Twenty-five-year-old Siddiqa Shaikh stands guard outside a neighbour’s shanty, exhausted, yet alert for bulldozers. Her ten-year-old handicapped son is asleep inside the hut, and she hopes that this time, when the vehicles come, she would have enough time to lift him up and run.
“Do you please have a job for me?”, Shaikh asks a random passer-by. Her 150-feet tenement in Bandra’s Garib Nagar was razed in a slum demotion drive by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on October 26 and she has moved her child to her neighbour’s home.
Hundreds of such informal houses – some of them two or three stories high – have been brought down since, reduced to rubble by a combination of bulldozers and municipal workers. Many shops too are gone, including one in which her husband worked. He has no job now, and the family has no income.
“We’re left with nothing,” says Shaikh, “When the bulldozer inched close to my shanty, my son started kicking things around. Being mute, he couldn’t shout; being bed-ridden, he couldn’t run. He feared he would be trampled over. In the rush, I couldn’t pick up his wheelchair, medicines or orthopaedic shoes. We had arranged for those through donations, and now, he has been handicapped all over again”.
Shaikh is only one of the hundreds of residents who have been rendered homeless by the Mumbai civic authority’s demolition drive at Garib Nagar, which has 900 or so shanties. Residents of the slum colony, which stands just outside the busy Bandra railway station in western Mumbai, say they had received a 48-hour notice from the civic body on the evening of October 25, stating that their illegal slum dwellings would be demolished after two days.
But the action of the demolition squad at 11 am a day later took them by surprise. The workers swooped in on the shanty town, with the full support of a large police contingent.
“When we tried to stop the authorities and argued that they were violating their own notice, they threatened us saying they would strip us naked and beat us up,” alleges Halima Qureshi, a 55-year-old housewife, who has been residing in Garib Nagar for the past four decades, “My daughter is five-months pregnant. She has had complications in her pregnancy and we begged them to give us time to at least pick up her medical documents and medicines, but they wouldn’t budge. And before we could react, our world was reduced to rubble.”
Alka Sasane, assistant municipal commissioner for the concerned ward, when questioned about the early demolition, said, “The first such notice was served to them in 2015,” but did not specifically comment on why the civic teams had come before the deadline given by the notice.
Even while the demolition drive was on, a major fire broke out. The blaze, which spread over 300 metres, took four hours to douse. It burnt down a few shanties and damaged a railway ticketing office nearby.
Slum-dwellers blame the fire on the apathetic approach of officers to the demolition process. “I tried to convince them that I could see smoke and that there could be a fire. But they threatened to start a lathi-charge and shooed us away. Had they acted in time, the damage could have been limited,” said Abdul Qureshi, 38, also a resident of the slum.
For some of Garib Nagar’s older residents, Thursday’s blaze brought an unpleasant sense of déjà vu as a fire in 2011 had gutted the same settlement. Twenty-eight-year-old Mubin Ansari recalled, “When our home was burnt in 2011, it took us years to pick up the pieces and build it again. And now we are back to those same troubled times. My mother, who survived the blaze in 2011, was so petrified after the fire on Thursday that she lost consciousness and collapsed. My father suffered an asthma attack and had to be hospitalised.”
An estimated 55% of Mumbai population – an estimated 6.5 million – lives in what are euphimsitcally called ‘informal settlements’ according to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). These settlements, according to the SRA’s Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping of 2015, exist in the form of 3,293 slum clusters, which are spread over 9,008 acres in Mumbai. There is an active rental and secondary ‘sale’ market in slums, which serves the migrants, but there is little security for the tenant or buyer. But slums provide not just a place to stay but a place to work, even if living conditions are unsanitary in the extreme.
A slum could include not just large slum areas such as Dharavi, but also pavement dwellers and small clusters of kutcha structures made of aluminium sheets, blue tarpaulin and, occasionally, brick and mortar. Dharavi’s annual turnover from small businesses has been estimated at over $750 million.
Some of the land in Garib Nagar is owned by the BMC while the rest is owned by the railways and both are trying to get it cleared.
The law says that anyone who can prove that they lived in the slum colony before 2000 is ‘legal’, i.e., has a right to services, but has no tenure or ownership. Proper documentation could also help in getting alternative accomodation that the civic authority or the government provides. These colonies are usually a mix of residential and commercial shanties, a few of them going up to three floors.
Thursday’s fire also gutted a few small-scale enterprises functioning in Garib Nagar. Adil Hamid Shaikh, 40, who used to run a garment workshop in the area, says that he suffered a loss of at least Rs 10 lakh because of the blaze. “The sudden demolition, coupled with the fire, left us with no time to pick up our garments, which were ready to be shipped off. I had been running the business for two decades now, had set up eight machines, which had cost me at least Rs 25,000 each. Everything is now reduced to ashes,” said Shaikh, while overseeing his family as they tried to pull out workable pieces of women’s clothing from the debris.
Sasane, meanwhile, blamed the fire on residents indirectly, stating that demolition drive attempts at Garib Nagar have always been accompanied by similar blazes. “Since they’re vulnerable, they resort to extreme measures,” she said, “But as part of the administration, we cannot get emotional. We have to abide by the Bombay high court’s orders to remove slums along this path by the end of October 2017.”
According to BMC data, of the 251 structures scheduled to be demolished in Garib Nagar, 159 were razed between October 26 and 31, and the remaining would be removed soon too. However, Zubeida Shaikh, a 55-year-old social activist with the Committee for Right to Housing, a non-profit organisation working in the area, feels that it is imperative that government follows the legally-prescribed procedures before demolitions.
“According to the government, just 35 of the affected households in the area areeligible for alternative accommodation; however, even some of these were rendered homeless following Thursday’s drive. Why didn’t the government relocate these eligible families before destroying their homes? More than 500 shanties caught fire on Thursday, and we saw people running for their lives. They’ve lost important documents like licenses, marriage certificates, Aadhaar cards – imagine what they will have to do to get them now.” The committee has filed a petition in the Bombay high court against the eviction, setting out the breach of proper procedures by the municipal corporation.
With nowhere to go, the hapless residents have set up make shift in an open area near an open drain. “No one from the government has come to ask after us so far,” said 34-year-old Shamshad Shaikh, residing in a temporary structure with her husband and four children. “Some NGOs have been visiting, and random passersby offer food and water. Our children have been sleeping hungry. We cannot cook since we’ve lost all our utensils.”
For 30-year-old Firoza Shaikh, the concern extends to her children’s education. Shaikh, who also lost her home to the demolition and blaze, has two school-going children – aged nine and six. “Their uniforms, school bags, books, shoes – everything got burnt in that fire. The school had broken for Diwali holidays, and will resume on Wednesday. How will I send them to school now? How will we afford to buy everything all over again?”, questions Shaikh, whose husband works as an auto rickshaw driver.
Following the demolition, several families have moved their children and elderly to relatives’ homes in the city. Youngsters, meanwhile, have largely stayed back at the site, still looking for their belongings in the debris, and hoping to convince BMC officials for alternative homes. Meanwhile, Zubeida Shaikh’s NGO, along with the petition, has also approached the state human rights commission with a call for help. “We will fight back,” says Sheikh. “They cannot destroy so many lives, and get away with it.”
Puja Changoiwala is a Mumbai-based journalist and author.