January 31, 2005

Mumbai: Aamchi Soweto? (Smruti Koppikar)

Outlook Magazine | Jan 31, 2005   

Aamchi Soweto?
72,000 slums razed; 3.5 lakh homeless. In short, some Mumbaikars are outcastes in their own city.


"Mumbai—The Apartheid City," whispered Miloon Kothari. He isn't the latest wordsmith off the block but the special rapporteur for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. On a windy afternoon, he stood amid the rubble of buildings and slums taking notes. His task: to document and intervene against mass displacement caused by one of the largest demolition drives that Mumbai, and perhaps India, has ever seen. "They are now refugees in their own city. The new ghettoisation is between the rich and poor. It's new urban apartheid," he warned as he surveyed the wasteland before him.
Backing the massive and ongoing demolition drive is the recently elected state government's diktat that all illegal construction and all post-1995 slums must go.

'There is enough land to rehouse all slums, the problem is that it's worth thousands of crores.'

A corrupt and sloth-ridden Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which had officially or otherwise presided over such illegal constructions, suddenly decided to get sprightly. The result: in a matter of weeks, nearly 72,000 slums and shanties were reduced to rubble,
about 300 acres of the city's most prized asset was "freed" and top officials congratulated themselves on a task niftily done.
Security guards keep watch over the "freed land" to keep it free. Each day, bulldozers hunt new grounds, the mild winter air is laced with the smug satisfaction of a few men who proved a point—Mumbai is not a dharamshala that everyone can come to and make his own; that some slums are welcome but others are not; that the government of the day and its well-heeled advisors will determine the golden cutoff year—moved from 1980 to 1985 and then to 1995—to bestow legitimacy.
The coldly doled out statistics missed out on a crucial piece of data: close to 3.5 lakh people—porters, drivers, hawkers, domestic help, cooks, tailors, kulfi-vendors and such, along with their families—are now without a roof over their heads. That's not all. The bulldozers flattened their bamboo poles and wood, ripped apart their makeshift chulhas and earthenware, broke their plates and TV sets.
There's more—children lost their toys, schoolbooks were torn, precious uniforms became part of the debris the demolition squads left behind. Most families managed to save a couple of sheets and vessels, if that, and that vital kitschy plastic bag of papers full of ration

'The new ghettoisation is between the rich and poor. it's the new apartheid.'

cards, birth certificates, bills, slum photo-identification passes proving their validity as citizens serviced by the same civic body.
After howls of class discrimination, the BMC turned its bulldozers and demolition squads to other illegal constructions—terrace restaurants owned or operated by the Page 3 set, illegal extensions of ultra-chic watering holes, garages converted into extra kitchen space by hotels, shops and commercial establishments that had encroached upon pavements, extensions of small factories, etc. So far, 75 such constructions have been demolished. Some slivers of middle-class Mumbai felt the tremors of the bulldozers but it's a tiny fraction compared to the slum population.
Going up the class ladder, the BMC's demolition drive appears to have lost steam. Most of the 30-odd plush bungalows on the idyllic Madh-Marve beaches that were served demolition notices for illegal construction managed to get a stay. Officials reveal the legal departments in the corporation and state government have been particularly lackadaisical in getting the court stays vacated. Then, there is a clutch of high-rise buildings across the city with illegal floors. The demolition process has been quite tardy—either notices have not been served on these buildings or notices haven't been followed up. And then there is the list of 154 high-rise apartment complexes where builders have violated the floor space index (FSI) allotted to them.