Mumbai

No city for the poor

Mumbai, 31/10/2017 : Mumbai Municipal Corporation  Demolition at Bandra Garib Nagar illegal Slum.

Photo: Vijay Bate.

Mumbai, 31/10/2017 : Mumbai Municipal Corporation Demolition at Bandra Garib Nagar illegal Slum. Photo: Vijay Bate.

“Indira Gandhi,” the neighbours would call her, because of her imperious manner, high-decibel voice, and a temper that scared the little children. But now, scrabbling in the debris to find her plates and spoons, Khairunissa Ansari, 61, is bereft of dignity, let alone hauteur. Her home is gone — what were its walls is now rubble beneath her feet — and she is just an ageing woman with no place to go.

Ms. Ansari’s house, in the slum cluster called Garib Nagar near the eastern edge of Bandra railway station had been razed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on October 26, one among 325 demolished. Amidst the chaos, a major fire broke out in the area, destroying several more homes.

“My house did not even fall within the 10-metre area earmarked by the BMC,” Ms. Ansari says, sitting on a bed created from the remains of a broken door. “The authorities came here unannounced and gave us no time to even gather our belongings. I am left with nothing.” She is a migrant from Allahabad, and her husband worked as a tailor in a garment workshop until his death 15 years ago. “We had very little savings after his death. I have all my identity documents, I have been paying my bills. And my house was not even listed by the BMC. How am I going to rebuild my house the second time around?” Ms. Ansari, like many other residents, had lost her possessions in another devastating fire in March 2011, which injured 11 and reduced nearly 700 shanties to cinders, rendering more than 2,000 families homeless.

The demolition is in compliance with a 2009 Bombay High Court order directing the municipal body to clear illegal structures within 10 metres of the Tansa pipeline. The residents had been given 48-hour eviction notices the previous night, but the demolition commenced in barely 16 hours, at 11 a.m.

The earthmovers and bulldozers only halted after the HC, in response to an appeal filed by residents, asked the civic body to maintain status quo at the site until November 23.

Aside from the BMC, Western Railway also initiated eviction proceedings under the Public Premises Act to get rid of unauthorised structures erected on the two-acre plot running parallel to the railway tracks. “The Railways are working in close coordination with the state government and the BMC on the evictions in Garib Nagar slum,” Ravindra Bhakar, public relations officer, Western Railway, says. “The HC passed an interim stay order on December 15 on the demolitions of unauthorised structures on the Railway land. Further course of action will be decided based on the next hearing.”

Local municipal corporator, Mohammed Halim Khan of the Shiv Sena, said that the H-east ward authorities have called for a public hearing on January 1 to determine the exact number of residents eligible for rehabilitation and the future of Garib Nagar. Meanwhile, residents have begun to rebuild temporary structures on the plots where their homes stood, but without electricity and water supply.

October 26 was a Thursday, a particularly unfortunate day for the garment trade, one of the main small industries in Garib Nagar. “It is the day before the tailors deliver their finished goods, in order to collect their dues and raw stock in exchange,” says Riyaz Ansari, 39, a migrant from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. This has had far-reaching effects on local businesses and livelihoods. “With all their wares either gutted in the fire or broken down, [the tailors] had no choice but to leave.”

The garment units are also a source of income for many women in the neighbourhood. Shakeela Khan, 50, who works as house help in Bandra, says, “The women mainly worked in home-based jobs such as tailoring and catering. They also worked as assistants, or undertook part-time work such as packaging or cutting threads.” For them too, this is an income source lost.

With only 35 units of the 325 demolished being deemed eligible for rehabilitation by the government so far, the other affected residents are living without any basic utilities.

“For nearly two months, we have had no electricity or water supply,” says Shabana Qureshi, 35. “Several thefts have also been reported. We have to pay ₹2 to use the latrine and ₹10 to bathe, making it a highly challenging situation.” Her four school-going children lost all their books in the fire.

“[The residents] are being treated in an inhuman manner,” Mr. Khan says. “Many have fallen very sick; we even received news about people suffering from a heart attack. They have been living here for so many days and ought to be provided with alternative accommodation. How can we take away their basic right to dignity and life?”

Life on the margins

A report, published in November this year, by Committee for Right to Housing, Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, and Aajeevika Bureau, estimates that Garib Nagar is home to a thousand families, mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal, besides central Maharashtra. It is on the list of slum clusters drawn by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) in 2015, which estimated the area as 7,250 sq.m. (Rough estimates by local activists indicate that the plot area could be higher following the fire in 2011.) The plot is owned by the Railways, which has given around 80% of the land to the BMC on a long lease.

Garib Nagar was once swampland, says Mohamed Tahir Ansari, 61, a skilled construction worker from Madhubani in Bihar, and it has been developed by people like him. “The place was fully refilled and built by the communities who came here more than two decades ago. Earlier, a good number of the migrant workers would work in the abattoir that was located here. Some others took up low-skilled jobs in nearby dye and garment factories, construction sites, dhol- and toy-making workshops, and hotels.”

In the aftermath of the 2011 fire, residents claim that the local authorities quietly backed the construction of semi-permanent structures, going up to four floors, in the area. A resident, who had received an eviction notice from the BMC in August 2011 on the basis of the 2009 HC order, says, “We even made legal payments of ₹10,000 and more to the police as we built additional floors. In fact, there has been an active market for buying and renting of houses and workshops run by a few influential people here.”

