On the 1st of January, 2013, over 10,000 marched, blocked roads, with 10 days of a sit-in and a parsimonious media coverage yet as the protests grew, as delegations politely marched into offices, the government promised to act, initially without offering anything in writing. The protestors would leave at the end after ten days at Azad Maidan with token promises from the government, and a muted disappointment with the movement, placated with a vow to intensify the struggle in a way the media and the state will not be able to ignore: to occupy the Mantralaya
This longform piece appears in Fountain Ink Magazine in the February issue of 2013, here.
In 2004-2005, the Maharashtra government had demolished over 80,000 homes. On the 1st of January, the legacy of that demolition drive had decided to march to the Mantralaya to demand a right to housing under the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana.
Over the last nine years, the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan that was born in the slum of Mandala, in Govandi, had also taken up the issues of working class and middle class slums and their battle against controversial redevelopment projects. It exposed the Adarsh scam, and recently filed complaints against 15 judges and government officials involved in the Nyasagar Co-operative Housing society, where the office of Vilasrao Deshmukh, would change the reservation status of a plot of land meant for the dishoused, and hand it over to the judges.
Right To Information activists of the movement, have been beaten by criminals and supporters of the builders, had false cases thrown on them (including POTA), and recently in the case of Mohammed Shoukat of Golibar, his fifteen year old son has been missing since August of 2012.
The movement for the right to housing in Mumbai starts when it was still Bombay. While think-tanks like the BMW Guggenheim lab have the David Van Der Leers pouting Thackrey-esque wisdom like ‘City is exploding, we may need to think of limiting people coming to Mumbai from outside’, the fact remains is that the people are already here, and they will still come, a majority have already had homes demolished repeatedly and they rebuild. There are those who have been here even before Mr.David Van Leer, who are being kicked out of their homes and onto the outskirts of the city through a process of gentrification that is more violent, fraudulent and arbitrary than it is mentioned.
The class character of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan itself is an indication that it’s not just migrants who’re facing eviction, social apartheid and the violence of a deep state, yet even working class and middle class Maharashtrians and Kolis, the original inhabitants of Mumbai, the former residing in a village built by the British over 70 years ago, after their lands were expropriated to build this city that the ‘Marathi-manoos’ claim as their own.
A few days ago I met an architect indulging in urban studies with one of the think-tanks that are envisaging a new city, who found himself in Azad Maidan surrounded by people who were fighting the builder lobby and rehabilitation projects, a majority of which have come into being through forgery. ‘I met a man the other day who does work as a forger with the builders.’ He said casually.
‘Can you give me his name?’
Ex-information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi’s petition had stated 87 rehabilitation projects across Mumbai where there were accusations against the builder for forgery, grabbing public lands, and listing imaginary individuals to increase the number of free sale flats. These are the same accusations in all the SRA projects whose residents marched to the Mantralaya, from Golibar to Ramnagar.
Mr.Gandhi’s petition was argued in 2008. It led to the Anti-Corruption Bureau to investigate the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, which led to a suspicious burning down of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority office. And finally, it ended up with a High Powered Committee which has mostly been pro-builder, with slum-dwellers having little to no faith in.
A brief history of betrayal
On the 24th of November, 2010, just after Prithviraj Chauhan had gotten into office as the new Chief minister, he was met with a delegation from Golibar’s Ganesh Krupa Society who informed him about the impending demolition drive that was in progress in Golibar, and about all the alleged forgeries and discrepancies in the project, such as the grabbing of land from the Defence Ministry and the Railways.
The CM had passed a verbal stay order and the demolitions stopped.
A few months later in the January of 20th, 2011, demolition drives took place again, with a lathi-charge where the young and the old were detained.
The Chief Minister did not act.
They again took place in May of 2011, when the Minister was in Delhi and unavailable. And was then confronted with a hunger strike by an aging activist Medha Patkar and numerous residents, and the growing angst against his absence and popularity of the movement. The hunger strike lasted 9 days, and had asked not just for investigation into SRA schemes, but that 25 settlements be declared as slums under the Maharashtra Slums Act, 1971, thereby granting them legal status which envisages their right to water, electricity and sanitation, and that plans be made for the implementation of Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, for cheap and affordable housing for the poor.
