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On the highroad to `Shanghai'

Print edition : Aug 12, 2005 T+T-

Thousands of slumdwellers hounded out by the Maharashtra government's demolition drive remain homeless in Mumbai.

DIONNE BUNSHA in Mumbai

AFTER six months without a home, something snapped inside Durgpati Sinha. Early one morning, Durgpati went back to the edge of the creek where her home once stood. She cried, laughed, sang hysterically in front of those squatting near the creek, shouting, "I will get my house back, I won't let the government take it." In her frenzy, she slipped and fell into the marsh. Her husband Vijay was woken up and immediately took her back to their friend's hut, calmed her down and put her to sleep. When he left, Durgpati poured a bottle of kerosene over her body and lit a match. As she burned, her six-year-old daughter Rajni looked on.

Her friends did not realise what was happening on the other side of the partition that separated the hut. "Suddenly, I smelled something burning. I started shouting, but I soon fell unconscious. When I was revived, I realised she had died," said Asha Devi Pal, who has hosted the Sinhas while they are homeless.

Last December, the bulldozers turned Durgpati's dreams to dust. Her home in Mandala, Mankhurd was torn down in the Maharashtra government's slum demolition drive. Since then, her family has been living with friends hoping that the authorities will let them go back to the tiny plot in which they had invested their life's savings to build. But recently, their names were not even listed amongst those eligible for the State's temporary monsoon shelters for those displaced. When Vijay broke the news to an already disturbed Durgpati, her hopes of getting back their home dissolved.

Durgpati's dramatic death did not make headlines. The dilemma of more than 450,000 people who were made homeless are invisible in this city of gold.

It has been six months since the Maharashtra government demolished more than 90,000 homes in its zeal to turn Mumbai into Shanghai. The government has offered them no alternative. When the Congress high command pulled up Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh for his campaign to drive out the city's poor, he buckled and was forced to halt the demolitions. Deshmukh was reminded of his election promise to extend the cut-off date for those eligible for slum rehabilitation from 1995 to 2000. He agreed to extend the cut-off date and promptly got his officials to conduct a survey and declared that only 5,645 families of the 90,000 made homeless were registered pre-2000.

For permission to extend the cut-off date, the State approached the Mumbai High Court. The court ordered the government to provide temporary monsoon shelter for at least the 5,645 families which are considered `legal'. It will provide a tiny plot on which the family has to pitch its hut for three months. Then, they too are back on the streets.

"We are already half way into the monsoon, and not a single person has settled down on this resettlement site," says Mohammed Gulab Sheikh, Durgpati's neighbour. "The agents have been allotted plots, and we have been left out. Every house that was broken was worth Rs.1 lakh to Rs.2 lakhs. The government built roads, balwadis, water taps for us. Then, how can they call us illegal and break it all down?"

So far, of the 128 plots allotted at Mandala, 40 are bogus (cornered by local goons and slum lords), while genuine people have been left out, says activist Medha Patkar. "The government has only two sites for temporary settlement. How are so many people going to be accommodated?" asks Patkar. "It is supposed to put forward a housing policy before the High Court, but is stalling for time." The court had come down heavily on the government for failing to honour the people's right to housing and asked it to come up with a long-term housing policy in consultation with organisations working on housing rights.

While legal proceedings drag on, these dishoused people brave the monsoon. At Mohd. Rafi Nagar in Govandi, people are living on a graveyard in the city's garbage dump. "Even animals have a better life than us. When it rains, the water rises from under the garbage, worms and rats crawl around and the plastic sheets over our heads are blown away. We can't sleep and are always drenched," says Hafiza Sheikh Babu. "I left my children with my parents in Pune because it is so dirty, they kept falling ill. Besides, there is no food, they were starving."

Those pitching tents at Mohd. Rafi Nagar had lived on an adjacent plot which had been filled with mud over the years and in which they had permanent homes. Ironically, while they are knee-deep in water, there is not any to drink. "We have to buy water at Rs.2 a gallon. Whenever there is difficulty, some people always make a profit," says Hafiza. Her friend Salma Ansari adds: "I got bitten by a rat, but there's no money to stitch the wound."

When asked about the resettlement of these displaced people, the government refused to discuss the matter. "It is sub judice, if I speak it will amount to contempt of court," said Rama Rao, housing secretary. When asked about the lack of temporary shelters, Rao said: "Only 5,645 families registered before the cut-off date of 2000 will be given temporary plots at the two sites in the eastern and western suburbs. We are not concerned with the rest."

Ironically, while the Congress-led alliance government remains indifferent, the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee has doled out compensation to the families of 15 people who died as a result of the demolitions. This includes people like Durgpati who committed suicide, those who died of injuries during the demolitions, infants who succumbed to illnesses after they were thrown on the streets.

BUT the larger question of housing for the poor remains neglected. The High Court has asked the State government to come up with a housing policy soon. What exists now is the Slum Redevelopment Scheme, which essentially permits builders who develop slums a share of the land for commercial redevelopment. The scheme has been a disaster, with even official reports critical of the scams that builders have gotten away with in the name of slum redevelopment.

During the demolitions, the Chief Minister kept insisting that the government did not have the 300 acres needed to rehabilitate Mumbai's slumdwellers. Around 65 per cent of the city's population that lives in slums occupy only 6 per cent of the total land area in the city - 2,525 of the city's 43,000 hectares of land, according to the government's Afzalpurkar Report of 1995.

Housing activists and city planners have been suggesting that people could be provided housing in the original site with loans provided by banks and finance companies. Most slumdwellers spend a lot every year to build or repair their homes - fill up the ground beneath their homes, tile them, build roofs and so on. Besides this, they have to pay bribes to local officials every time they repair. This expense would be better invested in bank instalments for a new, permanent home.

There is no lack of land in the city. With proper regulation, much of the 600 acres of mill land in the city, which were leased at a pittance to the owners for industrial purposes, could be used for public purposes such as low income housing, recreation centres, playgrounds and so on. But the Mill Owners Association insists that the original D.C. rule stated that if the original structure is retained or re-structured, there is no need to share the land with the government.

Earlier rules allowed for the sale of mill land on the condition that one-third should go to the Municipal Corporation for open spaces, one-third to the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority for public housing and the rest to owner for commercial development. By these rules, around 165 to 200 acres would have been used for open spaces by the Municipal Corporation and 160-220 acres would be given for low cost housing. But sometime in 2001, the government slipped in an amendment to this rule, which said that only open land on which there is no construction should be distributed in this manner.

With the new rule, only 32 acres would be available for opens spaces and 25 acres for affordable housing, according estimates by the Bombay Environmental Action Group. Now, real estate developers are scrambling to turn the open mill lands into luxury apartment blocks, hotels and offices.

Besides mill lands, there is a lot of surplus land in the city which can be acquired under the Urban Land Ceiling Act (ULCA). Anyone owning more than 500 square metres is supposed to surrender this surplus land to the government or use 70 per cent of the land for low-income housing. But the government did not implement the Act fully. Only 165 of the 30,000 acres of vacant land available under the ULCA has been surrendered to the government, says Y.P. Singh, a former police-officer-turned-activist.

It is not the shortage of land or funds, but the will that is lacking. A government that was elected on a promise of extending the cut-off date to 2000 started demolitions within months of being voted back to power. "We have voted in the last three elections. During the time of elections, politicians come begging to us for votes, promising us the earth," said Mohd. Jamil Khan, a resident of Sanjay Nagar in Govandi. "Are we legal only on voting day? Otherwise, we are illegal."

How many more "illegal" voters like Durgpati will die before the government takes notice?