According to several residents, they pay hefty deposits of up to ₹1.5 lakh to rent out higher floors built atop existing structures. Some alleged that the principal owners are builders and big businesspersons from Nalasopara. Other locals say that it is common for migrant garment workers to rent out workshop space for ₹1,000 per month. “While there were some who lived and worked in the same structure, several took it up on lease,” says Mohammed Yousuf, 65, a toymaker. “They used to purchase the raw materials from the areas adjoining Naupada and deliver the goods on a weekly basis.”

Inadequate rehabilitation

This set of demolitions is not the first.

In 1998, the BMC cleared 145 illegal structures for the widening of A.K. Marg, and provided alternative accommodation to 131 householders in Dharavi.

In the aftermath of the 2011 fire, the issue of ownership of the land was mired in controversy, with the state government and the Railways not clearly demarcating the boundaries of land owned by them, thereby disturbing the rehabilitation of the families rendered homeless. The state government had declared — on ‘humanitarian grounds’ — a paltry compensation of ₹1,000 per person, with ₹5,000 being the limit for every family affected by the fire. But the 700-odd workers who worked and resided in the various manufacturing units were declared ineligible for compensation.

Some residents and activists murmured about the BMC having started the fire themselves, to hasten the eviction process. The civic body countered these charges by alleging that the fire was planted to temporarily halt the demolitions. Deputy Municipal Commissioner (special) Nidhi Chaudhari, who has additional charge of the Removal of Encroachments Department, says, “In Garib Nagar, the fires are all planted fires, so that the demolitions can be temporarily halted. The cylinders are illegally stored in the shanties.” The official stance, she says, is: “Prima facie, people living without permissions on government land are encroachers; only some are eligible beneficiaries.”

Shweta Tambe, project director of the Committee for Right to Housing, who has been working with the community, is critical of Maharashtra’s compensation policies. “The state lives in its own bubble. The project-affected persons are often way more than calculated in the project document, which means that people who are in reality eligible for rehabilitation have been issued eviction notices. This leads to large-scale homelessness of the poor.” She says that in the case of Garib Nagar, the various wings of the government were responsible for the rise in new-found structures, the ensuing illegalities and the high degree of informality.

All for a bicycle track

The demolitions in Garib Nagar are a part of the BMC’s larger anti-encroachment drive. By the end of the year, aside from 2,094 shanties in Bandra East, including Garib Nagar, the BMC will have also demolished 5,245 shanties in Kurla and 2,401 in Matunga, among others. Of the 325 structures demolished Garib Nagar in October, the occupants of only 35 have been deemed eligible for rehabilitation in Mahul village. Out of the 16,717 huts along the Tansa pipeline that will be razed, residents of only 7,674 are eligible for rehabilitation.

The illegal structures earmarked for demolition around the Tansa pipeline are for a specific purpose. Once the plots are cleared, the civic body will spend ₹300 crore to construct a boundary wall, and a 39-km cycling and jogging track along the pipeline. Out of the 16,409 huts along the pipeline that are affected, residents of only 8,007 are eligible for rehabilitation.

Even those who are being given alternative accommodation are unhappy, though.

A group of residents being evicted by the project in different pockets of the city have appealed to the HC, challenging their relocation to Mahul village, on the eastern edge of the city, near the refineries. (The colony there, initially meant for people evicted to make way for the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System, is now also being used to house project-affected persons from the Tansa project.)

“I have been working in Behrampada for several years and have my entire life here,” a resident, who asked not to be named, says. “My children go to school here, and I work in a factory nearby. How can I be forced to move to Mahul, which is in the middle of nowhere?” The reason they are being evicted angers him even more. “They are building a cycling track for whom? Does this even make sense when so many of us are being forced out of our homes?”

Ms. Chaudhari of the BMC claims that the residents are being instigated by local politicians or other influential stakeholders against accepting these allotments. “There are several reasons such as political influence, influence of local stakeholders to rebuild these illegal structures on the same land once again,” she says. “Of course, some of them have genuine issues, such as shifting schools, and livelihoods. But we are shifting them within the peripheries of the city, not to some other place.” She wonders why “everyone is talking about losing their livelihoods when they are made to relocate, but just look at the poor quality of their current living.” The Tansa project is meant for the whole city of Mumbai, she says.

Academics and activists point out that migrants like those in Garib Nagar are a valuable part of the city, that they are contributors to the economy, even while living in harsh environments.

“Mumbai is a typical case of how the issue of housing for migrants can be a highly politicised yet neglected problem,” says Amrita Sharma, director, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau. “These so-called illegal settlements are only an extension of the highly extractive informal labour economy of the city, which hinges on the availability of cheap migrant labour. If only the State response could acknowledge this reality and be more inclusive in its approach.”

Hussain Indorewala, urban planner and academic and a member of the Collective for Spatial Alternatives, deplores the lack of inclusivity in planning the city’s amenities and utilities: “This is a case of a systematic attack to evict slum dwellers from a prime-value land area. It is a pattern of concentration of the poor into low-income ghettos, where they are pushed out in the periphery.”

At Garib Nagar, meanwhile, most of the evicted residents are cooking, sleeping and living in the open, staring at an uncertain and scary future.

Asghavi Begum Qureshi, 68, who ran a biryani stall in the neighbourhood, still manages to see a silver lining: “I am only glad that in the chaos and confusion, I managed to save my documents, and the Holy Qur’an. Only prayers are keeping me alive and hopeful.”

The writer is a freelance journalist and a Senior Consultant (Knowledge and Communication) with Aajeevika Bureau


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