Slum liv­ing just got worse

De­mo­li­tion shows pow­er­less­ness of the poor who keep Mum­bai run­ning

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - shashank.bengali @la­times.com Twit­ter: @SBen­gali

Har­eram Raut greeted his vis­i­tors with an apol­ogy: “Sorry there is no place to sit.”

It was hard to tell if he was be­ing darkly funny or im­pos­si­bly po­lite. All around him was devastation.

A wide field of flat­tened bricks stretched to­ward a low, golden sun. Tiled walls and squat toi­lets lay half­buried in rub­ble. Chil­dren stepped over bam­boo poles, bro­ken doors, ex­posed wa­ter pipes and bits of in­su­la­tion that poked through the crevices like grimy cot­ton candy.

Raut, a shaggy-haired, 34-year-old me­chanic, stood atop the bare foun­da­tion of what was once his two-story brick house. He was here the morn­ing the bull­doz­ers ar­rived.

He and his wife res­cued a few doc­u­ments and a red cylin­der of cook­ing gas be­fore au­thor­i­ties or­dered ev­ery­one out of their houses — and beat those who re­sisted. Their tele­vi­sion, cook­ing ves­sels and the suit­cases that stored the rest of their pos­ses­sions were de­stroyed as the gi­ant machines lev­eled 1,500 houses cov­er­ing more than 30 acres at the south­ern tip of Mum­bai.

The de­mo­li­tion in early May was car­ried out by the state for­est depart­ment, which said the set­tle­ment en­croached on a clus­ter of man­groves — a vi­tal shrub­like species that fringes this coastal me­trop­o­lis. A 2005 court or­der pro­tect­ing man­groves is one of many pre­texts that au­thor­i­ties use to pe­ri­od­i­cally raze slums across the city, even as big­ger pri­vate de­vel­op­ments built on ques­tion­able le­gal ground are gen­er­ally al­lowed to stand.

Two days be­fore the bull­doz­ers came, a warn­ing played over a loud­speaker, telling res­i­dents to vacate. Few be­lieved it, con­sid­er­ing that many fam­i­lies set­tled here in the 1990s and the neigh­bor­hood had ac­quired all the signs of per­ma­nence.

The city pro­vided piped wa­ter and elec­tric­ity me­ters, ham­mered into brick walls. Chil­dren at­tended lo­cal schools. Politi­cians can­vassed the nar­row lanes at elec­tion time. Young peo­ple had grown up here, mar­ried and had chil­dren on the same small plots that now lie in ru­ins.

“We thought we were safe,” Raut said.

Half of Mum­bai’s 15 mil­lion peo­ple live in slums, which In­dian cen­sus of­fi­cials char­ac­ter­ize as res­i­den­tial ar­eas where “dwellings are un­fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion.”

In re­al­ity, In­dia’s com­mer­cial and en­ter­tain­ment cap­i­tal would cease to func­tion with­out slums, which house the driv­ers, house­keep­ers, plumbers, day la­bor­ers, er­rand boys, nan­nies and other blue-col­lar work­ers who al­low the is­land city’s mid­dle and up­per classes to live lives of rel­a­tive com­fort.

You glimpse the slums — tightly packed houses cov­ered in mul­ti­col­ored tarps and metal roofs, like a mashup of Le­gos — out the win­dow upon land­ing at the Mum­bai air­port, or over the sides of the rooftop bars at one of the city’s five-star ho­tels. Oth­er­wise, they ex­ist largely out of sight of the city’s most pow­er­ful, which makes it eas­ier to tear the struc­tures down.

Raut’s neigh­bor­hood of Ambed­kar Na­gar — named for the 20th cen­tury so­cial re­former B.R. Ambed­kar, who cam­paigned for the rights of women and low­er­caste In­di­ans — is sand­wiched be­tween a naval of­fi­cers’ colony and an up­scale com­mer­cial com­plex dubbed the World Trade Cen­ter. A few hun­dred yards away stands a va­cant, 31story high-rise that is one of Mum­bai’s most glar­ing sym­bols of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion.

The Adarsh apart­ment tower was in­tended to house vet­er­ans and war wid­ows. In­stead, de­vel­op­ers al­lot­ted the prime res­i­dences to politi­cians and bu­reau­crats, and ig­nored en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions lim­it­ing the size of build­ings in the coastal zone.

A judge last year or­dered Adarsh to be torn down, but apart­ment own­ers ap­pealed to In­dia’s Supreme Court to halt the de­mo­li­tion. In cell­phone videos shot by Ambed­kar Na­gar res­i­dents, the dis­graced tower looms in the back­ground as bull­doz­ers lay waste to the slum.

San­tosh Gond, a tall 33-year-old with a pro­trud­ing belly, wan­dered about the wreck­age car­ry­ing a sheaf of pa­pers. They in­cluded his elec­tric­ity bill and other doc­u­ments show­ing his ad­dress in Ambed­kar Na­gar, where he has lived since he was a teenager.

Four months ago, Gond, an as­sis­tant at a pres­ti­gious law of­fice who earns about $2,000 a year, asked his boss for a $3,000 loan to ren­o­vate his house. He re­placed the tin walls with brick and in­stalled a pri­vate toi­let so his wife and child no longer would have to wait in line at the filthy pub­lic re­stroom.

All of it was de­stroyed by the bull­doz­ers.

“It will take me 10 years to earn back what I lost in four days,” Gond said. “They call us en­croach­ers, but why was the city sup­ply­ing wa­ter and elec­tric­ity here if our houses were il­le­gal?”

Un­der city re­de­vel­op­ment laws, slum dwellers are to be re­set­tled if their homes are torn down. But there are com­plex eli­gi­bil­ity rules, and so far, au­thor­i­ties have not given Ambed­kar Na­gar res­i­dents any in­di­ca­tion that they will be com­pen­sated.

Gond has been sleep­ing at the home of a neigh­bor who was vis­it­ing his vil­lage for the sum­mer and whose house was spared.

As the sun ducked below the tops of the man­groves lin­ing the Ara­bian Sea, Jy­oti To­gre sat with her 5-yearold daugh­ter, Sh­weta, who picked at the crum­bling foam of the mat­tress they sal­vaged from their house.

To­gre, 26, was born in the slum and mar­ried to a lo­cal boy when she was a teenager. Both her daugh­ters were en­rolled at nearby schools, and she won­dered how her 9-year-old would man­age to do home­work when classes re­sumed af­ter sum­mer break.

Her hus­band, a chauf­feur for a rich fam­ily liv­ing in a nearby co-op, earns about $180 a month. One-room apart­ments in the area now re­quire rental de­posits of three times that, she said.

“We are look­ing for a place at any cost,” she said. “The im­por­tant thing is the chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion should not be com­pro­mised. That’s how we are go­ing to get out of this.”

Two years ear­lier, a fire gut­ted sev­eral hun­dred homes in the slum. To­gre’s was spared, but she had grown ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing in fear.

“Here,” she said, “tragedy can strike at any time.”

Shashank Bengali Los Angeles Times

SAN­TOSH GOND ren­o­vated his slum home with a loan from his boss. Months later, bull­doz­ers de­stroyed it. Be­hind him is the scan­dal-rid­den Adarsh Tower, which the Supreme Court has blocked from de­mo­li­tion.

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