Refugees at Home:
Bombay's Ruling Elite Seeks to Expel City's Poor

Lead Article by Jyoti Punwani, Times of India, Wednesday, March 23, 2005.

"I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice; an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony" — Ghandi
The real picture of Bombay's slum demolitions was conveyed through a single front-paged news photograph: 11-year-old Ranjit Yadav bound to a staircase inside a building. Ranjit's home was among the 91,000 Bombay homes razed by bulldozers since December. Uprooted out of his daily routine, Ranjit was dared by some older boys to steal a pipe from a nearby building. The watchman there decided the best way to deal with the child-intruder was to tie him to the staircase. Many residents must have seen the 11-year-old tied up, but only one of them, three hours later, decided to act. He didn't untie Ranjit, he called the police.

Surprisingly, the police let Ranjit go. Talking to a small group of activists who had demonstrated against the demolitions, a senior inspector was emphatic that the bulldozers had to stop till those evicted were re-housed. "Madame should have intervened much earlier", he said, pointing to a headline which screamed: "Shanghai dream over; Sonia stops demolitions".

Sonia Gandhi's intervention—after more than two months of continuous demolitions, which rendered almost five lakh Bombayites homeless—continues to anger Bombay's opinion-makers, weeks after it was made. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Deputy-CM R R Patil's bulldozers have not just uprooted homes, they have exposed the real nature of Bombay's 'concrete jungle', where today, only the fittest can survive. The rustic tobacco-chewing Patil, certified by Annasaheb Hazare as the only honest minister in Deshmukh's cabinet, asked in Marie Antoinette fashion: "Why do these people insist on staying in Bombay? Why don't they go to nearby villages?" Describing the demolitions as a "tough decision" that had to be taken, Deshmukh defended his decision to buy Skodas for his ministers at a cost of Rs 51.6 millions. "Do you expect ministers to travel by train or bus?" he asked.

In this respect, the demolitions can be compared to the 1992-93 riots. Even those who'd lived through the 1984 Hindu-Muslim riots in which 87 died, were shocked at the primitive communal hatreds which erupted all over 'cosmopolitan' Bombay after the Babri masjid was destroyed. The same way, even those who had witnessed then Congress CM A R Antulay's demolitions in 1981 (it was stopped after the Supreme Court ruled that hutments should not be demolished during the monsoons), are shocked at the brazenness with which this government has shown its boot to the poor who voted it into power. But what's been more of an eye-opener is the extent of support for Deshmukh.

Some scenes refuse to fade away. One resident burnt himself to death to prevent his slum from being razed to make way for a car park. Women in tatters guarded their belongings for days after their homes were razed, unable to relieve themselves because public toilets were suddenly unaffordable. Old, emaciated vegetable vendors sat head in hand, their perishable goods rotting in unopened sacks, as the bulldozer trampled upon their precarious "illegal" stalls. (Ironically, pavement food-stalls were a highlight of the stylish Bombay Festival held to "celebrate the Spirit of Bombay" while the demolitions were on.) Girls with neatly plaited hair and faded uniforms, first-generation students, clutched their school books as they stared at the bulldozers mowing down their homes. A couple looked uncomprehendingly at their lifeless infant, who hadn't been able to survive the exposure to unusually cold nights.

Yet, all of Bombay's elite feels this violent eviction was overdue. Just before the last assembly elections, 11 intellectuals had filed a writ asking that Bombay's slum-dwellers be disenfranchised, since their sheer numbers (55%) made them an influential 'lobby'. Two of them, former editor Madhav Gadkari and actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar, were known as champions of democratic rights in the 80s. Their plea was about to become a reality when Sonia Gandhi intervened. The Municipal Corporation was all set to provide the names of "encroachers" whose homes had been razed, to the Election Commission so that they could be struck off the voters' list. Since they had no address in Bombay, they could no longer vote.

The move to render this large section of society into non-citizens is reflected in the English language press. Those demanding the removal of "illegal shanties" to "retrieve public space" (actually, just 10% of Bombay's land) are "citizens' groups", while the slum-dwellers are "encroachers" or "squatters". The bulldozers "cleaned up" the city, the "demolition windfall released land equivalent to four Nariman Points" (while mill-owners and other affluent groups have been gifted more land than that for private use by the Democratic Front government). Afraid that the homeless may find refuge in nearby Thane, the township's Shiv Sena fascist mayor declared there was no place for "Bombay's kachra" ("garbage"). "Slum Panic Hits Thane" screamed a headline.

All these years, Bombay was the only Indian metro where the richest lived literally side-by-side with the poorest. 'Skyscrapers and slums' was a cliched but accurate description of the country's financial capital. Bombay's trains and buses saw the 'great unwashed' travel next to executives in ties. Not any more. Deshmukh has agreed reluctantly to rehabilitate the "encroachers", but not within his "world-class" city, far away (further than Thane, of course).

Refugees At Home, by Jyoti Punwani in the Times of India, Bombay.

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