‘Housing for All’ promise is becoming increasingly hollow: Mumbai’s Malwani shack dwellers denied housing rights

slum areaBy Pankaj Gupta, Noor Jahan, Ashraf Sheikh, Aravind Unni and Medha Patkar*

Informal settlement in Malvani No 8, Malad, Mumbai, was demolished on June 4 and 6 this year in the name of protecting mangroves. In this forcible eviction more than 600 houses were demolished. The demolition was carried out by the Mangroves Cell of the Maharashtra Forest Department. Evicted slum dwellers had moved to the Bombay High Court in the hope of ‘justice’, but the Forest Department’s misleading submissions before the Court compelled the slum dwellers to withdraw case, and now they are trying luck with all the documents in their possession with the concerned collector. On October 1, 2015, the slum dwellers finally withdrew their case.

The Bombay High Court order of 2005, which Forest Department had used to demolish these houses, states that any land having mangroves, and land within 50 meters from the mangroves, will be declared as ‘protected forest’ or ‘forest’, and no construction will be allowed on such land from the date of passing this order, i.e. October 6, 2005. The order nowhere directs to demolish structures before October 6, 2005.

The Forest Department, after the Court’s order, in 2008, i.e. after three years, started demarcating the forest land with the help of satellite images, the Maharashtra Remote Sensing Application Center (MRSAC) and Google maps. In the orders to remove ‘encroachments’ on the forest land, the Mangroves Cell in Mumbai served notices to slums near mangroves, while ignoring several other big buildings adjacent to mangroves in the same area, which have been built after the year 2005. This is what befell the shack dwellers of the Malwani No 8 – they were treated in a totally biased manner.

It is time the demarcation of forest area also raises the question of how the Mangroves Cell is concerned about conserving mangroves.

Shack dwellers of Malavni No 8 have been living in that area pre-1995, 1997 and so on. Adjacent to their settlement, there lies a park whose boundaries appear to have been extended in 2015 from what was there in 2005. The distance between the pole erected by forest department and the boundary of the park is certainly less than 50 metres and, still construction was allowed to take place.

Just adjacent to the park is another area which belongs to Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) as per the description on the board erected on the land by the authority. The pillar that was erected by the Forest Department is broken. The area is lying vacant as of now, and a part of it is being used as a dumping ground.

The 2005 Google earth map shows that no structure was there on the land of MHADA, and part of it was covered by mangroves. In the year 2015, on same very land of MHADA, there are seen tall buildings on the part where mangroves used to be there in 2005. There another part which has been cleared and filled with debris. The Mangroves Cell, however, ignored all of this and used its bulldozers clear houses of the poor just adjacent to these structures.

google map2
The 2015 Google map shows high rise buildings on the land where none was there in 2005

This settlement is pre-2005, when the slum dwellers went to the Mangroves Cell office to show their address proof of the area before 2005, the officials present refused to take on record the appropriate documents. Declaring the slum illegal, on April 28, 2015, the Forest Department served notices on May 15, 2015 asking the shack dwellers to vacate land within seven days, failing which their huts would be demolished by the department. But shack dwellers stayed put on that land and did not remove their huts, saying that they all had been living there before 2005 and their settlement came into being before 2000, so the question of illegal structures did not arise.

google map1
The 2005 Google map of the spot where high rise buildings came up post-2005

When the shack dwellers moved to Court for getting housing rights on that land, the Forest Department in its affidavit claimed that it had demolished only 147 houses in compliance with the 2005 Bombay High Court order, while the Bombay Municipal corporation (BMC) on its website, in a press statement, claimed that in all 450 houses had been demolished in the same location in order to construct a sewege water treatment plant.

This statement of the BMC is enough to prove that the authorities have violated the same order which the Forest Department is claiming to comply with. Further, the Forest Department, in the affidavit, deposed that it had not receive any proposal from the BMC for construction of sewage water treatment plant.

This irresponsible, biased and arbitrary work of the Forest Department and the BMC have rendered thousands homeless affecting and denying them their human right to housing, right to life and livelihood, right to education of all those children whose education got affected due to this eviction. This demolition took place just before the onset of monsoon, thus some of them had to spend nights in the open. The Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan along with the evicted families has been protesting this forcible eviction ever since the demolition happened about three months ago.  All of them are sitting on dharna in a pandal erected by them near thed place where their houses were demolished.

The Collector, Mumbai Suburban District, who chairs the District Coastal Zone Monitoring Committee has submitted a report which highlights big structures that came after the year 2005 on the mangroves land. This was highlighted by the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan on July 6 in the monthly meeting of the Committee during a protest led by Medha Patkar against the forcible eviction of the Mandala slum on June 30, 2015, and Malavni No 8 slum on June, 2015 but three months have passed, neither any action taken by the Collector not any response received to this report till date.

The similar story Malavni No 8 will be repeated with other slum dwellers in near future if the forest department doesn’t stop misinterpreting and implementing the Bombay HC 2005 Order in a biased manner.

Question is that where else will these shack dwellers go and live? Given their poverty, they cannot afford to buy a house in city like Mumbai. If rent a house, it will consume all their earnings. Doesn’t the government have the responsibility to think about this section of the society which comprises more than 50% population of the city, whose hard work make the city functioning, before spending Rs 432 crore on a park or Rs 12,000 crores on coastal road?

No doubt, the improvement in the living standard of these urban poor will surely build reputation to the city and setting an example of pro-poor work by the government. The Forest Dept. already has a bad reputation and unsuccessful work in the tribal areas.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is luring voters in Bihar in the name of his party BJP’s ‘Housing For All by 2022’ mission, and appealing people to vote for BJP in the state assembly election, while in the BJP-ruled Maharashtra state, the government is hell bent on evicting and planning to evict the urban poor. Whom people should trust?

*Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, Mumbai

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