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On 24th July 2016, the Dharavi Beth (island) comprising villages of Gorai, Manori, Uttan, Pali, Chowk, Dongri, and Tarodi on the outskirts of Mumbai came to a halt. Over ten thousand fisherfolk, farmers, the Catholic clergy i.e. priests and nuns, hotel owners, ferry and rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers just about everyone had gathered at a public meeting and rasta roko to protest the recent Government move to declare the island as a Recreation and Tourism Development Zone (RTDZ) under the aegis of the MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority).

This self sustaining island provides employment to all the locals who primarily belong to the fisherfolk (believed to be the original inhabitants or sons-of-the-soil) and farming community. Majority of them are Catholics and revere the Church and the clergy with utmost faith. They fear the destruction of their traditional occupations, primarily of fishing and agriculture being destroyed as a consequence of the RTDZ. If the RTDZ plan is implemented, the construction of bridges linking Manori and Gorai to the Metropolis would bring in a huge influx of global tourists. The Fishermen also fear the acquisition of their ‘commons’ (lands/ponds/spaces used for drying fish and owned by the village as a whole). The Government till date, has never focused on developing the island for its inhabitants as it lacks adequate educational institutions, hospitals, roads, etc. Now on the pretext of ‘development’ under the RTDZ, the locals anticipate no real development for themselves but instead in the interest of the global tourism industry, especially Subhash Chandra Goel’s Esselworld and global pagoda.

The agitation was unique, as it blocked the sole arterial road of the island. Despite being a Sunday which sees a large number of tourists, the locals succeeded in shutting down all activity on the island. All the villagers converged at Kaka Baptista chowk, named after a local freedom fighter. The rasta roko was addressed by Ulka Mahajan of the Jagtikaran Virodhi Kruti Samiti (Anti-Globalisation Action Committee). Ulka Mahajan had previously mobilized the Raigad district locals to bring down the Maha SEZ plan of Reliance and forced its exit from the district. Amidst speeches and slogans of “Ladenge hum, Jeetenge hum”, “Ek do ek do, Paryatan Zone koh phek do”, the huge gathering emphatically stated their stand to resist the designs of globalization on their soil.

Such a huge crowd was reminiscent of a similar gathering in 2008 at the same place against the Government’s proposal to develop an SEZ, promoted by Esselworld. The government was finally forced to revoke the proposal. The locals of Dharavi Beth seem ready to resume this struggle against their displacement and to reclaim their identity and island. The rasta roko lasted for almost three hours despite the State Riot Control Police continuously trying to vacant them from blocking the road.

The residents of Dharavi Beth have shown in the past that these voices of Mumbai’s periphery if needed can present a stiff resistance to the Global Capital. They have fought before, now they willing to fight again.

 Jennifer Coutinho is a Mumbai based activist

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