Sonia wants victims of Mumbai's demolition drive rehabilitated

Special Correspondent

MUMBAI: Congress president Sonia Gandhi has written to Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh suggesting that the four lakh people whose homes were demolished by the Government be allowed to return to the land they were occupying till the State found alternative sites and built appropriate housing for them.

A delegation of slum-dwellers from Mumbai, led by social activist Medha Patkar, met Ms. Gandhi in New Delhi last month.

Plea for survey

The Maharashtra Government started massive demolition of slums since December 2004 and about 90,000 families are on the streets. Ms. Gandhi in her letter dated May 7 to Mr. Deshmukh has said that a survey could be conducted quickly among those who had lost their homes to identify all settlers before 2000, which is the cut-off date in the ruling party's election manifesto. The State Government and the representatives of the affected people and NGOs could conduct the survey jointly, she said.

She also suggested some reasonable cash compensation and withdrawal of cases against slum-dwellers immediately. Ms. Gandhi said that housing could be designed innovatively to keep the costs down. She said the State Government's estimate of Rs. 24,000 crores was excessive. Costs could be reduced by two-thirds without compromising on quality. Designs could be obtained from architects through a competitive process, she added.

Indefinite dharna

The slum-dwellers are on an indefinite dharna since May 16 at Azad Maidan in south Mumbai in support of their demands. Ms. Patkar, who distributed copies of Ms. Gandhi's letter to the press on Saturday, said several children had died during the demolition drive. Despite Ms. Gandhi's letter, the State Government was not doing anything to rehabilitate the homeless. She said that demolitions were still in progress and in the last few days, over 300 to 400 houses had been flattened. In a slum near Saath Rasta in Central Mumbai, a one-and- a-half-month-old child was crushed to death during the demolition. Elsewhere too children were victims of the demolition process.

Monsoon threat

She said the people were most apprehensive about the monsoons as they were all living in the open. Surekha Desai from Ambujwadi in northwest Mumbai said that homes of even people who were living here before 1995 had been demolished. Siraj Ahmed from Rafi Nagar in Govandi in northeast Mumbai said that people were living on garbage dumps in unhygienic conditions.

Most of those whose homes were demolished are on the electoral rolls, said Ms. Patkar. Slum-dwellers were lathi-charged during a protest last month and despite demands from various civil rights organisations for action against the police officials, nothing has been done, she said.

Suman Gujjar who moved to Ambujwadi from Satara 15 years ago, said: "Why would we come to Mumbai if we had jobs in our native villages.

The government cannot push us out like animals." Sushila Bhalerao, who has come from Aurangabad, asked if the Constitution provides for the poor to be ill-treated. "Did Ambedkar say that we should be pushed to the road and given no shelter?" she asked.

Despite the letter from Ms. Gandhi, the State Cabinet had not even discussed the issue, alleged Ms. Patkar. She said the issue is of people's right to housing and people's needs. The Government cannot ignore them for long, she warned.

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