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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 13:18 GMT
India's 'biggest slum demolitions'

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Mumbai

Mehrunissa stands in the ruins of what was her home in the western Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) and loudly curses the men and machines that are pulling down her neighbourhood.

Annabhau Sattenagar slum
At Annabhau Sattenagar, evicted slum dwellers ponder their future

"Why didn't you stop us when we set up home here? Where do we go and stay now?" she screams.

Annabhau Sattenagar is a bleak eight-acre shantytown in north-west Mumbai ringed by hills, a nuclear power plant, drab housing blocks and stinking abattoirs.

Six years ago, Mehrunissa and hundreds of others paid a slumlord to fill up the swamp-land with soil and erect tin-roofed homes for them.

Slumlords are the men who make their livings by wheeling and dealing in illegal property deals that make new slums possible.

In no time, a shantytown grew out of the bog. Some 12,000 people lived in nearly 3,000 huts with electricity and cable television connections.

The men and women here sold vegetables, pulled rickshaws and did menial work for a living. Their children went to the local municipal school.

Feeble resistance

That was until last week when municipal workers with their bulldozers and dumper trucks roared into their fetid neighbourhood and began tearing down their homes.

By the end of an overcast day some 2,600 homes had been razed to the ground.


Weary, bedraggled residents like Mehrunissa initially threw stones and lit small fires to deter the demolition squad, but the police chased them away.

At night, they sneak back to the ruins - soggy concrete, tatty tarpaulin, rotting tin and dry faeces - and reclaim what they call their 'land'.

They sleep under the stars even as the twisted tin lacerates their bodies and rodents bite their new-born children.

Mehrunissa's neighbourhood is the latest to be razed in a demolition drive against illegal constructions in Mumbai.

Mumbai's municipal authorities reckon this is the "largest ever" demolition exercise in urban India.

Since the drive began last December, 67,000 illegal constructions have been demolished - shantytowns have taken the brunt simply because they have encroached upon 14% of the island city's area.

'Demolition man'

A total of 123 acres of prime government-owned land has been already freed up in a little less than two months since the drive began.

The target is to free up another 375 acres by ridding them of their residents and their wretched homes.

We want to put the fear of the consequences of migration into these people. We have to restrain them from coming to Mumbai
Vijay Kalam Patil, Mumbai municipality
This is part of a $6bn urban rejuvenation plan for India's richest and dirtiest megalopolis, where writer Suketu Mehta says the "first world lives smack in the centre of the third".

Leading Mumbai's demolition squad is 45-year-old Vijay Kumar Nagorao Kalam Patil, a wiry, reticent revenue officer on secondment to the city's municipality.

Surrounded by a posse of commandoes, the indefatigable Mr Patil trudges from one site to another making sure that the work is progressing smoothly.

"It's not easy. There is a lot of resistance. We are attacked, our trucks are set on fire," he says.

"But work is workship. It has to go on."

Affordable housing

Politicians say the makeover will turn Mumbai into the next Shanghai, which is touted as a symbol of China's economic prowess.

Urban planners say that the makeover will only happen if the government builds new homes to house 7.5 million of the city's 12 million people who live in slums - that's more than 60% of the population.

That's not all.

At least 5% of Mumbai's people live on the roads, and 2% are simply nomads. Another 2.5 million people live in dilapidated buildings which have been officially tagged as 'dangerous'.

Policemen guard a demolished shantytown
Planners say that the only way out is for the state to build low-cost housing in a city where real estate is frighteningly expensive and drives people even with reasonable incomes to live in slums.

Demolishing slums is not the only way to free up land in Mumbai. Some 585 acres of land occupied by textile mills have been lying idle for ages after the businesses shut down.

'Big money'

For the moment, the state government says that it will provide housing only to slum dwellers who came into the city after 1995.

In a land-scarce city, slums have come in the way of building new roads, bridges, schools and playgrounds. By one estimate, there are 35,000 slums alone which sit on top of or run alongside the city's water mains.

The lure of a job in Mumbai draws droves of poor from all over India - in many cases entire villages have moved into slums replicating the village names and sequence of homes.

Urban planners like Chandrasekhar Prabhu say municipal authorities, policemen and politicians have connived over the years to build slums and settle migrants there.

There is an acute shortage of low cost housing in Mumbai
"It's big money. The slumlord grabs the land, pays off the police, municipal worker and the local elected representative. Then he sells it to somebody for a hefty price, who in turn parcels it into lots and sells huts to the poor," he says.

The cost of a shanty, he says, could range from anything between 50,000 rupees ($1,100) to 300,000 rupees ($6,600), depending on the location.

'Fear of migration'

Mr Prabhu says slums have been torched or razed and then set up again.

"You allow illegal settlements, make money. Then you burn them down or demolish them and rebuild them and make money again."

The sun is setting over gloomy Annabhau Sattenagar.

I ask demolition man Vijay Kalam Patil if he is thinking about the fate of the thousands of sleepless, hungry evictees who are squatting, fighting, and defecating in the cold, squalid ruins.

"If they set up unauthorised constructions and squat on government land, why should I think about them?" he asks.

People evicted from a slum squat on an adjacent vacant land
"We want to put the fear of the consequences of unfettered migration into these people. We have to restrain them from coming to Mumbai."

Urban affairs analyst Kalpana Sharma says this is "sheer madness".

"How can you ask people to stop coming to Mumbai? This is a democracy. Why don't you demolish the slums only after building housing for the poor?"

Curiously, the rich and the middle classes in Mumbai are not asking these questions.

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