The beginning of the year started with celebrations for most. But the residents of ‘slum’ districts at Khar, Vikhoroli, Govandi and near the airport in Mumbai awoke wondering if their houses would still be standing the next day. Residents have been fighting a year-long battle with property developers, the Maharashtra Housing Road Development Authority (MHRDA) and policemen to keep their homes. Photos and videos of the residents being forcibly manhandled and their possessions thrown out on the street are available on YouTube and social media platforms.
After watching these, one thinks of what we mean by ‘development’ in India – is this the best way to go about it? Are we simply removing these signs of poverty from our visible zones and making life more difficult for these workers who then have no choice but to commute long distances to work? Moreover, the plan for rehabilitation of slum dwellers is riddled with corruption at all levels. Often, the disenfranchised of society have no choice but to see their belongings taken away from them by developers. Then they are put in ‘halfway houses’ by the developers, temporary premises until they are permanently relocated, where the living conditions are scarcely better than prisons. Will these slum dwellers really see any property being returned to them after bulldozers have razed down their houses? There are instances when developers have even set fire to the slum areas to drive people out. We need to reconsider as a nation what it means to have slums in our cities.
We may think of slums as synonymous with abject poverty, disease and social discontent. But this is a categorisation that is often false. There is immense solidarity and communal feeling in areas such as these and even middle-class households often lack the same amenities by which we would categorise a slum. We have to ask if the categorisation and removal of slum areas in our cities go hand in hand with development or just play into a cartel of powerful developers. We are not in a hurry to demolish illegal constructions such as the Adarsh Housing Society, are we? Then why destroy the homes and livelihoods of the poorest segments of the city with no other recourse. Surely, providing better amenities and working within the system as it is would be better, should we find the social and political will to do so.
Until then, the residents of slums are putting up valiant, peaceful protests against the bulldozers razing their homes. At meetings, they discuss the Egyptian revolution and other populist ideas. Local politicians with an eye on the upcoming BMC elections are also vocalising their support. But whether these people will be included in India’s development agenda is another question altogether that remains to be answered.
Volume 1 Issue 8