His Ministry would then form an independent committee to look into the forgeries and discrepancies in 15 re-development projects in Mumbai, to only withdraw the promise when the matter was taken to the High Court by the builders and their supporters.
A rally of around five thousand and more was taken out in the pouring rain on 28th of June 2011, demanding that the government stick to its promise yet it led to Mr.Chauhan replying to the delegation that met him, that even the builder’s supporters had their rally and if the builder’s had public support than he doesn’t know who to believe.
Unfortunately, recordings by freelance filmmaker’s of the builder’s supporters did not reach the Minister, when the interviewees clearly stated they didn’t know where in Golibar they lived, or that they came from Bharatnagar in Bandra East.
Since then and once again, during another demolition drive in Ambevadi society in Golibar in August of 2012, where the builder and the SRA wished to demolish homes on the premise that the building for the slum dwellers already existed (which only existed on paper), again there was a verbal stay order on the demolition from the Minister’s office. Yet on the 28th of December, 2012, those houses were demolished, preceded by a lathi-charge and an array of cases falling onto residents who merely asked the government to follow its own High Court order that asked for rehabilitation buildings to be built first.
Four days later, on the 1st of January, 2013, they had marched again to the Mantralaya.
A Day in the life of An Organizer
‘Jameel bhai, jab Ambujwadi mein demolition drive ho raha tha, us time, sadak par 3000 log road par aaye the. Toh abhi rally mein 5,000 kaha se aaye hai?’ I had asked Jameel Akhtar Sheik.
‘Jameel bhai, when there was a demolition in Ambujwadi in May, there were 3000 people on the roads before bulldozers. So how come there are 5000 for the rally today?’
Jameel Akhtar smiles, his neighbours around him laughed. He knew the answer, they knew the answer; they had organized. There was no Medha Patkar in all the gallis, going to every home, it was the local organizers, the Jameel bhais, the Masood bhais, the Rashida behens, the Vijay bhais, the Girija behens, the Jagdish bhais and the 56 society organizers they had created that have worked for years in Ambujwadi, whose grassroot level actions have at times, have most importantly, threatened the power structure of landlordism prevalent in the settlement.
A few months ago, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena workers close to a slum landlord had planted flags over one of the offices of the Ghar Bachao movement in Ambujwadi, and instantaneously, hundreds of people of Ambujwadi surrounded the police station and demanded their removal without incident.
When the local organizers of the Ghar Bachao movement are threatened by any of the slum landlords, who not only demand protection money for the protection of homes against demolition, but make money even after the BMC demolishes homes, the local organizers have galvanized group actions that have seriously threatened their standings in a slum.
Ambujwadi, born post 1995, exists on the fringes of suburban Malad, without electricity, without access to clean water, with a history of petty crime, child trafficking and health problems, where the ‘dadas’ sell shanties to people from anywhere from Rs.40,000 to Rs.3,00,00
With the passing of the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, the parallel government that was born – the slum landlords who built illegal settlements by paying massive amounts of grafts to local political parties, to the police, to the municipality itself, will possibly come to an end.
Jameel Akhtar during a speech in an unorganized but just demolished Prem Nagar in Goregaon, was greeted with massive cheers when he said: ‘‘If the government is going to give land in Powai to the Hiranandanis for 40 rupees per acre, we’re ready to give four hundred rupees.’
One of the most prevailing myths of Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana and of shanties in Mumbai today, is that the residents are getting free housing. Yet in the case of ‘illegal’ shanties, they not only have to pay to acquire a small corner without electricity, water or sanitation, but they’re deprived of security. With Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, they will simply pay the state a stipulated rent amount, thus increasing revenue for the state, and obliterating the parallel government that has existed as the state has abdicated from its responsibility of the Right To Housing.
‘We want housing, that is a fixed house, no one will sell them once they get it,’ Said a speaker at Azad Maidan to massive cheers from the crowd, ‘Those who already have a house, shall not get one.’
