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THE OTHER HALF

Mumbai's tragedy

KALPANA SHARMA

The reality of course is that a new Mumbai cannot be built on the corpses of its poor, the very people who hold up the city.

AP

IN the much-talked about film "Amu" by Shonali Bose, the Censor Board decided to make some cuts. It cut some words spoken by widows from the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in New Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination by her personal bodyguards. The shot could not be edited. So the women mouth the words but no sound emerges. In many ways, the shot has been rendered more powerful. For the desire of the State even today, over 20 years after that entirely man-made tragedy, to stifle the truth of those killings speaks louder than the words of those women.

In Mumbai, the story of the anti-Sikh riots and the absence of justice is a reminder of the killings of 1992-93 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. As in 1984, the police and politicians were complicit. And as then, neither police nor politicians have been booked for their crimes of omission and commission. The irony is further compounded by the fact that Mumbai has been chosen as the place to try two important cases from the more recent Gujarat killings of 2002 where, once again, the role of the police and of politicians was central.

Part of contemporary history

These tragedies are a part of our contemporary history. They cannot and should not be forgotten. But every day there are other tragedies in many of our cities that we virtually erase by not even recognising them. One such has occurred in Mumbai even as we grieved for the thousands who died in the tsunami. For while the latter was an unexpected natural disaster, Mumbai has witnessed an unnatural "tsunami", one that has flattened thousands of homes and left an estimated two lakh people homeless.

Made homeless

Maniabai Dahade, an old woman of indeterminate age from a slum in northeast Mumbai, spoke in a quivering voice at a public hearing last week. She said, "I stood with a flag in my hand to stop the bulldozers but they did not stop." She is just one of the growing number of people who are homeless thanks to earthmovers and bulldozers of Mumbai's Municipal Corporation.

In this massacre of the homes of thousands of poor people, the politicians have been complicit, politicians of all hues. They have dangled the promise of security of tenure to the poor while condoning the destruction of their shelters. While those in power claim helplessness, those out of power wait for an opportunity to exploit the justifiable anger of these poor people. Neither is really interested in finding a solution to the problem.

The middle class argue that these slum dwellers live in hovels that cannot be called "homes", that these structures are "illegal" and, therefore, deserve to be demolished and that if these people are thereby rendered homeless, they should just pack their bags and go back to their villages. They forget that even the smallest of spaces becomes a home when it is filled with memories and dreams of the people who inhabit them.

For the poor slum dweller, the 60 sq. ft hovel is a home. Those who have had their homes demolished in the recent war against slums in Mumbai, tell you how they built their huts in a swamp, how they filled up the land with construction debris and how, in the end, they had a house that was their home. Said Kaserbai Wankhade from Maharashtra Nagar in Mankhurd, "I had a very nice home. I feel like crying." She works as a domestic, has lived in Mumbai since her childhood and has nowhere to go. Yet today, she is one of those who is told that there is no place for her in this city.

The voices of these women, and others like them, have been silenced not by the Censor, as in "Amu", but by an insensitive public that has come to accept violations of poor people's rights as routine. There is no outrage. On the contrary, there is considerable support for the demolishers. Finally, the government is getting its act together, think a good number of Mumbai's upper crust. This is the only way Mumbai can become another Shanghai, another world-class city that will bring investors flocking from all over the world.

Not just about `rights'

The reality of course is that a new Mumbai cannot be built on the corpses of its poor, the very people who hold up the city. The issue is not simply the "rights" of the poor but the duties of the government. For decades now, Mumbai's urban poor have been duped into believing that something will be done for them. Successive governments have promised houses and facilities while fixing a magical "cut-off" date. Anyone who falls within this date, decided arbitrarily without any logic, is promised the moon. Those outside the circle are told to wait patiently. In time the "cut-off" date will change, and another swathe of the poor will come within the magic circle.

By doing this, successive governments have wormed out of the urgent need to devise a housing policy that will produce affordable houses for the poor. They have refused to tackle land ownership or land-use patterns. They have justified unworkable laws like the antiquated Rent Control Act that has ruined the city's rental housing stock. They have allowed private builders to flout all laws and build for the rich and the loaded.

And under the benign gaze of such governments, the poor have filled up marshland, resurfaced uneven land, all with their own labour, and built their homes. Only to find that the State is not permanently benign. Right now, it has decided that regardless of its promises, it wants at least some poor people out. There is no offer of even a basic humanitarian alternative for these thousands of people turned out of their homes.

For such "man-made tsunamis", there is no sympathy, no concerts, no appeals for funds. "We are illiterate but don't want to keep our children illiterate. Just as you have a right to live, so do we who are poor. People should get the right to shelter," said an impassioned Kadvi Wagri, another one of the growing stream of homeless in Mumbai. These voices should not be silenced.

E-mail the writer: ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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