by Sandhya Srinivasan
[Inter Press Service, January 30, 2005]
MUMBAI, India, Jan 30 (IPS) - The scene left behind once the bulldozers had plowed through the slums, here, resembled the devastation wrought by last month's Indian Ocean tsunami. The slum dwellers were not forewarned and they just ran, grabbing anything they could save from the destruction - a schoolbag here, a cooking pot there.
When he visited ground zero on Jan. 17, Miloon Kothari, the independent special rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, described it as the ''most brutal demolition drive in recent times.''
Some 300,000 people in Mumbai, including up to 100,000 children, have been made homeless by the drive against the slums that had become accepted as a feature of this port city -- regarded as the financial capital of India.
More than 50 percent of Mumbai's 12.5 million inhabitants live in slums and pavement dwellings spread all over the metropolis. Slum communities occupy about 10 per cent of the city land.
When Mumbai hosted the World Social Forum (WSF), in January 2004, row upon row of squalid slums reaching right up to the international airport served to give visitors a ready view of India's glaring disparities.
Much was then was said and written about how globalisation and development projects were widening those disparities and killing off livelihoods in India's vast rural hinterland.
This was forcing an endless stream of farmers and impoverished rural folk to the cities in search of jobs. Many were willing to do anything just to earn a pittance in order to survive.
But, a year later, the authorities have found a quick and simple solution: demolish the slums ruthlessly and like the tsunami, give no warning to the victims.
Nobody is holding fund-raising concerts for this colossal man-made tragedy. Instead, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) has requested the chief electoral officer to delete from the voters' list the names of those slum dwellers whose illegal shanties had been razed.
According to BMC estimates, some 70,000 families have been evicted so far. ''If the BMC can prove it, we are looking at more than 100,000 people losing their right to vote,'' said an official.
The demolitions, which started early December, are being carried out to make way for a 3.1 billion rupee (71 million U.S. dollar) development project announced by state Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to ''turn Mumbai into another Shanghai''.
Up to three million people will be made homeless if all shanties built after 1995 are actually demolished as announced.
''What is going on is a patent violation of human rights,'' said Hosbet Suresh, a retired Bombay High Court judge and a panel member of the Indian People's Tribunal that is examining the demolitions.
''The government may need the land but India is a signatory to the 1993 United Nations Resolution on Human Rights. Under international humanitarian law they can't demolish people's homes without giving them alternate accommodation,'' Suresh told IPS.
The former judge said the cut-off date was fundamentally wrong. ''It only implies that rich people can come and stay here, and the poor must stay out.''
Early this month, an army of municipality employees used bulldozers and dumper vans to demolish more than 75,000 shanties in order to clear more than 350 acres of prime land, with heavy police protection.
Cleared areas are being fenced off by barbed wire and guards stationed to prevent reoccupation, even as the homeless linger outside with nowhere else to go.
In response to criticism that the poor were being targeted, the BMC carried out some token demolitions of illegal extensions constructed by a few up market restaurants but owners of expensive real estate managed to get temporary stay orders from the courts.
Authorised slums have been demolished, as have official rehabilitation settlements, such as the homes of 6,000 victims of the 1992-93 Hindu-Muslim riots.
In one area, families had documentation that they were settled in the area in 1994 by dalit (India's 'untouchable' caste) leader Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India.
Slum dwellers are particularly furious because Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's Congress Party government came to power, last May, on the promise that all huts built before 2000 would be regularised.
''This government came into power on our votes - they have destroyed our houses, let them give our votes back,'' said Kaushalaya, a social worker from Shehar Vikas Manch relief group, at a public hearing on the demolitions.
According to Amrita Goswami of Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action, an NGO working with slum dwellers, more than 39,000 of the 42,000 demolished huts were built between 1995 and 2000.
Indeed, it is now evident that slum dwellers are not a powerful vote bank as suggested by some. Rather, they have been forced to vote for the politically powerful in order not to be evicted - only to find that promises were made to be broken later.
But the demolitions have been supported by a section of the middle class that views slum dwellers as criminals who deprive tax-paying citizens of public services. Some months ago, public interest litigation filed by eminent artists and writers argued that those settled on land illegally should be disenfranchised.
Prominent urban planning activist Darryl D' Monte has hit out against these cruel assertions.
''All those who criticise the homeless for being a drain on the city ought to remember how many services these hapless people perform for the well-off,'' said D'Monte, referring to the extensive household labour as well as the vendors, from whom the middle class purchase goods at an affordable price. (END/2005)