Jameel Akhtar Sheikh, 48 years old, a tailor by profession and one of the main organizers in Ambujwadi had on the 28th of May 2011, organized his own slum to thwart a demolition drive by the BMC. Over three thousand people stood before the police who would eventually withdraw, along with a JBC bulldozer retreating to loud cheers. Just two days later Jameel Sheikh would be halfway across town to help thwart a demolition drive in Sion Koliwada which is agitating against Sahana Developers.
This time Jameel Akhtar lies down before the bulldozers, and is promptly arrested and sent to prison along with 25 other women, half from Sion Koliwada and another group from Kanavaram Nagar who had come to support the anti-builder movement of the Kolis in Sion Koliwada.
I managed to interview him when he was out a few weeks later.
‘Police asked me, why do I come to support these Koli people even when they’re not people of my slum.’ He said during a rickshaw ride from Goregaon West, to Ghatkopar where another slum Ramnagar was facing a demolition drive, ‘Mein ne bola, ki jab police ki justice aur court ki justice fail ho gayi, toh janta ko haath uthana padta hai.’
‘I told them, when your justice, and the justice from your courts have failed, then the people have to stand up.’
On the 1st of January, 2013, in the morning of the march, the first call I get is from Jameel Akhtar who tells me that five thousand people have already left Ambujwadi, where they will march to Golibar, and then link up with another group, marching from Mankhurd.
But for five thousand to march from Malad to Golibar, a distance of 20 kilometers is no easy feat. So the organizers instead marched into Malad Railway station and took over two trains to reach Khar east, and marched into Golibar where the residents had prepared breakfast for 4,000 people. It took the residents of Ambujwadi around 20 minutes to simply enter into Golibar’s Ganesh Krupa Society.
Eventually the first group from Golibar and Ambujwadi marched from Khar to try and link up with the second group led by Medha Patkar from Mankhurd towards Mahim.
They would eventually take over Kalanagar road and Shivaji Park road, ‘hum garibo ne road banaya hai, bhetho’ – they would say, as a visibly polite police tried it’s best to not exacerbate a massive crowd of thousands, and organizers made spaces for cars to pass through.
The marchers sang songs and screamed slogans of solidarity, government violence, inequality, and revolution, kept discipline, and moved without incident and reached Mahim Marchi Marh, where the second group eventually caught up with them. They would eventually march to Shivaji Park and spend the night.
By 10:30 on the 2nd of January 2013, they marched from Shivaji Park, via Lalbaug, Byculla and Mohammed Ali road, to eventually be blocked by a contingent of police in front of CST station. They were not allowed to march to the Mantralaya, and were being requested to move into Azad Maidan.
The crowd was restless. They had marched on the 28th-29th of June, 2011, and were pushed into Azad Maidan before. They wanted to march to the Mantralaya this time. They screamed slogans against the police, they made their intentions clear to walk to the Mantralaya, yet the organizers were quick to placate their anger as Medha Patkar would speak to the Chief Minister’s personal assistant via cell phone.
A promise from the Chief Minister’s office to meet a delegation of 20, eventually convinced the marchers to move into Azad Maidan.
Then the government broke its first promise of the year. While a delegation of 20 started to move towards Sehadri, the Chief Minister’s guest house, they were told that the Minister will only meet six representatives. The delegation refused and just moved back into Azad Maidan.
A visibly angry Jameel Akhtar took the podium, and throughout his short four minute speech he was being shushed by Medha Patkar to be a little less subtle. Yet he didn’t relent.
‘Forget the delegation,’ He screamed, ‘it’s not just about the 20 people, if the government doesn’t take our demands, it won’t be 20 people, or even 20,000 people, but 50,000 will stand at their gates. Manzoor hai?’
‘Sehadri is not far from us, nor is the Mantralaya.’
‘The people here from their office, the dalaals, the builders people, why don’t you go, go to the guest house and tell them that we, the workers built the guest house, not you, and we will come there as it is ours too.’
