar and Charkop, which are under mangrove cover and were razed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s mangroves cell, the process of investigating the duration of people’s stay had not been undertaken.

N. Vasudevan, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Maharashtra, and Mangroves Cell Head, says, “The Forest Settlement Officer is from the revenue department, and not forest department. A Forest Settlement Officer’s job of settling the rights and the exercise of the Forest Officer’s power to remove encroachment are two completely different processes. Illegal encroachments on notified forest land cannot be considered as a right, and we cannot allow slums to proliferate on mangrove land.”

In Ambedkar Nagar, slum dwellers assert they have been living there from before 2000, cognisant of the State’s government resolution in 2014 that regularised pre-2000 slums, marking the space eligible to be developed and for the residents to receive free 225-sq.ft. apartments from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). A fire in 2013 destroyed their documents, and for those who had been there before 2000, it means they cannot access justice and rehabilitation.

Mr. Vasudevan dismisses the residents’ claim that they lived there before 2000. “Mangroves are notified as forest land based on images of green patches by satellite mapping, from 2005. Anyone claiming to be living on those patches before 2005 is clearly lying.” He is confident that by the end of 2017, all settlements on mangroves would be wiped out.

The need for (re)housing

Bilal Khan, an activist with Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA), which advocates housing rights, says the term ‘encroacher’ is unfair as people do not have the means to buy a house in Mumbai. “If the Unorganised Sector Social Securities Act was implemented at the State level, people’s labour would be recognised and they would get the benefits of at least seven schemes, including housing, pension, insurance, and funeral assistance. Houses under affordable housing schemes are priced at ₹10 lakh and above. How can a sweeper not employed by MCGM afford such a house?”

Prior to Independence, there was a recognition of the need for workers’ housing. That’s why the BDD chawls, Imam Bara in Mohammad Ali Road, and BIT chawls in Byculla and Tardeo were built; textile mills allocated chawl housing to workers.

This need has been largely ignored post-Independence. MHADA did build some affordable homes in the 1970s, the process was too slow to keep up with the demand. So makeshift houses would come up on unoccupied land and would mushroom into slums. Vacant land marked by builders as temporary housing for construction workers for two to three years would develop into a slum.

Kalpana Sharma, veteran journalist and author of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum, says that in 1980, some slums were entitled to upgradation of various forms. “Until the 1970s, slums were considered informal and illegal, so they were subject to demolitions whenever the city needed space to be cleared. A slum dweller did not have any right to claim alternative housing. A subsequent slum upgradation programme allowed recognised slum dwellers on MGCM or State or Central government land and they were given photo passes.”

The Slum Upgradation Programme continued till 1995; SRA was introduced when the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance came to power. The Dinesh Afzalpukar Committee suggested organising horizontal slums into vertical structures to free space for other commercial construction. It seemed like a fine idea on paper, but, Ms. Sharma said, it couldn’t work in Mumbai where developers wanted to redevelop only those plots with a high real estate value. The Dharavi Redevelopment Project, which divided Dharavi into five sectors, hit a roadblock with wrong census data of how many people lived there.

Settlements in Jogeshwari existed even before the Slum Act of 1960 was passed, and the Development Plan, which came into existence in 1964, did not record these at all. “The settlement was declared illegal,” Prof. Bhide says, “and the Development Plan shows a road where the settlement lay. Such conflicts are embedded in the structure of the city.”

Political nexus

The emphasis on land and infrastructure as a commodity has led to soaring prices for real estate, defining a pattern of exclusion of housing for the poor, and market forces determining the city’s transformation. These same levers have been the reason for several scams, with a deeply-entrenched builder-politician nexus that has siphoned off land at throwaway prices. Thousands of acres on the Vasai-Virar green belt were freed for housing in the 1990s.

The 31-storey Adarsh Housing Society, behind which lies Ambedkar Nagar, was meant for Kargil war widows. Top government officials and bureaucrats flouted land ownership rules to allot themselves flats at below-market rates. The scam forced the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, to resign, in 2010.

