Work at Navi Mumbai's Airport Crawls, but Administration Hastily Shuts Down Schools

In Raigad district, ten recognised villages will be displaced for the airport. Residents say the administration is strong-handing them into leaving before promises are kept.

Ulwe village, Raigad: Eight-year-old Maurya Madvi wakes up at 6.30 am and heads straight to his mother’s mobile phone to call up his class teacher. “Sir, shale la yenaar ka, aaj? (Sir, will you be coming to school, today?)” he asks. The teacher, helplessly replies, “Maurya, lavkarach yeto. Tu abhyaas karat raha.” (Maurya, I will very soon. You keep studying at home.)

Maurya’s Zilla Parishad-run Marathi medium school, just 200 metres from his house in Ulwe village of Raigad district – one of the ten villages to be displaced to make way for the upcoming Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) – was shut down a month ago by the district collector.

An alternative school structure was hastily built 3.5 kilometres away on a deserted patch of land, but parents are not comfortable to send their children there. As a result, Maurya and around 350 other children, all between Classes I and VII, have not been to school for over a month.

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Ulwe village is one of the ten recognised villages to be displaced to make way for the new airport, to be built by April 2020. There are several other smaller, unrecognised ones that will also have to go. The airport, for which 1,160 hectares have been earmarked, is being developed under a public-private partnership (PPP) model between GVK Group subsidiary Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) and City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd (CIDCO) as the project implementation agency.

While the initial rounds of acquiring land was completed, the villagers are yet to move out. But CIDCO has already begun shutting down and shifting the schools. The villagers call this a “pressure tactic” to fasten their displacement. “CIDCO knows very well that the villagers who send their children to the ZP schools belong to the lower-strata and can’t afford daily transport allowance. The schools automatically will push these families to expedite their decision to move to the new land allotted,” says Pravin Patil, one of the villagers who has been agitating against the CIDCO’s decision.

Nearly 350 children of Ulwe and nearby villages have not been able to attend school after CIDCO hastily moved their school away to a deserted plot, four kilometres away. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

The decision to move the school as the academic year is in progress has also left the parents in dismay. “Setting up a new school is meant to be a part of the rehabilitation package. What kind of rehabilitation ensures that our children lose an academic year?” asks one parent. Her 11-year-old daughter has also been impacted by the decision.

However, CIDCO says the decision was taken in the interest of the children. “The new school is built within their (villagers’) access. In fact, we have also agreed to their demand of building ten separate schools for the ten villages. This (new) school will be operational until that point,” CIDCO’s public relations officer Priya Ratambe told The Wire. She, however, did not reply to other queries that were emailed to her, like why the school was shifted during the academic year and how CIDCO plans to convince the parents to send their children to school.

The daily struggles

Along with Ulwe, the other recognised villages to face displacement include Targhar, Ganeshpuri, Kombadbhuje, Waghivali, Wadghar, Kolhi, Kopar, Chinchpada and Warcheowle. These scenic villages are surrounded by hillocks and several smaller water bodies.

As a part of the land development work, the CIDCO first has a mammoth task of blasting these hills and flattening its surface. After crossing several deadlines, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, in the winter assembly session, said April 2019 is the new deadline to complete the land development work.

Between 1 pm and 2 pm, and later between 4 pm and 5 pm each day, the workers of GVK – an Indian conglomerate which has been awarded the contract to build and operate the airport – conduct hill blasting work. Stray boulders, dust particles and the deafening blast noise fill the air here. As soon as the work begins, villagers, most importantly children, move inside the house in fear of accidents.

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In October this year, in one such stray incident occurred. Several boulders fell on the school’s roof and nearby houses. Fortunately, the children were still in their classrooms and none were injured in the incident. But an FIR was filed.

“While stones do get thrown into the villages almost every day, it was the first time they fell on the school. Children as young as six study here. The teachers filed an FIR immediately and GVK was named as the accused in the complaint. But as expected, no action was initiated by the police,” says advocate Prashant Bhoir, a resident of Olwe village. Bhoir has been at the forefront, organising the villagers and fighting with the CIDCO for their rights.

This incident has been cited by the CIDCO as the primary reason for urgently shifting the school. But strangely, the high school and the anganwadi that run adjacent to the primary school have not been shifted. “They are only using this incident as an excuse to swiftly move us out. Since the high school and anganwadi buildings are not yet built in the new plot for PAPs, they will continue to operate here. It is a lie that they are concerned about our children’s well-being,” says Avidha Madavi, a villager.

The new school built at Ulwe Node has been lying vacant since parents refuse to send their children here. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Pending promises

The government of Maharashtra has offered 22.5% developed land – 10% in lieu of cash compensation for land acquired and 12.5% as part of the rehabilitation package – to the villagers.

While the villages have in principle agreed to the state’s proposal of developing the clusters in a plot, around four kilometers from the existing land, the villagers are unhappy with several missing provisions that were promised at the time of the agreement in early 2013.

Like, 32-year-old Rupesh Patil explains, “Village life is very different from the city. We are used to living in houses with equally huge open spaces around it. While the CIDCO has provided us with alternative spaces for our houses, those spaces have not been considered. In a city where every inch counts, we have lost a great deal to the state.” Patil, along with others, has been negotiating with the CIDCO for a better deal.

Most of them are also seeking time to shift out since the new plot is actually a deserted, large expanse of land and will take years before it is made habitable. Basic amenities like water and electricity connection are yet to be provided.

Children below six years of age play at the Aanganwadi in Ulwe village. The primary school has been moved out against the villagers’ will. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Fishing community’s woes

These ten villages, with an average 1,500-2,000 houses in each village, belong to Koli, Agri, Karadi and Buddhist communities. Most families here are dependent on agriculture and fishing for their living.

While the farmers have got the compensation for their land, the fishing community have been worst affected. Since the compensation is provided only against the land acquired, for the Koli (fishing) community of Ganeshpuri village, which barely owns any land, this means losing their basic source of income.

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Thirty-eight-year-old Sudhakar Koli of Ganeshpuri says over 250 families have lost their livelihood to the river-diversion work in the region. “Almost all families in the village belong to the Koli community and were dependent on traditional fishing activity. Since the water bodies have been diverted here, we barely manage to catch any fish,” Koli told The Wire.

The residents of Ganeshpuri, along with the rehabilitation package, have asked for employment and access to some other water bodies in the area where they can continue fishing. The CIDCO has not taken any decision on this demand yet.

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