A recent demolition drive in Mumbai’s Ambedkar Nagar exposes schisms old and new in a city historically riven by social apartheid
There was the Bombay of the rich and privileged and there is the Bombay of the filthy rich and filthy privileged. Then there is the story of class that can be told through the demolition of 1,276 homes in Cuffe Parade’s Ambedkar Nagar. The Forest Department allows State officials to cut 1,000 mangrove trees for the Metro project and the State announces that 33 hectares of mangrove forest will be cut for the coastal road. Their defence is that they will replant the trees.
The destruction of a thousand-odd homes does not make news in elite Mumbai. There are the cursory congratulatory stories for the State’s civic sense in protecting mangroves. That the spate of demolitions across the city comes close on the heels of the municipal elections, is a matter of routine. That this is a human rights issue pitted against the environment, doesn’t matter. That legality in the form of a 2005 High Court order is used to violate the Right to Life enshrined in Article 21, has no bearing. That the controversial Adarsh building — also earmarked for destruction — overlooks Ambedkar Nagar, doesn’t matter. That 20 years ago, Ambedkar Nagar was demolished because the Ambanis wanted a helipad, and the plot remains empty, doesn’t matter.
It was the language of the State itself that first dehumanised the residents of ‘slums’, by first calling them ‘slum dwellers’, ‘vote banks’, ‘encroachers’, and now even ‘Bangladeshis’.
All ‘slum dwellers’, irrespective of education, class or caste status, or income, have been bequeathed these terms, condemning them to illegality, and thus justifying their evacuation from the centre of the city.
Social apartheid — defined as a segregation of entire groups of people based on social or economic factors, ghettoisation, and a form of racism against a whole under-class/caste — has been quite a long time running.
Ambedkar Nagar itself is a very curious Bahujan (a term encompassing scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes) community. The majority of the people who live there work between Cuffe Parade and Colaba, cleaning homes, streets and private drains, driving taxis or private vehicles, or as watchmen, peons, office workers, informal labour and even a few who look after the rich and old as they are dying.
The communities that lost homes include the Lambadas, Marathis, Gujjars, Rauts, Kolis, Dalits, Muslims, and they have migrated from as far as Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka. The mangrove land is the last space in the city, the bottom-of-the-hierarchy of space, and they will pay touts lakhs of rupees for the promise of protection in this desperate space. Desperation seems to be India’s sole national integration project.
Lakshmi Devi, a single mother of two from Tamil Nadu, works as an informal labourer, a cleaner, and even a hospice nurse at Colaba… “Patient ka kaam kiya, usko saaf karna (my job is to clean the patient)”.
“Aap Tamil bolte ho (You speak Tamil)?” she asked me, almost wishfully, hoping to find someone she can converse with in her mother tongue. She wasn’t despondent, but through jokes and humour she goes on to narrate her love story. She fell for a Bihari man when she first came to the city, and married him.
Did their families protest over caste or some other issues?
“Well, I have no family,” she says, “And what his caste is, I don’t even know.”
They married in 2008 but separated later. He now works in Andheri as a cook.
Will he come to help rebuild her home?
“No! I will make my house alone,” she says emphatically, “When our house was burned down, I made it alone. When they broke it earlier, I made it again.”
Take Sanjay Rao, who ran away from his home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, when he was eight. He lived on the streets of Delhi, and has worked as a mason, a driver, and a cleaner. “Delhi was impossible to live in,” he says. Over 20 years, he’s done every job possible and managed to spend ₹6 lakh to build his home in Ambedkar Nagar (the high-rises here command, on average, ₹60,000 per sq ft.
Today, he stands over his flattened home, showing me photos of the small Budh Vihar that was demolished in the locality. From behind us, a woman can be heard shouting. She demands to know why, after their houses burned down in November 2013, the government allowed them to rebuild their houses only to break them again. “Acche din aa gaye! (the promised good days are here),” she screams in rage.
Each of the residents here has a story of incredible struggle, they are the people at the fringes. And those at the centre, the upright folk of Cuffe Parade, look askance at them: only a few weeks earlier they had vehemently opposed the prospect of Ambani’s helicopter disturbing their siestas; next, they trained their guns on the Machimar Nagar No 5 that was ‘sprouting’ at Ambedkar Nagar in violation of coastal regulation laws, warning against its potential to destroy the ‘coast’ and cause flooding.
Their language wasn’t that different from the State’s. It was also laughably dehumanising: “this was the area where the 26/11 terrorists entered from”, and “there will be a day when there will be more slums in Cuffe Parade than high-rises”. One sensitive soul also took care to point out that “most of the people are not from here”. By all appearances, the ‘Tyranny of Cuffe Parade’ had declared azaadi from the Indian Union and her citizens were not welcome here.
A social worker active since the early 1970s had been proved prophetic about the effect of globalisation and liberalisation in India. Leena Joshi, who worked with the poorest in Chembur East for over 30 years, had commented, “Earlier the government was sympathetic to the needs of the poor, and now they ask me why I am helping them.”
The idea that they are all encroachers or, as many officers often declare, “cheats and scamsters” has permeated the one space the urban poor have always regarded as their ally, a place of hope in their struggles against both the Slum Rehabilitation Authority and the Forest Department: the judiciary. To cite just one example as proof, in a 2007 writ petition, judges Swatanter Kumar, DY Chandrachud, and SC Dharmadhikari didn’t even differentiate between slum dwellers and encroachers and, again, referred to them as vote banks.
“It is now a well-known fact of which judicial notice has been taken repeatedly, that large-scale encroachment takes place as far as Government properties and lands are concerned…The slum pockets being Vote Banks, preventive or prohibitory measures are not initiated at right time… schemes were mooted, number of disputes and differences between the slum dwellers/encroachers and the local authority and appropriate agencies have arisen which are consuming valuable time of this Court.”
Speaking of ‘vote banks’, the BJP corporator who visited the demolished homes at Ambedkar Nagar said there will be justice for those who have proof that they have been living there from before 2005. Asked about those who arrived after 2005, he said nothing (incidentally, he once belonged to the NCP and later the Shiv Sena, before gravitating to the BJP).
When Bilal Khan, convenor of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, confronted a forest official about the fate of people without residence proof older than 2005, and the suffering inflicted on the poor in the name of environment, he was told “that he should just find rich people, buy a plot of land, and put all the poor people on it”.
I was present at a meeting in 2015 held at the Collectorate when a curious scene unfolded. Noorjahan, an activist from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao, was showing a forest official her residence proofs dating prior to 2005 and broke down while talking about her broken home at Malvani, Malad.
The officer just kept looking at her politely, without responding. The next minute, when a man in a suit walked through the door, he completely ignored the woman crying in front of him and stood up to greet the new visitor with a beaming smile. He later told Noorjahan that there was nothing he could do for her as it was beyond his powers.
Speaking of power, the Narendra Modi government has promised everyone a home by 2022 and the housing policy has again deemed a majority of the people invisible, due to cut-off dates, and the definition of how poor a person actually is.
Jagdish Gujjar has been driving cars in Mumbai since 1999; he too lost his home in the recent demolition drive.
He doesn’t trust any party any more, he has his proofs dating before 2005, he’s seen different kinds of governments functioning — one allows you to build the houses and another comes and breaks them down. Asked if he is angered by the sight of the big buildings surrounding his basti, he replies coolly:
“No, I don’t get angry. It is the people who live there who get angry when they see us here.”
Javed Iqbal is a Mumbai-based photographerjournalist