When 14-year-old Shameenbi was married several decades ago, she had been told that her husband was a contractor in Bombay who had a big income. Everyone in the village where Shameen’s family—the Shaikhs—lived had told her that Bombay was the place where film stars lived. When Shameen was 10 years old, her father, a schoolteacher, had taken his children—four, including Shameen—to watch a Hindi film. It was at a makeshift theatre in the village. She had come back home with a dream: to go to Bombay someday to see the city of film stars.
When she was told that her future husband was from Bombay, her happiness knew no bounds. The arrival in Bombay was, however, a sobering eye opener. She realised that he did not have any money. Nor did he have a house. He lived in Mankhurd, then a forested area, located near a creek. Her husband was a daily wager who worked at construction sites. She was a stay-at-home wife whose primary job was to safeguard the meagre belongings in the house when the water from the creek came into their houses during high tide. All the women living in that slum area did the same ‘work’ – shifting their belongings to a height when the creek waters came in. Bound together by poverty, friendships were born.
Many years later, the residents of that creek moved into a new place which came to be known as Annabhau Sathe Nagar, after the radical (Matang) Dalit novelist, playwright and activist Tukaram Bhaurao Sathe, fondly called Annabhau Sathe. While some had built mud houses, others had pucca houses.
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Life went on until the bulldozers arrived one rainy afternoon. A majority of the men, including Shameen’s husband, were at work at the numerous construction sites which dotted the landscape. The women had come out of their houses for a peek at the huge machines that had lined up nearby. “We were fascinated by those machines. None of us there realised that these machines would bring down our homes brick by brick,” said Shameenbi to Outlook. “The machines started breaking our houses. We screamed and asked them to stop. No one listened to us. By the time the men came back, there were no homes left. It was just rubble,” she says.
“We rummaged through the rubble and salvaged some belongings. The rain had turned the rubble into muddy streams. I remember all of us standing in the rain, crying and trying to understand what had happened to us,” wails a still emotional Shameenbi. Since then, demolitions have become a part of their lives.
Today, Annabhau Sathe Nagar is made up of 40 chawls – clusters of tenements located cheek by jowl offering cheap and basic accommodation to labourers. The 30,000 strong, lower-class colony with its small houses, congested, dirty and littered lanes, wet from overflowing taps, is home to a mixed population from across Maharashtra and the country. Over 60 per cent of the area’s population comprises the Matang (an impoverished Dalit) community who migrated and settled here after the 1972 famine in Maharashtra. While 20 per cent are north Indians and Muslims, 5 per cent are Marathas, 5 per cent Buddhists and 10 per cent from other communities. Established in 1982, Annabhau Sathe Nagar has been a victim of multiple demolition and eviction drives.
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The people here say that they have now become used to the bull dozers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) regularly seen in the area. The first of the bull dozers had arrived here with the demolition squad some months after the settlement came up in 1982. “The people would stay away for two to three days and then come back and rebuild their houses at the same place it was demolished,” said Santosh Thorat, an activist living in the area. “My house too has been demolished many times. We have water and power supply for which we pay, yet this area is considered as illegal under civic law. We are used to the bulldozers now,” he tells Outlook.
Demolitions have brought with them a humanitarian crisis that has grown each year. Families have grown but the area of their homes has not. Narrating an incident where a child lost her life during a demolition drive, Thorat said, “Rambhau Dashrath Ghatole lived here with his wife, Dhondabai, and their infant girl child. During a demolition drive, as the bull dozer started demolishing their house, Dhondabai ran out of the house, holding her infant child in one hand. It was an Amavasya night and the tide was high. The Ghatole house was located close to the creek. Dhondabai was pushed by a BMC demolition squad member and the child fell into the creek. When the tide ebbed, they found the dead child,” said Thorat.
The residents here have taken to the streets on numerous occasions to protest the demolition drives of the BMC. A delegation of slum dwellers from this area had met then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and had given her a memorandum listing their demand to legalise their dwellings and stop the demolitions. In 1995 and 1996, G.R .Khairnar, then deputy commissioner of the BMC who was called the “demolition man of Mumbai,” brought in the bulldozers to Annabhau Sathe Nagar and launched mass demolitions.
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One of the houses that was razed belonged to Ram Kamble. His newly constructed one-storeyed structure was razed to the ground. The Kambles had spent a lot of money to build that house. Holding relevant documents that established their right to the house, the Kambles had pleaded with the demolition team to let their house be. As their house was being razed to the ground, Kamble’s father suffered a heart attack and died on the spot, before medical assistance could reach him, says Thorat.
In 2004, the demolition team visited Annabhau Sathe Nagar, yet again. Structures in about 45 locations in Mankhurd and its surrounding areas, including Annabhau Sathe Nagar, were razed to the ground. An estimated 1.5 lakh people were rendered homeless. The human casualty included a young man who died of a heart attack. “He was newly married and the couple had eloped from their native place. He and his wife were staying in one of the houses that was demolished. Unable to bear the loss of his home, that young man suffered a heart attack and died,” says Thorat, whose house too was demolished that year.
The large-scale displacement of the people saw social activist Medha Patkar and others troop into this area and organise the people under the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (Save Homes, Build Homes Movement). Patkar’s leadership emboldened the residents who became a part of numerous morchas that hit the streets protesting demolitions, displacement and the ensuing humanitarian crisis. The constant demolitions, evictions and rebuilding of their homes have taken a toll on the physical and fiscal health of the residents. Malnourishment is rampant here and its victims include women and children. Demolition debris is strewn about in many places. The constantly moving vehicles on the narrow, congested and dusty roads is the cause of severe air pollution, leading to chest and breathing ailments among those who live here. The mosquito menace is high. Though the BMC health department, through its wards, does regular fumigation in areas prone to mosquito infestation, Annabhau Sathe Nagar seems to be excluded from this exercise, the residents point out.
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Speaking to Outlook, Thorat’s wife, Radha, says that rebuilding their house after demolition was tough. “Our house has been demolished many times. Every time we pick up the pieces and start rebuilding from scratch. I feel mentally and emotionally stressed as we lose things that we have bought to make the house a home. Demolitions and displacement take away the stability from one’s life,” says Radha. Experience has taught the people living here resilience. “We are not scared any more. We are prepared to take on the bulldozers,” says Sangeeta Kamble, whose house was demolished some years ago. “Cases are registered against our men when they protest against us being evicted to other places. They are called to the police station often. If they do not go, the police come and take them away. They are released after we pay bail. We are poor people and every rupee is important. When no-one here has the money to lend, who will we borrow from?” she says. The houses are crammed together and share walls. So dense is the population of houses in this area that there is no way for the bulldozers to enter the lanes. “There are government orders under which our settlement can be regularised but that has not taken place,” said Thorat.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Mumbai cha avanchhita (Mumbai’s Garbage)")
Haima Deshpande in Mumbai