‘If they have the guts, tell those builders that those workers who make your homes, should get a house. If they have the guts, tell them that those who stitch your clothes, should get a house. It they have the guts, tell them those who sell vegetables on the street or bring it to your house, should get a house. Those who bring milk to your house, should get a house!’
‘Or leave your chair, and leave your guest house!’
‘We won’t tolerate any insults, we have been marching for two days, not for any political party or any dalaals, but for our rights, our right to a home. And our right to live.’
‘Humare liye, hamare mazdoori ke liye, humme kya milta hai?
‘For us, for our labour, what do we get? We built such high towers, but for our children, for one family, one meal itself is such a struggle.’
‘yeh kursi wallo ko ehlaan karna hoga, sadak banene walle sadak par chalenge, aur building banane walle building mein rahenge,aur tere baap ki jaagir hindustan nahi hai.’
‘Those in power should understand, those who built the road will walk on the roads, those who built the buildings shall live in the buildings, and this country is not your father’s estate.’
A few hours later, a few speeches later, when other organizers felt that they should stay outside Sehadri and see how many people could fit inside, the government finally agreed to meet 15 representatives. They left in a police van, to the anxieties of other protestors who felt that if the government is going to behave in such a way about a delegation, how will they listen to our demands?
An hour and a half long meeting ensued with Medha Patkar, State Home Minister RR Patil and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan and fifteen representatives from numerous slums from the city. A sympathetic R R Patil and Prithviraj Chauhan admitted to most of the demands and stated that they have their own problems with the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme. When bringing up the issue of lack of land in the city, they were confronted by plans prepared by the delegation that ‘30,000 acres of land above ceiling must and can be recovered from – 138 entities- 17,000 acres and also 13000 acres from a few hundred others. Land given on long term lease at 1 Rs/ sq feet etc should be recovered. All this should be re-allotted to the cooperatives of poor and middle class. Hiranandani’s land allotted at 40 Rs/acre needs to be recovered.’
Yet with nothing in writing, the protestors came back to Azad Maidan and decided to stay until the Minister’s office committed itself on paper.
Jameel Akhtar then found his three children and his wife, and slept in the open air of Azad Maidan.
10 Days of A Protest
‘Who bought that poster of Gandhi in the rally?’
‘We should’ve had Bhagat Singh.’
‘Why is Ambedkar’s poster smaller than Gandhi’s?’
– Said the younger organizers of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement
There is a strange element of radicalism present in the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement which quietly grumbles under its breath when Anna Hazare is on the podium. ‘You know what was the first question he asked, when he was told about the andolan?’ Said an organizer, ‘How many people are there?’
‘Not what is the issue, not what we’re fighting for, but how many people are there?’
There is a stranger element when invited India Against Corruption activists who’ve never been present during a demolition drive give speeches that get a lukewarm response and are followed with a Gaddar song that takes apart everyone from Advani, to Modi, to Sonia Gandhi, and speaks of years of loot and the suffering of the poor, which has the crowd of mostly daily wage labourers, highly amused.
Anna Hazare had come, with an army of pressmen and presswomen following him, taking up massive amounts of space in front of the once empty podium. During the press conference there was not a single question about the Slum Rehabilitation Scams or the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, the interviewers merely asked about the Delhi Gang rape, the Maharashtra irrigation scam and his own anti-corruption movement. Mr. Hazare had to plead, ‘Basti ke baare mein mujhe poocho.’ (ask me about the slums)
Yet as he left, the media left. The first two days of the protest had a few articles in mainstream English newspapers while some of the regional newspapers carried front page stories. The next eight days and the final agreement with the government wasn’t present in any of the English press. There wasn’t a single cameraman present when MLA Abu Azmi arrived at Azad Maidan where a mass of his betrayed constituency were protesting for the past week, and what ensued over the next two hours was a tragicomedy of epic democratic proportions.
