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Forced ‘Rehabilitation’ in Mumbai

Resettled residents carry out a “save our lives” campaign, but for the state, do they even exist?

The entire process by which the 5,700 families from around Mumbai’s Tansa Lake pipeline were shifted to Mahul is indicative of not only a brutal and deliberate indifference to the very existence of the poor, but also of how the state views its responsibilities towards these citizens. Every stage of the decade-long saga of nearly 30,000 people being uprooted and forced into an area that is commonly referred to as a “gas chamber” and “toxic hell” reeks of political expediency. Their “rehabilitation” from one place to another has been coercive. It has also been done to a site without basic amenities for their daily needs and for them to gain their anyway precarious livelihoods. What is heartening however is that these families have not meekly accepted their fate. They are using various means to bring their plight to public attention and pressurise the authorities.

Maharashtra is estimated to have nearly 30 lakh project-affected persons (PAPs) who are yet to be rehabilitated. In the Mahul case, in 2009, the Bombay High Court asked the state government to evict and clear slum dwellers and their hutments from within 10 metres of the Tansa Lake pipeline because they were considered a security threat. Of the 16,717 hutments, 7,674 were considered eligible for rehabilitation. Even as they protested and pleaded they were assured by politicians (including a minister in the present state cabinet) that their concerns would be taken into account. However, they found that the forcible evacuation through the demolition of their homes left a majority of them with little choice but to move to Mahul. The cluster of 72 buildings each with seven floors, into which they have been located, offers an almost surreal sight. There is no connecting infrastructure and amenities, however poor, that usually accompany such a large residential settlement. Instead, these buildings stand amidst two major oil refineries, one power-generating company, one chemical and fertiliser unit, and other big industrial units.

According to media reports, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index rates Mahul as severely polluted and in 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had termed Mahul as unfit for human habitation. The Bombay High Court, which was petitioned by a group of residents here as well as the Tansa pipeline-affected residents in August 2018, directed the state government to move the residents to other accommodations within a month. In a classic case of speaking with forked tongues, the state housing minister assured the residents they would be moved to a project in Kurla while the chief minister said in November 2018 that since the case is in court, he could not take a decision on the issue.

The health and educational facilities are accessible at unaffordable distances and costs. But far worse are the illnesses and diseases that assailed them: skin rashes, respiratory ailments, tuberculosis and overall lack of physical well-being. In the petition that they have filed before the high court, they have referred to a survey conducted by a major public hospital pointing to the environmental factors as responsible for their various ailments. This is further marred by a contaminated water supply and abysmal drainage and sewerage systems. The media has also reported the right to information (RTI) responses which point to deaths in this settlement due to illnesses contracted after moving into this area.

It is no wonder then that the residents frequently invoke the image of death when talking to the media and bureaucrats. They believe that they have been sent to the settlement to die, not to live and even their campaign is called “Jeevan Bachao Andolan” (agitation to save lives). It is almost as if as far as the state is concerned, they do not exist.

Government after government has proudly announced plans and proposals to turn Mumbai into a “world class city.” But it seems as though a malevolent force has been unleashed in the course of this proposed and often imaginary transformation. All the outward manifestation of infrastructural works only hides the steady and rapid deterioration of the factors that once contributed to the city’s reputation as a politically conscious one, proud of the contributions of its working class. So, as the city’s famed public transport is deliberately weakened and its working residents are pushed farther and farther into the extended suburbs, it is as if the message is clear: if you cannot survive this transformation, get out of the way and quietly die. Unfortunately, unlike the Mahul residents, there seems to be no concerted agitation to fight back against this lopsided transformation.

The Mahul resettlement episode also shows how the state’s policies for housing of the urban poor and low-income groups are totally inadequate. It is clear that the contribution of a large section of urban citizens is totally discounted in the making of the city and the functioning of its economy. But it is the spirit of the Mahul residents that must be saluted.

Updated On : 11th Dec, 2018

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