Anatomy of a self-destructing system

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This article appears in the Sunday Guardian on the 1st of September, 2013.

Another demolition drive at Sion Koliwada and the practice of claiming agency by the residents to prevent it has a lot to say about the way an administration has been co-opted by the market

The notice for demolitions at Sion Koliwada had arrived a day after Independence Day. It was in January of this year, that mass protests by slumdwellers across Mumbai led to the Principal Secretary, Housing, Debashish Chakravarti by direction of the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan to order a stay on demolition drives on six rehabilitation projects across the city where residents have alleged fraud and forgery by the builders.

But it was the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Ward Office of F North in Mumbai, who passed an ‘allotment’ notice (allotment is another euphemism for demolition) on the 16th of August.

From the moment the notice arrived, to the first brick that would fall in the coming days, the actions and practice of agency by the Kolis of Sion Koliwada, who marched from government office to office, to the reactions from police officials, and the administration, have a lot to say about a system where checks and balances are now completely flatlined, and the state is one homogenous monolith that has no space for the discourse of rights and it is time once again to acknowledge the role of the market as the new dharma of state officials.

The Core Committee of Sion Koliwada, comprising of young men and women, armed with prima facie evidence of forgery, countless documents acquired through the Right To Information Act, detailing discrepancy after discrepancy in the project, had one afternoon, on the 29th of April, sat with the Principal Housing Secretary, the Builder’s coterie of lawyers and armed guards, and members of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, and would finish their presentation at the hearing, leaving the builder’s lawyers with nothing to say, or respond. If that was an indication of the worth of a democratic institution, than their morale, their belief in the system that day, was justified. And would be further justified a few months later when Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte had ordered that the builder’s vast steel fence that had hidden Sion Koliwada from the world, to be removed.

Yet irrespective of that, and the constant delay of the publication of the inquiry report by the state, the demolition notice would arrive. A timeline from the 16th of August, to the 21st of August, has to be observed to reveal the schizophrenia of dealing with the state. The notice arrives, much to everyone’s chagrin and after discussions amongst the protesting residents, they realized they wouldn’t challenge it in court, as their matter is already under inquiry by Debashish Chakravarti, which was promised to have been finished by the 15th of May, and has not, till date.

They would decide to hold meetings with the Chief Minister, the Home Minister and the Chief Municipal Commissioner, but they did not take place initially, as no one was admitted to an audience with any state official on a Sunday.

Their first meeting would only take place on Monday, 19th of August, with the Chief Minister’s personal secretary, who quickly called up the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, and asked him on what basis did he issue an order on the Sion Koliwada case. Reportedly, the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Sudhir Naik, claimed he didn’t know there as a stay order, and the outcome of this conversation with the Personal Secretary and the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, in front of Sion’s protesting residents, was a verbal confirmation that there would be no demolitions.

The delegation of the residents then went straight to the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Sudhir Naik, and requested that they recieve a stay order in writing, and he confirmed that he would contact Assistant Commissioner Narendra Berde who passed the first notice and sort it out with him. They were told that they would get their written order by seven in the evening. They waited till 7:30. Nothing happened. It was only as they managed to catch Mr.Sudhir Naik as he was leaving office, that he said they should come the next day in the morning, as they still require the signature of Sitaram Kunte, the Chief Municipal Commissioner.

The delegation arrives the next morning on the 20th of August, and finds Sitaram Kunte in a meeting. They returned in the afternoon and they still found him in a meeting. In the evening, they saw the builder and his lawyers, along with the committee members from Sion, who had supported the builder at the BMC premises. They were then informed that they would receive a decision the next day, from Debashish Chakravati, the Principal Secretary of Housing, himself.

On Wednesday, 21st of August, they were given a written order by the BMC signed by Debashish Chakravati, that confirms demolitions. The letter, a jumble of strange logic, states that since a Writ petition 1184 of 2010 that asked for ‘the re-development scheme of this society should be declared illegal and cancelled, and the floors 8 to 14 of the re-developed building be demolished,’ filed by the residents was dismissed by the High Court in 2010, and that his own stay order of January of 2013, exempts demolitions as per High Court orders, then the demolitions would have to take place. He would further mention that that allotment letters were given to ‘not-cooperating’ tenants three times before his own stay order of January 2013.

