A powerful nexus of builders, policemen and bureaucrats has left the slum dwellers of Mumbai in a perpetual state of uncertainty

Living in No Man’s Land

A powerful nexus of builders, policemen and bureaucrats has left the slum dwellers of Mumbai in a perpetual state of uncertainty
Residents of bastis across the city such as Golibar, Ambujwadi, Kandamwar Nagar have been engaged in a bitter struggle to protect their homes for nearly a decade

On 29 May 2012, 60 policemen accompanied a BMC demolition squad to the basti. Residents lined up in front of their homes to protest this illegal demolition, and were physically attacked by a police officer. The officer also ordered his team to strip the women if they got in the way — as clearly seen in videos shot by activists present at the site. Female constables dragged women from the bastis by the hair, ripping their clothes off and beating them. In spite of the fact that Medha Patkar (Medha tai, as she is known in the basti) accompanied the group taken into custody, the station still refused to lodge an FIR against the policemen.

The intriguing question — why, in spite of the threat of violence forced eviction, the residents of Sion Koliwada refuse to leave — is answered in part by that sense of community living in a horizontal space has fostered. “Even now, I know I can leave for work and that my mother is safe. Help is always just a shout away,” says Rajesh, gesturing at the vast and tight cluster of low-ceilinged homes around us. Members from the central knot of protesters — an assortment of residents, people from surrounding bastis, activists, and I — queued up in front of a large vessel of biryani and served ourselves dinner. A 60-year-old Catholic gradmother, Pauline, took me through a tour of the homes, some with with sparkling white floor tiles, most with colour televisions — recounting the tragedies that had befallen each family since the builders first came. “This is Kalpesh Shivkar’s house. It was the first one to be broken without warning. Initially, the police admitted that a mistake had been made, but we did not know enough then to record their statement,” she says. At the second home, eight-year-old Tanu and her twin waited for their mother, along with their 13-year-old sister and 72-year-old grandmother. “They dragged my bahuMadhuri by the hair and put her in a police van in front of her children. She had an operation just a month ago for a lump in her chest. She had no strength to resist and she clung on to me for support,” says Indira rajesh Keni, showing me her bruised arms. Quite naturally, while Indira and the children wait for Madhuri to return, they are looked after by their neighbours.

A central refrain at the protest — “We do not want to live in tall narrow buildings, we do not want to learn” — a resistance to ‘vertical life’, has been explained by KT Ravindran, Professor and Head of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture. Ravindran believes people living in slums are accustomed to a horizontal social network, which fails to provide support when homes are piled on top of one another. “The lift and the lobby, for instance, prove to be dangerous zones for women, children and the elderly because they present a social risk, a ‘no man’s land’. Further, the community cannot afford to pay for the electricity to run and maintain these spaces,” he says.

Activist Medha Patkar agrees that while their march to the Mantralaya yielded some positive results, it is still a daunting task to resettle Mumbai’s entire slum population under the Rajiv Awas Yojana. “The issues are greater than just illegal demolishing of homes. Families have been living in transit homes for nearly two decades waiting for a house. Official profits have been made under false names. There are scams worth crores, all of which have been presented to the government — all we can do now is wait for the inquiry to be held,” she says, on the phone with Tehelka. For the residents of Mumbai’s slums, a peaceful night’s sleep is still the stuff of dreams.