January 22, 2005

Mumbai's demolition marathon (Kalpana Sharma)

The Hindu
January 22, 2005

Mumbai's demolition marathon

By Kalpana Sharma

While the Government can have a tough policy on structures built illegally on public lands, it cannot have the same attitude towards the people living in those structures.

EVEN AS one half of Mumbai celebrates a special festival and the media applauds the successful Mumbai marathon, a tragedy has been unfolding that affects the other half of the city, the poorer half. In the course of eight weeks, over 60,000 slum houses have been razed to the ground rendering an estimated two lakh to three lakh people homeless. This is a part of the joint strategy by Mumbai's municipal corporation and the State Government to send out a message that "illegal" encroachers will not be tolerated any more. In reality, the only people not being tolerated are the very poor.

The demolitions are not just a gross violation of basic human rights, they illustrate the absence of a workable housing policy for the urban poor. Indeed, demolitions have become a substitute for a housing policy.

Mumbai is facing a genuine crisis. A city of commerce and enterprise, it has always been a magnet for those looking for work not only in Maharashtra but also from other parts of India. But while in the pre-Independence years this much needed labour to service the city could be absorbed and even housed, since Independence there has been no clear policy to deal with housing for the working class and the poor. Over time, vacant land has been encroached, marshland has been reclaimed and the homeless have occupied pavements, empty strips along railway lines and water pipes. Today, close to 60 per cent of the city's population of 12 million lives in these slums. By any measure, this situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Instead of getting to the bottom of the problem, which is that of finding ways to increase the affordable housing stock in the city, successive governments have resorted to piecemeal solutions. The most popular has been to set a "cut-off" date — that is a date after which no encroachment on public or private land will be tolerated. Except that the Government has been selectively tolerant even as this "cut-off" date has edged forward and now stands at January 1, 1995. The parties that form the present State Government in Maharashtra, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, promised that this date would be further extended up to 2000. But having won the election and formed the Government, they have hastily backtracked.

The "cut-off" date essentially means that the Government will not be responsible for people who have encroached on land after that date. Those who can establish that they set up house before that date are entitled to either alternative accommodation, free of charge, if that land is needed for any other public purpose or can bring in a developer to construct formal housing on that land. This was part of the Slum Redevelopment Scheme (SRS) brought in by the Maharashtra Government in 1998. It was premised on the recognition that slum dwellers had invested in developing the land and the structures. So the "free" house was notional as it was essentially to compensate for their labour in making the land on which the slum stands habitable. In any case, once the slum dwellers moved into their "free" house, they had to pay charges to the housing society. So the security of tenure came at a price.

On paper, the Government's stand on a cut-off date might sound reasonable if you argue that it is not the job of governments to provide houses for everyone. But in reality it translates into denying people basic rights just because they are poor. For while the Government can have a tough policy on structures built illegally on public lands, it cannot have the same attitude towards the people living in those structures. These are citizens of this country. They cannot be pushed out on the street, or forced to "return" to their so-called native place just because there is work available but nowhere to live in the city.

What is worse is the manner in which the demolitions occur. In the past, the demolition squad would come with sticks and axes and manually break down the structure. This gave the "encroacher" the time to save his or her belongings. Today, there is no such luxury. Bulldozers and earthmovers appear overnight aided by the police. Within a few hours, structures that have been built by the poor incrementally over years are flattened. There is little time to save anything. Sometimes even the papers that would establish that the hutment existed before the cut-off date are flattened with the structure.

The plots where the demolitions took place are being policed and slum dwellers say that even temporary structures, built with bamboo poles and plastic sheets, are being pulled down. Thousands of children have not been able to attend school because of the demolitions, parents are afraid to go to work and leave what little they have salvaged of their belongings in the open, and old people are suffering the cold nights without a roof over their heads.

Demolitions, of course, are not new to the urban poor. Go to any slum in the city and you will hear stories of how many times houses have been demolished and how many times people have been forced to rebuild on the same spot. The difference is that each time this happens, they have to pay more to the local officials.

The reason this spate of demolitions is particularly unacceptable is because of the complete absence of a plan about what to do. State Home Minister R. R. Patil was quoted in a newspaper saying, "When we launched the (demolition) drive, we never thought of their rehabilitation. Legally speaking, that is not the responsibility of the government."

