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Invisible Cities: Part One : A Short History Of A Slum

By Javed Iqbal

16 November, 2010
MoonChasing Blog

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 24th of October, 2010.

Over 800,000 slum-dwellers (2001 census) face eviction due to modernisation of the airport.

Read Invisible Cities: Part Two: Hunger

‘In my lifetime, our houses must’ve been broken down some seven to eight times.’ Said Pakanniamma Periyarsamy (50) in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, a slum bordering Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport. She had migrated to Mumbai in 1970 from Vallampadi village in Salem, Tamil Nadu, and has been selling flowers on the streets of Mumbai. The slum was called Sanjay Gandhi Nagar hoping to save it from demolition. The same applied to Rajendra Prasad Nagar, Shastri Nagar, Ambedkar Nagar, yet demolitions are a part of living in a city without any legal rights to land, juxtaposed to a frenzied hunger for land by builders and corporations.

‘We’ve grown up knowing that someday our home will be broken down,’ Said Rajwant Yadav (18), of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, and news of demolition for the modernization of the airport has long distilled into the slums surrounding the airport – Bamanwada, Ambedkar Nagar, Jharimari, Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, Ambavadi, Sambaji Nagar, Shastri Nagar – mostly inhabited by Dalits, OBCs and Muslims.

‘They’re going to demolish our slums to build five star hotels,’ said Yaswant of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, and it’s not the first time the people of the slum have faced demolition.

In winter 2001, the police had entered houses, pulled people out and beaten them. They told people that they have two minutes to take out their valuables. Then they demolished homes and shops. Arwel Kumar Harijan (27), a taxi driver remembers that day very clearly. He lost his TV, his cooker, his bed and his clothes and spent his winter next to the toilet that the slumdwellers themselves had built to keep their slum clean. It took him one year to rebuild his home.

Nearby, in Ambedkar Nagar, a flyover leading to the airport will soon displace an estimated 250 families. All of them are landless Mahar Dalits and a majority of the people migrated from Jaalna District in Maharashtra around 1972-73, during a severe drought season. They would eventually beg, work as ragpickers, or resort to ‘begari’ or labour. Eventually, they’d go to the ‘nakas’ (a meeting point for prospective labour to wait for contractors), and find work as manual labour or as skilled labour – (If one man learnt plumbing, he’d teach his family and neighbours. And it’s not surprising, that Ambedkar Nagar has a large group of plumbers, while a majority of the women are domestic labour.)

Today, their slums are well-furnished, their children educated and working, their lives an incredible improvement from near-starvation. And once again, there is a common belief that, ‘throw a stone in any direction, and you’re going to hit someone who worked in the airport.’

For instance, Sampat Margi Achalkhamd (75) remembers he worked as labour at the airport to construct a sewage tunnel for Rs.6 at some time in the 70’s and today his home faces the possibility of demolition owing to modernization of the airport.

‘During the hindu-muslim riots, the razzakar ones, I was ten years old.’ He says, when asked how old he is. ‘There were many muslims in our village in Jaalna, one was a good man. And when the mob came for him, we hid him in a grain silo. Now, our whole village is full of muslims.’ He continued.

‘I remember seeing doctor sahib in Jaalna,’ he continues, his family had close links to the Dalit Panthers and the Republican Party of India, yet in the Dalit slum of Bamanwada it is alleged that a ‘Samiti’ of three slum dwellers, under the garb of the RPI quickly motivated the people to accept a rehabilitation package.

In nearby Ambedkar Nagar, the people questioned the rehabilitation package that would lead them to Vidya Vihar, at the outskirts of the city.

‘If they want our houses, they can take them, but they should rehabilitate us nearby. We built our lives here. Our children go to school here. Our work is here. Why are they throwing us out of the city?’ – they ask, in a meeting with the New Indian Express.

In Ambedkar Nagar, women are at the forefront of the resistance. Even those whose homes are not immediately at risk of demolition are working with their neighbours in Bamanwada and Ambedkar Nagar. ‘Today, they’d take Bamanwada and my neighbour’s house, tomorrow, they’d come to mine.’ Said Shobhatai, justifying her reasons to fight beyond her home.


Bamanwada slum itself is a universe on its own. Construction work for the flyover is taking place right at the walls of Bamanwada, some 20 metres away. The airports residential complex has already been demolished for the approaching flyover, only a skeletal structure remains. Bamanwada is next. Allegedly they have till the 26th of October to leave, then come the bulldozers.

And while the media looked on in awe at Mukesh Ambani’s ‘most expensive ever’ home Antila, notices were given to the slum-dwellers of Bamanwada. The officials from MMRDA who had come to give the notices were dutifully chased away by angry residents.

‘Next time, we come with the police’ they had said.

This was not the first time that notices were given to the slum dwellers of Bamanwada. Previously in April, notices were given to the slum dwellers yet there is still confusion as in whose house is going to be demolished and whose isn’t, who is liable for rehabilitation and who is not.

‘Ghar ka paper hai yeh,’ the officials allegedly tricked some people into signing. It were some of the women of Ambedkar Nagar who had gone to Bamanwada to stop the notices from being given. In Ambedkar Nagar itself, no official has dared to give notices.

It is actually widely known that the ‘Samiti’ or leadership of Bamanwada slum had actually, without the mandate of the people, told the authorities that the residents are ready to go. More telling evidence is their absolute lack of resistance to the demolition, their concomitant need to keep people in the dark.

There is absolute disunity in the slum as no one knows what to ask for and what to fight for. Some people are happy to be rehabilitated in Vidya Vihar, some refuse to budge. The most common demand is ‘a house for a house’ within three kilometres of the slum, yet the Samiti has yet to make that demand public, even when many residents have been disqualified from the rehabilitation scheme as their papers are missing (one of the first homes to be demolished have no papers as they were lost during the 26th July 2005 floods), or simply because of some anomaly or discrepancy.

‘I have my papers, my home is not illegal, but then my neighbours who’ve been living with us for years, they’re apparently illegal even when they have their papers.’ Said Sunil, an auto-driver in Bamanwada.

‘They (the Samiti) are all sold, they drive around with builders, why do you talk to them?’ asked an old man of Bamanwada. Eventually word would get out, the people felt betrayed by their own leadership. Nobody trusts anyone who is affiliated with any party – whether it’s the Republican Party of India, or the Shiv Sena or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

A few days ago, the MMRDA had insisted that the entire slum of Bamanwada had to be demolished. The ‘Samiti’ had some explaining to do. They put the people in this mess.

They eventually got themselves a microphone and would stand at a makeshift stage at Bamanwada and make all the right noises about the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, about a house for a house, yet no one trusts them.

Too little too late, many think.

They’d then be confronted by the women of Bamanwada and Ambedkar Nagar. Arguments would ensue. The women would stand up and scream at them, at their lack of commitment to the people.

‘I have lived here when you people weren’t even born. My husband died here. My sons have grown up and gone everywhere. And you think the government is going to give me a house?’ Roshanbhi (65) screamed at them.

By the 26th, her house will, in all likelihood, be demolished. The government has a week to give her another house.