The story of Golibar’s planned redevelopment by Shivalik Ventures across its 125 acres on the Western Express Highway has been one of a long struggle. The demolitions began in 2004; Krishna Nair, a resident, says 7,666 houses have been demolished but only 1,932 have received new homes. In one part of Golibar, people bought into the plan offered by Shivalik Ventures, but continue to live in transit camps, frail structures constructed with the intent of demolishing. Mr. Nair, a union worker associated with the Shiv Sena, was happy when he heard about the redevelopment. “Who wouldn’t want a better life? We were promised a flat and token cash amount. But if these houses were to be built as towers, there would still be a vast area that Shivalik Ventures would use for commercial purposes, because this is prime property.”

Ganesh Krupa Society, which comprised 323 households, filed a case of fraud against Shivalik Ventures in 2009 for forging consent to get SRA approval. Mr. Nair recites a litany of cases that reveal the often-murky waters in redevelopment plans.

Housing as asset

What seems to bother authorities more is the re-sale of SRA flats. Of 90,000 houses surveyed by the SRA in late 2016, following a Bombay High Court directive, 12,000 were found to have been sold in illegal transactions. The rule stipulates that once allotted, an SRA flat could not be sold or rented out for 10 years. “The surveyors checked if the houses were inhabited by the same people as those listed as owners by SRA, without going into the details of why such transactions took place,” said Ajinkya Padwal, Deputy Collector of Western Suburbs, SRA.

But Ms. Sharma says it’s only natural that people would use the asset in an emergency, such as an illness. Also, “if the SRA flat was in an area of high market value, it is obvious that people would rent it out and move north.”

The SRA’s existence is meant to recognise that slum dwellers add value to an abandoned piece of land by living there and developing it, as in the case of Dharavi, once a marshland. But the Authority’s rehabilitation efforts have often meant disruption of a community’s means of livelihoods and social networks.

Vishwas Shankarwar, Assistant Commissioner of the Encroachments Removal Cell of the MCGM, said people are often reluctant to move to SRA accommodation in places like Mankhurd. “When people are living in slums in prime locations like Dadar, they do not want to leave because of the valuation of the land.”

Law as solution?

Mr. Khan of GBGB said that standing before bulldozers and going to court is only firefighting, and will have no long-term effect.

In 2016, Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, called for a national housing law based on human rights commitments. One of the strongest recommendations of the report was a need for a national legislation that would address problems relating to housing rights.

GBGB had filed a case after a spate of demolitions in 2002, and in response, the government decided on a task force to look at settlements that came up after 1995. Prof. Bhide was on that task force, and one of the recommendations was to give up the notion of the cut-off date.

Even before the final report of the task force could win government approval, a new housing policy was introduced in 2006. The current approach of giving people free housing caps how many such houses can be given to how many people. Such a policy is exclusionary, Prof. Bhide says, enabling only investors to profit, and has resulted in the creation of more slums in far-flung places like Airoli, Bhayander and Nallasopara. “It seems like closing the gates to the city, which is ironic, because we want to attract migrants to the city but not the poor ones.”

Has Mumbai already missed the bus in ensuring housing rights? Will demolitions continue?

Prof. Bhide suggests going beyond the black-and-white notion of legal and illegal. “The scope of affordable housing should be expanded. The poor are willing to pay, but where are the legal options that allow them to buy a house with their abysmal incomes?”

New slums in M-East ward, populated by migrants from other parts of Mumbai, reflect the inability of the poor to break away from the cycle of living in slums for two to three generations.

Meanwhile, in Ambedkar Nagar, makeshift tarpaulin tents have come up; some erstwhile residents have rented rooms elsewhere. “One woman has a monthly income of ₹2,000,” Mr. Khan says. “What is the affordable housing for her?”

Prof. Bhide says deeper engagement is needed. “We may speak through the parameters of the law, but it doesn’t make it all legitimate. There have to be other kinds of legitimacy.”

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 12:34:51 AM |

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