The statement underlines the cavalier attitude of the State Government towards the urban poor, the very people whose votes are sought before an election and who are promised security of tenure. While "legally" the Government can claim it is not responsible to resettle those it has displaced, can it really turn its back on them. And what about the hundreds of acres of land ostensibly freed by the demolitions? At last count, over 300 acres have apparently fallen vacant, as slum settlements have been demolished in the northern and north-eastern suburbs of the city. The Government, however, has not announced what it plans to do with these lands. The reason they were encroached upon in the first place was precisely because the Government failed to develop them.

The only policy that can be considered a housing policy of sorts is the Slum Redevelopment Scheme. It has worked indifferently and has nowhere near achieved its target of rehousing 40 lakh slum dwellers. But at the very least it represents an approach towards housing the homeless.

The other so-called plan on the horizon is one devised by the private consulting firm McKinsey for Bombay First, an organisation representing the city's corporate sector. The report "Vision Mumbai: Transforming Mumbai into a world-class city," suggests constructing Special Housing Zones on the salt-pan lands in the north of Mumbai with 300,000 housing units for slum dwellers. They would have to pay between Rs.750 and Rs.1000 a month in addition to regular taxes. There is no plan to ensure that these lands will be made accessible to the livelihood sources of these poor people. Nor have ecological considerations been taken into account. Against the background of the tsunami tragedy, the importance of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules cannot be over-emphasised for in many areas the violation of these rules exacerbated the impact of the killer waves.

What we are seeing in Mumbai today is the culmination of decades of mismatch between precept and practice. Instead what we need is a step-by-step approach that places housing at the centre of all urban development policies. Changes are needed in antiquated laws that have stifled the growth of affordable rental housing. Vast lands in the heart of Mumbai's former textile mill area are waiting to be developed in an equitable and just manner. They would be ideal for low-cost rental housing. Instead, they are becoming home to shopping malls and high-end housing.

In the mid-1980s, the idea of sites and services to house the poor had been tried. This involved marking out plots in land that is provided with basic infrastructure by the state. The actual type of construction is left to the family. If in addition financial services are designed to help the urban poor build and develop such housing, we might arrive at a more sustainable model for housing the poor.

A "world-class" city cannot emerge if half the citizens of Mumbai are denied their rights. The problems are serious and complex. But surely the solutions do not lie in such a callous approach towards the very people who service the city.
o o o o

Gulf News Published: 5/1/2005, 06:46 (UAE)

Demolitions leave thousands homeless

Mumbai : Recent slum demolitions in Mumbai have left tens of thousands of people without a home as the government tries to free up valuable space for development in India's crowded financial capital.

Local officials said that more than 45,000 shanties had been demolished in just over three weeks as police and state workers used earthmovers and bulldozers to clear 200 acres of illegally occupied government land.

The demolition comes as the state is rolling out an ambitious 260-billion-rupee (Dh21.6 billion) infrastructure plan to "turn Mumbai into Shanghai", with better roads and public transport and more green spaces.

Among the more than 200,000 people displaced, many are angry with the government for reneging on an election promise and excluding them from its grand plan for the city.

"This is an inhuman way to deal with the poorest of the poor," said Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers' Federation. "The government had falsely assured them and has not provided an alternative. Where will these people go?"

Distraught families have put up tents near where their flimsy tin and tarpaulin dwellings have been smashed, while others have started building again on the same spot with material salvaged from the wreckage. Others have simply moved to another slum.

More than half the city's 17 million people live in slums or on pavements below gleaming high-rises. Apartments are largely unaffordable for the many poor rural migrants seeking work in the wealthy commercial centre of Mumbai.

The Maharashtra state government said last month all slums built since 1995 would have to go. Of the estimated half a million shanties in the city, nearly 80 per cent are on municipal and government-owned land and pose a challenge to development plans.

"They have to leave Mumbai as they are staying on government land illegally," said Prakash Patil, the assistant municipal commissioner, admitting that demolition is expensive and not always effective, as shanties often reappear just as fast.

"We need to upgrade our slums, not demolish them, and develop the rest of the state, so we can stem the flow of migrants," said Sharit Bhowmik, a sociology professor at University of Mumbai, who helped draft a national policy on urban development.

"We don't need a Shanghai, just a liveable city for all."