Residents Fight For Justice in Mumbai's 'Toxic Hell', the Mahul Settlement Camp

About 500 families, mostly daily wage labourers, have been protesting since October 28 as several people have fallen sick or died due to the area's industrial pollution.

Mumbai: For the past few weeks, 12-year-old Sahil More has fallen into a new routine. He goes to school early in the morning, finishes around noon and rushes to the Tansa water pipeline along Vidyavihar in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai, a spot where his family and over 500 neighbours have been camping since October 28.

He camps here until late in the night and returns only to sleep in his 240 square feet house in the Mahul area, located further, on the eastern fringes of the city. His family’s room is in one of the 72 seven-storey buildings which the residents here have named as “vishaari narak” (toxic hell); it is drawn from the heavily polluting plants all around in Mahul.

These, say the residents, have led to innumerable cases of acute illness and deaths among residents of the buildings and elsewhere in the past few years.

Also Read: Mumbai’s Mahul Is a Classic Case of Rehabilitation Gone Horribly Wrong

Most of the people living here were given one room tenements by the government because they were evicted from slums to clear the grounds for infrastructure projects. The rehabilitation of the residents, known as Project Affected Persons (PAPs), seemed like a good idea, but the problems immediately became apparent.

Sahil himself contracted tuberculosis, like a dozen more in just ‘building number 7’, where he lives. The buildings are surrounded by oil refineries, chemical plants and several other hazardous industrial units that contribute to dangerously high levels of air and water pollution.

Official records show 88 persons have died at Mahul rehabilitation in past years due to excessive air and water pollution in the Mahul area. Credit: Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

“He would have died if not for his father’s immediate decision to keep him away from Mahul till he stabilised. We shifted here in December last year, and a month later, Sahil had begun showing signs of illness,” his grandmother Janabai More explains. She says that children as young as two and three are infected with deadly diseases like tuberculosis.

“Along with them (children), many elderly people have also developed breathing problems, asthma, skin rashes and blood pressure issues, among other illnesses. All this has been sudden and has grown at a phenomenal rate,” adds Malan Gaikwad, another Mahul resident. He is also an active member of Mahul Prakalpgrast Samiti, a group of local activists who have been fighting for the colony’s residents to be shifted out.

Information obtained under the RTI Act shows 88 persons have died in the past two years in Mahul.

Information obtained under the RTI Act shows 88 persons have died in the past two years in Mahul. Of them, 40 occurred in 2016, 21 in 2017 and 26 have been recorded so far in 2018. In some cases, the cause of deaths has been unknown. In others, it has been due to cancer, bronchitis, lung and skin infection among others. Residents allege this is still a conservative estimate and that the real figure could be over 100.

This has prompted families to protest and demand that they be given alternative accommodation. The ongoing protest is a desperate call to the Mumbai civic body and the state administration to take corrective measures before it is too late, says Bilal Khan, the convenor of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, a housing rights movement which has lent support to the residents of Mahul.

“Mahul is one of the worst polluted parts of the city. It is causing rapid health deterioration for those forced to live here and is snatching away their livelihood. You must have a dialogue with the primary stakeholders (the residents) and you cannot just shun them to one corner and call it rehabilitation,” Khan says, sitting among the protesters.

On December 1, land rights activist Medha Patkar appealed to Fadnavis to look into the residents’ demands within ten days or warned the fight for justice would intensify. The residents too say they won’t backtrack until their demands of proper and dignified rehabilitation are met. Over 30,000 of them have planned to march to the state secretariat building on the tenth day if the demands are not met.

In August this year, the Bombay high court had intervened and said the residents along the Tansa pipeline cannot be forced to accept “rehabilitation tenements” at Mahul. The state was given a month’s time to help them find alternative accommodation. Since the civic bodies failed to reach a consensus, residents here have begun making their own alternatives. Some have even moved out to smaller bastis nearby. Some others were moved to housing built by state agencies for slum dwellers.

Residents sent postcards to the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ office demanding immediate alternative accommodation to over 5500 families living in Mahul, located in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs. Credit: Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

The state housing minister Prakash Mehta had assured residents of Mahul that they would be moved to another housing project in the nearby Kurla HDIL Kohinoor City’s SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Agency) flats. The residents too had considered this a better alternative away from industrial pollution.

On November 27, Naseem Khan, a Congress MLA, raised the issue during the vidhan sabha’s winter session and the Bombay high court’s order to rehabilitate the residents away from pollution. With the increasing pressure, the residents were hopeful that finally their demands would be heard and acted upon.

Also Read: Mumbai’s ‘Designed for Death’ Buildings Are Incubating TB

“But after a month-long agitation, the CM on November 28 offered to sanction only 350 houses (which have already been sanctioned by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority or MHADA) as against 5,500, which is the actual requirement. Worryingly, these decisions are being taken without calling the residents for negotiations,” Khan told The Wire.

Arati Kade, a student-activist working with Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, says, “The CM had earlier promised that the rest of the families would be moved in to the SRA houses in HDIL Kohinoor City in Kurla. But on November 28, the CM said since the case is pending in the court, he can’t decide anything.”

A flurry of problems

Over the past decade, the residents say, the city’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has shifted over 5,500 families (roughly 30,000 people) to Mahul from their settlements, deemed ‘illegal’, in Ghatkopar, Chembur, Powai, Vakola and Bandra (East) along the Tansa water pipeline. The eviction drive has intensified over the past two years after the Bombay HC ordered a ten metre corridor along the length of the pipeline to secure it from encroachment and “damage”.

This immediately had an impact. “Most of us worked as daily wage labourers. We were moved to an area which had no prospect of income – our old places of work were just too far and there is hardly any transport available here. As a result, many became unemployed.” says Anita Dole, one of the residents and also the petitioner who moved the Bombay high court against the state’s eviction drive.

There is no train connectivity from Mahul and autos and taxis are beyond the residents’s reach. The nearest civic hospital is over 12 kilometres away and the area does not have any civic school, which means most parents are forced to send their children to private schools.

The ongoing protest that began on October 28 is a way of pressuring the government. “It is not easy to leave everything and come and sit here for dharna. Participating means losing our day’s income. People here have given up their livelihood for nearly a month. You can imagine the desperation. But we do not want to die,” says a resident Sunanda Bhandikar.

The ongoing protest that began on October 28 is a way of pressuring the government. Credit: Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

The ongoing legal battle

The pollution problems are grim and getting worse. In August this year, a major fire broke out at the hydrocracker unit of the Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd (BPCL) refinery injuring 45 workers, two critically. Residents, especially living in buildings near to BPCL, panicked and moved out to rented houses away from Mahul.

The MPCB’s Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index has categorised Mahul as “severely polluted”. Another survey conducted by the Environment Pollution Research Center (EPRC) of King Edward Memorial hospital in 2013 found that nearly 70 percent of the residents in Mahul complained of breathlessness more than three times a month, around 90% complained of eye irritation and another 85% had reported a choking sensation caused due to bad air quality.

The report has attributed these symptoms to toluene diisocyanate, a possible carcinogen, which the study states is toxic even in low concentrations. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) stated Mahul was “unfit for human habitation”. It blamed the civic administration for failing to plan and maintain the minimum buffer area between the industrial and the residential areas.

The residents are hoping that after the march, the government will work to find a solution, but things have reached an impasse, especially after the CM’s statement. The residents are meanwhile making their own arrangements till the matter is resolved- they don’t want to take risks with their health.