November 17th, 2009 15:38 EST
Riot-Affected Area in Mumbai
By Shobha S.V.
Mumbai (Women`s Feature Service) - "Why should I leave? This is my home. I refuse to go anywhere else," states Nasreen Bano, 42, assertively. A victim of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots and now a resident of Mankhurd`s Mandala settlement, one of Mumbai`s dense slums, Nasreen is actively involved in her fight for a legal tenement in the city through the `Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan` (Save a Home, Build a Home movement). The Andolan has submitted a unique housing project to the state government.
Her earnest desire to quickly own a home reflects the insecurity she has endured as a result of frequent displacement. The 1992-93 communal riots saw a traumatised Nasreen and her family - along with several other families - take refuge in a tiny room in south Mumbai`s Byculla area. The accommodation was so cramped that the men had to stand outside each night while keeping vigil. After that, Nasreen moved to a mill in Madanpura, some kilometres away, along with many other Muslim families seeking safety.
In 1999, when life seemed to have settled down a bit, Nasreen and her husband, who is a tailor, purchased a small plot for Rs 14,000 (US$1=Rs 48) in the Indira Nagar slum back in Mandala from a local slumlord and built their 100-150 sq ft house. However, the respite was short lived - a government-organised demolition drive in 2004 brought down what the state termed were "illegal slum settlements".
Thereafter, Nasreen with her family elders and four children (two sons and two daughters) had to live on the streets. Eventually they, along with other neighbours, moved back to Indira Nagar and constructed a makeshift shanty on the same spot where their homes had once stood. But again, in 2006, their homes were gutted by a fire that destroyed all of Indira Nagar and parts of Janta Nagar. Most of the inhabitants of the slum belonged to the informal sector and lost their belongings along with their livelihood ventures in that fire.
Women, such as Nasreen, continue to be haunted by the agony of losing homes to circumstances ranging from communal riots to slum conflagrations. Explains Amita Bhide, Associate Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), who has worked on urban displacement issues in Mumbai, "Women are the ones usually at home when demolitions take place. They go through immense pressure owing to the fear and unpredictability of a demolition. Besides, the onus of proving that her family is in `legal` residence (as per the state government norms, which keep changing from time to time) puts extreme pressure on them. The feeling of being powerless without having the strength of education and contacts in the right places can wreck anybody. This intense pressure followed by the need to carry on with life, can be a very hard task."
Interestingly, being witness to a series of unfortunate experiences that have each culminated in the state of homelessness has only strengthened Nasreen`s resolve not to be a victim any longer. Rallying along with several women of her slum she has confronted the government over its policies concerning slum dwellers and asserting her right to housing in the city of Mumbai. They started the `Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao` `andolan`.
Under the government scheme, Basic Services for Urban Poor (BSUP), and under the banner of the Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao movement, Nasreen and other residents have submitted a housing project proposal to the state housing department and the Central Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministry, which handles BSUP, last year. For this rather unique proposal, the group hired an architect to design building apartments on the 14-acre plot in Indira Nagar with a 269 sq. foot house for each family. The proposal also suggests a school, primary health care centre and dispensary within the neighbourhood.
Says Nasreen, "The government does not want `jhopadpattis` (slum huts). Why don`t they give us the authority to build homes? Why is the government handing over the land to wealthy builders and developers for a pittance? Why can`t they give the land to us? We have `mazdoor` (labourers) in our midst. All the government has to do is to give us the land and we will look after ourselves. After all, we all have built houses in this city."
The `Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao` members meet frequently to discuss the progress of their demands and their problems. While the government and major civil society organisations term such dwellings as `encroachments`, Nasreen emphatically refutes any such suggestions. "These areas were plain quicksand. There was nothing here. We spent our hard earned money, brought mud, and dumped it here, thereby making the surface strong enough to build on. After we have done all the hard work, the government now wants to reclaim the land. Where was the government all this time? We have equal rights to this land."
The fact finding report carried out in 2006 by TISS`s faculty of observed that people who lost their houses due to demolition in Indira Nagar and Janta Nagar, Mandala and Mankhurd had voter ID cards and were residents of the areas for more than 10 years. All slums built till 2000 are legal.
Currently, Nasreen lives in a rented shanty in Indira Nagar paying close to Rs 1,000 per month. Devoid of any water or sewage facilities, her home lies in an area that is the hotbed of diseases, especially during the monsoon. Water logging is a regular occurrence in the slums, especially during the monsoons, as Nasreen observes in matter-of-fact tones. Interestingly, she refers to the 26/7 deluge that plagued Mumbai as the `tsunami`.
On their part, the residents here have tried hard to bring some semblance of stability in their turbulent lives. A `balwadi` (nursery for children) is an symbol of this desire. Poignantly, the modest balwadi is filled with sketches and paintings of homes drawn by the children - reflecting their innermost desires. The mosque in one corner of Indira Nagar is the lone testament to the fact that there had existed a vibrant community before the demolition.
In many ways, Nasreen`s family is still reeling under the tragedy of the communal riots that stuck the city more than 15 years ago. "My family was reduced to nothing after the 1993 riots. I lost my father and sister. They could not handle the trauma of the communal clashes that they had witnessed. One of my brothers became mentally unstable after the riots." She added, "Right now my family is able to sustain themselves because of the earnings of my younger brother, who is an electrician. My youngest sister, who is 26 years, is unmarried till date because we don`t have any money to get her married," says Nasreen.
Reflecting the fact that basic needs know no communal divide, she remarks, "Both Hindus and Muslims want their homes to be rebuilt. Both the communities are united this time round."
While Nasreen wants things to improve for the family, she does not want to relinquish her space at any cost. She has put all her faith in the housing proposal but is scared that the momentum could be lost owing to continued delays. "We don`t know what is taking so long. ... If our project takes off, it would herald a new beginning for scores of under-privileged in the city and across the country."
But until that happens, Nasreen and thousands of slum dwellers in the city will continue to live amidst the slush, sewage and mosquitoes, devoid of civic amenities or even piped water. They are among the poorest inhabitants in India`s richest city but hold on to hope. Will it be just a pipe dream? Only time will tell.
Women`s Feature Service