Derailing lives

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

The 40-year-old Laljipada slum on the banks of the Poisar river. It has six colonies spread over 48 hectares.-

The 40-year-old Laljipada slum on the banks of the Poisar river. It has six colonies spread over 48 hectares.-

LAST September, when H.M. Chandrashekar, a resident of the Laljipada slum in the north Mumbai suburb of Kandivili, curiously asked a man with surveying equipment what he was doing outside his house, he was in for a rude shock. My blood ran cold when he told me that a Metro railcar shed yard was going to be built at this very spot, he recalled. Chandrashekar, a cable operator, said his first thoughts were of the future. Where will we move to? What will happen to our businesses? We have been here for so long. Our lives and our jobs are intertwined. Demolish Laljipada and you will have some 30,000 unemployed people, he said.

Laljipadas residents are largely entrepreneurs running cottage industries from their homes that are as small as 100 square feet. Primarily migrants from North India, they contradict the popular perception that migrants take away jobs from the local population. The 20,000 families here are self-employed; they make products that feed into larger businesses such as imitation jewellery, recycled plastic and paper waste, or operate small tailoring or bakery units. With each family contributing in some way or the other to the final finished product, all the families here are dependent on each other for their livelihood.

As Chandrashekar said, finding another means of livelihood will be more difficult than finding another place to live.

The nearly 40-year-old Laljipada slum comprises six colonies spread over 120 acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare). The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authoritys (MMRDA) Rs.45,000-crore Metro Rail project plans to build a railcar depot on the site of Laljipada. The residents say they are not against the Metro project or against the railcar depot; they oppose only the large-scale evictions in the name of development.

The Maharashtra Regional Town Planning Act states that projects have to be done in consultation with the affected people. It was only after a protest was organised by the Ghar Bachao-Ghar Banao Andolan, an activist organisation that takes up cudgels against urban evictions, that a public hearing was held in which slum-dwellers and MMRDA officials interacted.

The aim of the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007, is to minimise displacement and to promote, as far as possible, non-displacing or least displacing alternatives. With this in mind, the activists suggested that the car shed be shifted to another vacant plot, but MMRDA officials said their technical feasibility studies had found the suggested site unsatisfactory. When the activists asked to see the report, it was not forthcoming.

There are more reasons to doubt the accuracy of the studies and assessment reports. The initial plan was to take over the entire area for the depot. Following protests, the MMRDA said that only 50 to 60 acres were required, and after the public hearing, it brought it down to 12 to 15 acres. This has made the slum residents wary since acquisitions of vast tracts of land in the area in the recent past ostensibly for public purposes turned out to be cases of land grab by politicians.

The Babrekar Nagar slum, which adjoined Laljipada, was demolished about 13 years ago and on it now stand an engineering college promoted by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde and a government hospital. There is also a large vacant plot with a board proclaiming it to be the property of the Manjra Charitable Trust, set up by former Congress Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Fearing that Laljipada may go the same way, activists made a request for the details of the car shed project via the Right to Information Act but it was rejected on the grounds that their disclosure would be a threat to national security.

Laljipada is on the banks of the Poisar river, which, until the Mumbai floods of 2005, was considered a nullah, or drain. Recent environmental awareness campaigns and safety concerns have reinstated it as a river. So when the residents heard that the car depot was to be built across the river, they were worried about its environmental impact. It is not yet known whether across the river means building an elevated depot or just filling in the river.

The history of relief and rehabilitation (R&R) in the country shows that no displaced community has been shifted en masse so far, though this is a requirement of good R&R. Resettlement is invariably a piecemeal effort that shreds the social and economic fabric.

Laljipadas residents have been told that they will be resettled, but they have not got any details of the R&R package. The slum stands on land belonging to the Collectorate of Mumbai. Many of the families have lived there for nearly 40 years; about 300 families actually have land allotment letters because they were shifted to Laljipada in 2000 from the surroundings of the Mumbai airport. If Laljipada is demolished, it will mean multiple displacement for these families.

Simpreet Singh of the Ghar Bachao-Ghar Banao Andolan says, Slums are organic in nature. For survival reasons, everything and everyone is dependent on the other. For this reason, it is also a very fragile society. Small changes can be absorbed, but to break up the mass is as good as killing it because of the very nature of interdependency. All the cottage industries are within the neighbourhood and feed each other.

Dineshbhai buys old plastic items. At his workshop in Laljipada, he breaks it down, powders it and sells it to Ram Prajapati, who buys it for his small plastic moulding business.

In another part of the slum, Shambhunath Patel purchases recycled metal bars from Sajjan Bagwan. He melts them in his workshop-cum-home to make bangles, earrings, necklaces and rings. These dull, lead-grey items will then be sent to his neighbour Basant Chauhan for electroplating. When they emerge as shiny pieces of jewellery, they are sent to Kakubhai Koddurs family.

Koddurs children, after finishing their schoolwork, sit with their mother late into the night adorning the bangles, necklaces and rings with coloured stones and glass. The finished items of imitation jewellery and plastic accessories go to Kausalya Devi, who runs a vegetable shop. In between selling vegetables, she and her son deftly stack the items in cardboard boxes, while her daughter does some tailoring work.

In this way, more than 40,000 people have created jobs for themselves. About 24,000 of them are engaged in sorting and recycling plastics, glass, metal and paper waste, while 5,500 work in small bakeries within the slum. And 15,000 women are employed in the imitation jewellery business. Tailoring and grocery stores also thrive here.

Since this is all in the informal sector, it is difficult to quantify the business done but it is believed that the paper and metal recycling work carried out in Laljipada is more than that in Dharavi, a slum five times bigger than Laljipada in size and with three times its population. Laljipada is like assembly line production it is like a factory but not as destructive and space-consuming as a factory because here people live and work in the same space, says Simpreet Singh.

Laljipadas residents have created their own network for earning a living. We are not beggars or bootleggers, nor are we engaged in any anti-social activity. We do not get anything from the state. We are self-employed, said Keshav Gupta, who has a small, hand-operated plastic moulding unit. If the Metro yard is built over our homes, it is not just structures they will be breaking. It will be our lives.

If Laljipada is demolished and its community broken up, then it will be one more victim of the well-worn, poverty-creating formula that is going on in some other parts of the country in the name of development.

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