Why Mahul residents won’t give up their fight

A basic need: (L to R) Nandu Shinde, Anita Dhole and Bilal Khan at the Mahul residents’ dharna at Vidyavihar.   | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

On a sultry November afternoon, about 100 people huddle together in a pandal on a pavement in Vidyavihar, letting out cries of ‘Saathiyon, zindabad!’ (Victory, friends). They have now been here for 36 days, but won’t budge any time soon.

Vidyavihar is about 10 km from Mahul, where they live. But Mahul has never felt like home. On the contrary, it is a place where polluted surroundings, pestilence, disease and scant resources have stripped them of human dignity. They were “rehabilitated” there after the government demolished their homes.

The protesters have come together under the banner, Jeevan Bachao Andolan, supported by activist Medha Patkar’s Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA), to demand a more humane resettlement. Last month, State Housing Minister Prakash Mehta had said project-affected persons in Mahul will be moved to Kurla. But the residents have since learnt that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said this is not possible.

The residents have vowed to continue the protest, even giving the State a 10-day ultimatum to provide them homes.

‘Would rather pay rent’

The fight has been long, and the strength to keep going comes from their suffering. Nandu Shinde, a security guard and a leader of the protest, says the residents have been writing to various authorities since 2015, asking them not to shift them to Mahul. When the appeals fell on deaf ears, they knew they had to come together. Someone found Ms. Patkar’s number and gave it to Mr. Shinde. “I called her at 11 p.m. that day and she answered. The next day, Bilal bhai (Bilal Khan member, GBGBA) came to meet us.”

Mr. Shinde had refused to take the key to the Mahul tenement, even though he was edged out at short notice; he had heard about the sub-human conditions there. “I had a pucca house in Ghatkopar equipped with amenities. On the day of the demolition, we were given only 12 hours’ notice.” He prefers to pay ₹7,000 as monthly rent for a tenement in Bhatwadi, where he lives with his wife and two children. “I would rather pay rent than doctors’ fees.” He has seen 10 of his erstwhile neighbours die of disease in just two months. Mahul residents had a Black Diwali this year, he says.

Anita Dhole, one of the protest leaders and petitioners in the Bombay High Court, too had refused to take the keys to the Mahul apartment. “We had heard horror stories about the place,” she says. Up until the demolition, she lived a short distance from Vidyavihar, in Rajawadi, Ghatkopar. “My parents lived there for almost 50 years. We had a pucca house with a television, fridge and even a front yard. We had been hearing of demolition for about 10 years but never knew if it would happen.” In 2013, the family was informed they were eligible for rehabilitation. They had no idea whether they would be sent to Kurla or Mahul. In the summer of 2017, the house was

demolished and they were told they could go to Mahul. It was a tough call. “My parents and I lived on the footpath for 40 days, at the start of the monsoon. When we couldn’t take it anymore, we realised Mahul was the only option. Ever since, we have been fighting.”

Fundamental right

From the day he saw the settlement, Mr. Khan knew it was not rehabilitation in any sense of the term. “How can rehabilitation be done without taking into account the community’s needs, expectations and livelihoods?” he says. A shift in perspective is central to resettlement. “Housing is a necessity, but today, it is treated as a commodity.”

In that sense, even if the government follows through on its initial assurance to shift them to the Kurla, the resettlement will be temporary. “For the final rehabilitation, we expect the government will take the local people into confidence. Their livelihood, dignified housing, education of their children should be ensured,” Mr. Khan says.

Mr. Shinde too believes the victory is not complete till they get the keys to alternative homes. “If we are asked to move out of there as well, we will not, until we are given a permanent settlement.”

This time round, they know better.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 8:03:19 PM |

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