The residents quickly went to the Mantralaya and got an appointment with Debashish Chakravati in the evening, who admitted to have a meeting with the builder and his lawyers, and refused to entertain the protesting resident’s concerns, stating that their case was dismissed by the High Court, while the residents asserted that the High Court never ordered any demolitions nor was there any order against the builder.

They spoke for over thirty minutes but the residents realized he wouldn’t budge.

Adding to this, it would be the attitudes of the police, the first face of the state to Sion Koliwada. Calls to every senior policeman on Monday, revealed the demolitions were cancelled, but the minute the turnaround took place, they enthusiastically decided to give police protection to demolition crews, once again highlighting that instead of investigating the matter of fraud and forgery, which should have happened years ago, the police is inclined to give protection to demolition crews.

A senior police officer at Sion, a veteran of the force, a tormentor as described by the residents, a self-described savior as much as his limits could take him, admittedly mentions that the system needs changing, is pessimistic about it, is too impatient for Dr.Ambedkar’s social revolution, and would ironically voice the CPI (Maoist), ‘that one needs to be in power to change the system.’ He feels that those protesting are not being practical, ‘saamne walla jaisa karta hai, tum bhi waise hi karo’ (do what everyone around you is doing); and one man can’t change the ‘system’, and if you fight it, the system will not help you, and they, the residents, should just take what they are getting, ‘that a person who can’t change their principles, can’t be successful.’

This is of course, is the free market.

And the free market, symbolized as four bulldozers, drove into the small colony in the middle of Sion, and while residents didn’t physically protest, due to the threats of further police cases against them, there was an incident that revealed the psychology of the police and the administration quite clearly. The elusive words, ‘stay order’ spread like wildfire amongst the residents around four in the evening on the first day of the demolition drive, and residents who were quietly watching their homes broken down, suddenly, empowered, began to protest, hurl abuses, and demanded that the state stop destroying their homes. The police and the BMC started to withdraw, without much hesitation, almost revealing that they themselves felt they had no right or authority to demolish. But when the elusive order was merely revealed as a fax of an admission of an emergency petition slated to be heard at 5pm at the City Civil Court, which was literally thrown down by one of the police officers, the police and the wrecking crews returned, but by then it was already five in the evening, and demolitions have to stop at that slated time.

The demolitions continued on the second day and 39 houses were demolished that even left one man injured.

A day after the demolition drive, a distraught people, congregated in hundreds at Walkeshwar, and had attempted to get a meeting with the Chief Minister who they felt had betrayed them. There was no meeting as they argued about the size of the delegation, and instead they would sit in front of his gates, until the police forcefully picked up the residents, and put them into police vans and drove them to Azad Maidan. It would be a point to mention, that anyone who looked like they belonged to the working class, were stopped by the police from even entering the road at Walkeshwar that leads to the CM’s residence of Varsha.

This self-destructing system is now catering to a general environment of gaping paradoxes where 13000 square feet high-end apartments worth a 100 crores are advertised by a financial magazine, where the working classes are quick to observe that the landscape of the city visible from the Virar Fast, is filled with towering buildings like honeycombs that lie empty, that the middle classes have a general perception that all slums are illegal and should be destroyed while they themselves can’t afford an apartment in most of the city and have neither the imagination nor the capacity to challenge the builder lobby; and where judges build their colonies on mangrove land, and pass orders that the poor cannot, where the land meant for the ‘dishoused’ is another judges colony, where the history of collapsing housing markets across the world, are not matters of polity’s concern; and social housing, which can reclaim housing from being an ‘investment’ to a ‘right to shelter’ for all, is a distant dream.

Yet this is one dream, that one can only imagine after the state can wake up from a nightmare it perpetuates.

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