A Bridge Too Far
There is little hope for 60 percent of Mumbai’s population that lives in slums.
The quest to integrate with a globalized world has led to profound changes in South Asia, mainly in India, that sees itself as the leader of the future global economic, financial and cultural order in the region. The impact of these changes on people’s lives, livelihoods and social development in Mumbai are worth examining.
The 445.86 sq km city of over 17 million (Demographia World Urban Areas) is geographically a peninsula in structure, surrounded by water from three sides. Mumbai started out as a manufacturing city running on the back of a strong cotton textile industry. As automation and strikes shooed away investment from the sector in the 1970s and 1980s, the displaced workers of the textile industry moved to other informal sectors. At the same time, finance, insurance, real estate and cultural industries emerged as powerful businesses in the city.
These changes gave rise to two classes: one that was directly engaged with the city’s formal sectors, i.e. the powerful elite and the middle class, and another marginalized class that included the original citizens of Mumbai, migrant workers and minority communities such as Dalits and Muslims. The latter helped run the city’s machinery and provided cheap labor to the growing middle-class population.
However, this class remains deprived of the fruits of Mumbai’s emergence as a powerful actor in the global order. This segment, comprising 60 percent of Mumbai’s population, is housed in large swathes of slums, working mostly in labor-intensive units, struggling for recognition, rights and access to basic services.
The simplistically presented story of Mumbai becomes far more complex if the city’s recent history of organized crime, the boom in consumerism and the deeply entrenched ethnic and class fault lines are taken into account. All these have had their consequences, most profoundly evident in the tension between the aspirations for the future of the city, nurtured mainly by the business and political elite as well as the middle class. There is also the reality of Mumbai as the second-most densely populated city in the world, at 32,300 people per square kilometer Mumbai follows Dhaka which is the most densely populated city in the world at 44,000 people per square kilometer ( Demographia World Urban Areas).
Way back in 2004, as a part of his state election rhetoric, the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate, Manmohan Singh promised to “transform Mumbai in the next five years in such a manner that people would forget about Shanghai…” His government had it easy after the elections and there was the ‘Vision Mumbai Plan’ ready for adoption. Initiated in 2001 by a multinational company, McKinsey International, the plan responded to the call of an NGO, Mumbai First, for evolving a roadmap for the city’s development.
The NGO was incidentally backed by industrialists, builders, politicians and bureaucrats. With the premise of turning the metropolis into a livable and efficient place, the plan focused on six key areas: economic growth, transportation, housing and other infrastructure (to ensure safe water, sanitation, health facilities and reduction in pollution), financing of projects and governance.
The cost of the plan was more than just the earmarked Rs. 31, 000 crores. The social cost included sacrifice on the part of the so-called encroachers of government land or slums, who were asked to vacate the property in order to make way for the projects envisaged in the plan. As a part of the move, in early December 2004, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was given the task of demolishing slums developed on the state land after 1995.
The slum dwellers were rehabilitated at the periphery of the city, under the Slum Rehabilitation Schemes. However, they resisted the move, insisting that they were being pushed up to 40km away from the city centre with no access to basic services of education, healthcare and employment. They demanded that they be accepted as equal citizens of the city and have housing as a basic right. The slum demolition drive gave way to an organized struggle that graduated into
a powerful movement called the ‘Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan’.
The GBGBA started in around 2004 and worked for those slums that were demolished following the implementation of the Vision Mumbai Plan. The Andolan is a self-agency of slum dwellers and workers of unrecognized sectors, based on the agenda of “development with justice and equity.” It demands legal recognition of the right to adequate living and conditions of livelihood in the city.
In order to advance the cause, the movement has engaged the state on multiple levels, sometimes employing creative tools and at other times, launching agitation drives, all focusing on the one-point agenda of the right to housing for the slum dwellers. It has achieved important milestones that make ideal case studies for similar movements in other parts of the world.
For instance, in 2008, the Andolan unearthed a major scam regarding the government leasing out land to influential parties at a paltry rate of 40 paisas per acre for an 80-year lease to build luxurious apartments and amenities. After launching a protest, the Andolan offered to pay 100 times more and deposited a check of Rs.2, 000 for the 50-acre land with the Urban Development Minister, who had to sheepishly accept it on behalf of the chief minister of Mahrashtra.
In other instances, the GBGB Andolan vigorously used India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act to expose the misappropriation of public assets to shame the government that was doling out land to the powerful elite at the expense of the poor. The RTI activist Simpreet Singh played a leading role here.
In 2008, the Andolan launched a booklet carrying a list of land scam exposes. These included the Adarsh scheme, a tower meant for the widows of soldiers who died in the Kargil war. It was usurped by bureaucrats, politicians and defense personnel who had absolutely no role in the war. Another land scam, the Ocean of Justice, was a housing complex for High Court judges built on land originally meant for the homeless. The ugly alliance of bureaucrats, judiciary and defense personnel along with India’s notoriously corrupt politicians presented new lows that the state had stooped to and the Andolan was determined to counter.
Street politics has also been an important tool deployed by the Andolan. With Mumbai’s Azad Maidan being a centre point for most of its street action, the Andolan mobilized thousands of slum dwellers for conventions and protests. These agitations resulted in many powerful confrontations against the government that eventually relented to the demands made by the slum dwellers.
In January 2013, the Andolan marked the New Year by launching a relay fast and a long march for the right to dignified housing. The movement went on for ten days following a strong march by thousands to Mantralaya, the administrative headquarters of the state government of Maharashtra. The government eventually agreed to the specific demand of the slum dwellers for holding inquiries into the disputed schemes of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority and also accepted their applications for the Rajiv Awas Yojana, a government scheme on formalizing slums and facilitating access to basic amenities.
The strength of the GBGB Andolan is its people. The movement has the support of former bureaucrats, members of the judiciary, experts on urban planning and social activists. However, it draws its power from the deep involvement and commitment of the local communities. The latter do not merely contribute to street agitation and participate in engagement with the state, whether it is about reacting over policies/laws and plans on housing or signing up for existing state schemes on shelter such as the Rajiv Awas Yojana.
They also monitor the state’s performance on housing services, making use of the RTI and combining it with legal action where necessary. They have a decent website too that documents the struggle and updates latest developments in their cause. The movement’s strategy to combine mass mobilization with proactive politics and use of the activists and experts associated with the Andolan to employ available constitutional and legal mechanisms to further the cause of housing for all has yielded many positive outcomes.
The three major metropolis of South Asia - Mumbai, Karachi and Dhaka - are faced with similar challenges of expanding economies and limited service delivery capacities of the state, resulting in the exclusion of the non-elite. These cities are also listed as the most populous in the world and are exposed to climate change threats due to their geographical location.
According to recent estimates, Karachi has 1.2 million households living in katchi abadis while the slums in Dhaka accommodate 3.5 million people. These make up around half of the population of these cities. With the three cities strongly connected with the global financial and production networks, the lack of political will of their respective governments to provide dignified housing and basic amenities to the majority of their populations points to the flawed foundations of their aspirations to be seen as future leaders of the world economy.