The matter of Ganpath Patil Nagar, a slum on the fringes of Dahisar on mangrove land had been taken up by the movement, when residents had come to Azad Maidan bearing the fears of an impending demolition drive on the 10th of January, 2013. The demolition drives took place and over 200 homes were demolished even when representatives of the slum and the movement met officials to try and garner an agreement, with residents asking for a proper survey of the slum and that homes that existed before 2005 not be demolished. The demolition drive did not discriminate and a few mainstream newspapers ran frontpage articles, mostly praising the administration for their action.
Sarcasm and Democracy
Abu Azmi, of Samajwadi Party swept the elections in 2008 after Raj Thackeray had declared war on the migrants from north India. Ward M, or Chembur East, a ghetto with one of the worst development indicators in the world, with a child mortality rate of 66 per 1000 births and a life expectancy of 46, voted en masse for him. Ward M, where once in 2004, 80,000 homes were demolished and there was not a single political party for them.
Yet over the years, the Samajwadi Party had become a parallel government due to the responsibilities the state had abdicated from: the right to water, the right to life and housing.
While India voted for water as a human right in the United Nations, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation denies water to every slum that came into existence after 1995. Abu Azmi’s people were quick to begin providing water, charging residents who would stand in line all day, to around Rs.20 for three cans water, amounting to six liters.
A water mafia was born.
At the protest, he was greeted by an effigy that stated ‘Aamdaar lapata hai’, which was politely moved to the back when he showed up. A nervous Abu Azmi sat on the podium surrounded by his constituency, and would listen to residents of Ward M, list all the crimes of his party and his people, at times the speakers, assertively grabbing their attention, ‘Abhi aap dhyaan se sooniye.’ (listen carefully now)
The Samajwadi Party, was accused of everything from running the water mafia, to absence during demolition drives, to corporators who kick people out of offices, abusing residents by saying, ‘tum kaun ho mangne walle, tum kaun ho poochne walle?’(who are you to ask me these things?)
“We go into their offices and say, ‘our slums have been demolished.’”
‘And your people say it’s not been declared as a slum.’ Says Ram Bharadwaj of Mandala, ‘And when today, we had a meeting with the BMC, they agreed that any slum on government land should be declared as a slum and deserves electricity and water.’
‘The government makes development plans, and in the development plans our slums don’t exist. They’re little green spaces, empty plots. Because they just want to sell them to the builders.’ Continued Ram.
“‘What is this Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana? What is the point of all this? I will handle it,’ they tell us,” Say Umar Muhammed of Mandala, ‘Yet when this scheme is there in other cities around the country, why is it not there in Mumbai?’
Abu Azmi sat for over an hour, around the residents of Mandala, while Medha Patkar and other representatives were in a meeting with the BMC. He was nervous, fidgety, taking notes, constantly being reminded by speakers that they don’t care about identity politics, with speakers constantly screaming a slogan: ‘Hindu-Muslim, sab bhai-behen hai.’
‘When you speak, we don’t want you to talk about politics,’ Said Sumit Wajale, ‘We want you to talk about our development.’
Imtiaz from Antop Hill, an RTI activist on whom a POTA case was once put, was quick to remind him that he should’ve been present when his constituency started to march itself, and yet he only showed up eight days after they began to march. And he was followed by Sumit Wajale who got the crowd riled up to entrap Abu Azmi to sit down and stay on the dharna until the demands of his constituency was met. ‘Should he be sitting here?’ he asked a crowd that laughed into raptures.
When he finally was given the microphone to speak, he spent the first five minutes making excuses on why he wasn’t present for the past eight days, and managed to placate the crowd by praising Medha Patkar. He put the blame entirely on the administration, the ‘haramkhors’ as he said, who wouldn’t act unless there’s a cut in it for them somewhere. The government is a mess and only an ‘andolan’ like this would fix it. He promised again to support all the demands of the people and praising the collective power of thousands sitting in at Azad Maidan. He would begin to speak about the few times when he did act for the people, apparently bringing up the demolition of Mandala in the parliament, and ‘paani ka koshish humne kiya’ by bringing many water tankers into the area, and that he did try to stop the water mafia, but instead the police started arresting people who were buying water. Yet the highlight of his speech that did not miss many of the protesters was the fact that he couldn’t even say Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, stammering, calling it, ‘Rajoov….Rajoov…. jo… ya… Awas Yojana hai us ke liye mein khada hu.’
