groundxero | October 30, 2018
The fight of Mumbai’s slums against forceful eviction and deadly “rehabilitation” continues. As the Maharashtra Government and the Bombay Municipal Corporation continue to violate High Court order mandating proper and just rehabilitation for the slum residents evicted last year from all along the Tansa water pipeline, the protests have now spilled onto the streets. On Monday, hundreds of residents of the Mahul Slum Rehabilitation Apartments occupied Tilaknagar police station for an entire day, demanding proper rehabilitation, or relocation back to the original location from where they were evicted. This was a part of the ongoing symbolic occupation and reclaiming of the demolished slum of Ambedkar Nagar, Vidyavihar – one of the slums from which people had been shifted to Mahul. A GroundXeroreport.
Hundreds of evicted slum-dwellers, who have been protesting against forceful “rehabilitation” at Mahul Slum Rehabilitation Apartments in Mumbai, were allegedly attacked on Monday by Bombay Municipal Corporation officials together with the Mumbai police. Mahul SRA residents had symbolically occupied one of the original sites of their slums – a footpath in Ambedkar Nagar, Vidyavihar – since Sunday. But on early morning on Monday, Mumbai police forcefully removed them from the dharna site, allegedly bulldozed their makeshift tent, banners, etc., and picked up 6 protesters. In protest, hundreds of people from the dharna, including old and sick persons, family members of those who died allegedly from pollution after shifting to Mahul, a “critically polluted area” according to the Central Pollution Control Board, and a large number of children including even toddlers, marched from Vidya Vihar to Tilaknagar PS in the middle of a hot day. Through the rest of the day, the police station became the dharna site, as the protestors refused to leave unless their demands were met. According to latest reports, by the end of the day, the Shiv Sena leadership had agreed to meet with representatives from the struggle, after which the dharna from the police station was lifted and shifted back to the original protest site. Nothing concrete came out of the meeting with Aditya Thackerey, President of Shiv Sena’s youth wing, except for verbal assurances of “looking into the matter”.
In 2009 the Bombay High Court ordered the forcible eviction and clearance of all hutments within 10 meters of the Tansa water pipeline – one of the major sources of water supply for the city of Mumbai, cutting through nine administrative wards. The official reason cited was these “illegal slums” are a threat to the security of the area. The narrative however shifted over time. In September 2017, the authorities came up with a new plan: a $45 million, 24-mile cycling and jogging track along the length of the Tansa, which would run in two sections: from Mulund in the north-east to Dharavi in the centre, and Ghatkopar in the east to Sion in the south, according to a report published by The Guardian. Out of 16,717 houses that were to be demolished, only 7,674 are considered eligible for rehabilitation. By 2017, almost 20,000 homes had been cleared, and 30,000 Project Affected People were relocated to the Mahul complex in M-East ward, nearly 12 km away from their original settlement. Alongside the Eastern Expressway, 72 seven-storey Slum Rehabilitation Apartment (SRA) buildings were constructed, in close proximity to major industrial factories including the Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum refineries, Sea Lord Containers, Aegis Logistics Ltd, Tata Power, Rashtriya Chemical and Fertilizers.
The primary concern of residents of Mahul is the inhospitable environment and air quality that has contributed to serious health problems, allegedly including deaths. Mahul is “critically” polluted, according to India’s central pollution control board. A survey conducted by KEM Hospital reports that “67.1% of the population had complaints of breathlessness more than 3 times a month, 86.6% complained of eye irritations and 84.5% had experienced feeling a choking sensation.” Common ailments include skin and eye diseases, breathing troubles, tuberculosis, vomiting and hypertension, allegedly caused by high levels of toluene diisocyanate, nickel and benzopyrene and other volatile organics in the area. Poor drainage systems, solid waste removal, and contaminated water supply further exacerbate the deadly environmental conditions. Incidentally, on October 25, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) fined Mumbai Pollution Control Board Rs. 1 crore for repeatedly delaying the submission of their investigation report on the pollution effects of chemical industries in and around Mahul.
The other major complaint is about the isolated location of the area, far away from the city, that has dealt blows to the finances of these families in multiple ways. The nearest municipal hospital, and the only proper medical facility, is 5.5 to 7 km away. This journey can take over an hour by bus, or alternatively a rickshaw which costs Rs. 140, and several people have reportedly died on the way to the hospital. “I have all the legal documents and proof of our house in that area, even then it was declared illegal and demolished. Our house was bigger than the house we got in Mahul area. Now we have to live in this small one-room-kitchen flat without any basic facilities such as water, health and education for our children. After we shifted to Mahul, all the four members of my family fell ill. We saw the situation of people living here and .. we are in continuous fear of getting affected with diseases like skin cancer, with which other people in the region are struggling”, reportedly said one woman resident of Mahul SRA. The relocated families are also cut off from proper access to education. Continuity of studies has been disrupted, the nearest school is now more than 5 km away. According to the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA) – an anti-slum demolition movement in Mumbai who are also involved with the struggle of the Mahul residents, “There are no free municipal schools in the area, only private schools, which cost … Rs 900 per month”. Many women have lost their employment, and have been severely economically impacted because of long and expensive travel costs to get to anywhere. For those attending college, the commute is now about Rs 200 per day, a fee that is unplayable for some. Children have missed their board exams and in many cases, entire academic years. Some families had to stop sending their children to school. “Mr. Modi claims Beti Padhao, Beti Padhao! You can see here what is the situation of this country’s daughters, they are not even allowed to have access to education. How can anything change in this country? Till how long will the Government deny poor people like us the right to live, and the right to dignity, and the right to education?”, asked a young woman school student, sitting in the dharna at the police station. “After shifting from our original place to here we lost our livelihood options, now I have to follow our court case and our movement. We have to spend lots of money on healthcare expenses. I cannot join another job as we have to spend time struggling for getting better shelter and fighting for this with the government. Our life has become miserable now”, said one of the women residents.