‘if I fail to support the people, you can give me a garland of flowers.’ He said to cheers from the crowd.
Abu Azmi left after two hours at Azad Maidan, with a promise to create a committee in every slum that belongs to his constituency, and a promise to lead a delegation to the Mantralaya the next day with both the issues of SRA and Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana.
‘How much he lied,’ Said a few residents of Ambujwadi and Mandala.
Post-Script: An End To The Protest
Amina bi, 85 years old from Ambujwadi stayed at Azad Maidan for the entirety of the ten days of the sit-in. She sat in the front, covered herself in a blanket at night, screaming slogans, raising her fists, and laughing during the day’s proceedings.
Many other protestors would go home and return by the afternoon and evening, but there were thousands like Amina Bi, who lived in Azad Maidan, who were fed by the collective kitchens that were started by the slums themselves.
After the end of the protest was announced she quietly walked onto the podium to meet Medha Patkar but she had already left. When Medha Patkar returned she saw that she was busy, and said, ‘Chodd do, badme milenge.’ With muted disappointment
‘Andolan toh karna padta hai,’ she said as she quietly moved back to her space to prepare to go back to Ambujwadi, hoping that this time, after nine years, the movement did bring them some relief.
For 10 days, the protesters tried to bring a government official to meet them at Azad Maidan, and threatened them again and again with a march to the Mantrayala. Each time that action was postponed as different offices of the administration, either the BMC commissioner, the State Human Rights Commission, or the Water Department, had offered the delegation time to meet. Every office of the government besides the Chief Minister’s office was forthcoming.
On the 10th day, a secret plan was made to send small groups of residents from all the slums to the Mantralaya. Groups of ten and twenty slowly started to leave Azad Maidan and quietly took a bus or a taxi towards the Mantralaya. Within an hour there were almost five hundred people who had taken over the parking lot of the Mantralaya at Jeevan Bheema Marg, with four police vans and a contingent of police negotiating with them.
The police who were surprisingly polite, requested the organizers to send groups of ten and twenty from the same slum up to the offices of the Mantralaya to deliver their applications for the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, and others from the SRA projects to deliver their complaint letters to RR Patil, the State Home Minister and to the Chief Minister.
Lines outside all of their offices were nothing but the protestors from Azad Maidan.
‘Police bahu izat dikharahi hai,’ Said Noorjahan of Malvani in Malad.
At the end, hundreds of protestors had managed to deliver the applications to the Mantralaya without any incident. They returned with a letter that promised the pilot project for Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana in Mandala, and the news that the protests shall end for the moment, but that if the government betrays them again, then they will march again.
‘This is not a good end,’ Said Krishna Nair of Golibar, who walked away from the podium feeling that they could’ve really stayed on for a few more days and got a concrete decision on the SRA scams as well.
Yet he was satisfied when others promised him that they will march again.
Eight days after the end of the agitation, on January 18, as the government started making preliminary inquiries into the SRA projects, private security personnel allegedly hired by a builder entered Ambevadi society of Golibar and started an argument with the residents which led to a violent confrontation; two women had to be hospitalised after the clashes. The residents managed to capture one of the henchmen and locked him up for the police to come and take his testimony. The police, however, threatened to charge the residents with kidnapping, which led to further altercations between the residents and the police.
It was then that Krishna Nair reached Budh Vihar and managed to negotiate a compromise between the police and the residents. He took the “henchman” to the hospital and managed to get his testimony collected by the police.
A few hours later he was furious,“Yeh saale haraami police log mere par rioting ka case daalne wale hain. (These corrupt bastards are going to book me in a case of rioting).”
Next day the private security firm entered Ambevadi again, with police protection, and this time pointed out resident Pradeep More, who was later arrested by the police. The residents resorted to a relay hunger strike after there was no response from the government to their complaints against the private security firm and the police. There had been zero media reaction to these events at the time of going to press.