On August 8, a major fire broke out at the Bharat Petroleum pump at Mahul following an explosion, injuring 41 people. “All our buildings started shaking because of the huge blast. We thought we will die. We are caught between the creek on the one side, and these dangerous factories on the other. If such explosions happen again, the cheaply constructed SRA buildings might even collapse. There will be no one who can save our lives”, said Md. Shabbir, an old resident at Mahul SRA. On the day of blast people of Mahul had a court hearing, “On that day we were coming from court, some people left for their work, children left for school and some of us left for home. While going back to home near Ghatkopar which is approximately 12 kms from the spot of blast, we heard horrible sound. When we reached home we got to know that there was a blast in the petroleum company at Mahul”. According to the GBGBA, “For three to four days after blast all the people of Mahul were scared and restless. There were several incidents like cracks in walls of their houses, breaking of glass windows were reported. Residence found it difficult to sleep inside the houses during those days fearing another accident.”
After an extended legal battle by the residents, on August 8, the Bombay High Court ordered the Government of Maharashtra to either relocate the Tansa Pipeline Affected Persons to a better place or compensate them enough so as to enable them to rent a house in Mumbai, and set the deadline of October 1 for compliance. “No one can pressurise people to live in Mahul region, those who got houses at Mahul from government and do not want to live there, can return their keys to the government and continue to live in their original houses”, said the court order. However, the deadline of October 1 passed with no words from the concerned MLAs. On October 2, angry Mahul residents hit the streets and gheraoed fives MLAs outside their residence and offices – Prakash Mehta, Ghatkopar (East) (BJP); Ram Kadam Ghatkopar (West), BJP; Parag Alavani, Andheri (West), BJP; Sanjay Potnis, Santacruz Kalina, Shivsena; and Trupti Sawant, Bandra, Shiv Sena. According to the GBGBA, “Ram Kadam of BJP openly bluffed the protestors. He sent words through the Assistant Commissioner of Police, that he would address the public but later it was found that he escaped from the backdoor of the building”. None of these MLAs met with the aggrieved residents, who are citizens of their respective constituencies. On October 20, with still no specific official response from the Government, Mahul residents gheraoed the house of Uddhav Thackeray, President of Shiv Sena, but there was no response even after that. After facing continuous apathy from the government, they finally decided to reclaim the places from where they were displaced i.e. the Tansa Pipeline Region. This has led up to this current phase of the agitation that began on October 28, at Ambedkar Nagar, Vidyavihar, which falls under the Tansa Pipeline Region. The agitators have claimed that this symbolic occupying of the footpath will continue till the government comes up with a concrete solution for the problems faced by them.
In reaction, instead of following up on the Court order, the Fadnavis Government deployed a huge amount of police force and ordered arrest of the protesting people. The camping protestors were not even allowed to cook food near the footpath. Many of the protestors alleged that as they set out to camp at Vidyavihar, the water and electricity connections to their apartments in Mahul SRA were cut, in retaliation. Among political leaders from the ruling parties, only Mangesh Kudalkar from Shiv Sena, and President of Mumbai wing of Sambhaji Brigade, visited the protest site and promised support.
“High court has given stay order on the demolition of the houses within the 10m area of Tansa pipeline. Now, if other people are living near the Tansa pipeline, then why can’t we?” asked Rekha Ghadge, one of the protestors.“The government says that they do not have the place to rehabilitate us, but we have proof that there are 70,000 empty flats are available in a city, those are specially built for rehabilitation” said Anita, another protestor. Allegedly, there are a huge number of slum rehabilitation flats in better livable parts of the city, that the displaced slum dwellers are entitled to. However, these flats are denied to such people, and instead sold in the market, and the money trail follows till the highest levels of the Government and political organisations. Mahul residents claim to have obtained RTI responses to back their allegation. “This is also to send a message to the Government that unless the Court order is implemented, this Occupy will go beyond symbolic, and spread across the entire Tansa Pipeline Region”, said one of the protestors while leaving the Tilaknagar Police Station to get back to the dharna site at Vidyavihar.
Cover image courtesy Facebook. Regular updates about the Mahul residents’ ongoing dharna can be found at https://www.facebook.com/GBGBandolan/ and https://www.facebook.com/mumbaistoxichell/