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Hope is gone: 800 Mumbai families lose battle for survival (Letter from Mumbai)

Mumbai, May 19 (Calcutta Tube) What was a few days ago a thriving shantytown in India’s financial capital – where 60 percent of the population lives in slums – looks like a war zone. Thousands of its residents squat in the heat in despair after having lost most of their worldly belongings and, as some say, the battle for survival.

It was around 12 noon on May 11 when police and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) demolition squad came to evict the residents from the illegal slum in Annabhau Sathe Nagar in Mankhurd, housing 800 shanties. Peace was brokered when the authorities proposed a 24-hour notice period.

Next day at 11 a.m. they were back, this time with a police force of over 2,000 men, allege the slum dwellers.

A scuffle ensued but police managed to cordon off the area and begin the demolition. Then suddenly, a fire broke out.

‘Police had surrounded the area and we were not even allowed to go near our huts to gather our belongings, how did the fire break out then?’ asks Chand Mohammad who lost everything in the fire.

All the 800 shanties are gone.

The slum, according to officials, was illegal. But like retired Bombay High Court Justice Hosbert Suresh asks, ‘Are the people also illegal? Do they not have any rights?’

The people here make a surprising mix. It’s almost a mini India here. Marathi ‘Manus’, Uttar Pradesh ‘Bhaiyas’ and Tamil ‘Annas’ lived together in this ‘illegal’ slum. So did Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and Christians.

In Mumbai, the slum dwellers live in inhuman conditions, often without even basic amenities. Yet they don’t complain. They build the city’s high-rises, its factories, they clean its sewers.

‘They did not give me the chance to collect any of my belongings. I have nothing left,’ laments Aanchal Jaiswal, balancing her child on her hip, to an IANS correspondent.

The people have gathered together under a huge tarpaulin near the only ‘legal’ structure in the huge compound which used to be a functional Bombay Soap Factory of Mankhurd a few decades ago.

Their only hope is social activist Medha Patkar and the scores of media people, co-activists and concerned citizens she has managed to bring together in this punishing heat. There’s even a DMK leader, empathising with the Tamil population of the slums.

On the other side of the structure, men are busy making khichdi in two huge vessels. There’s not enough water to wash one’s hands before eating. A BMC water truck will come later, but they cannot wait.

The food is gobbled up in mangled plates and bowls in no time. Yet, they share and eat together. For four days, no one has gone to work, which means no earning, and no food.

A middle-aged Tamil woman almost breaks down whenever any visitor comes to ask her of her plight. ‘What will I do? Where will I go?’ she asks. For now she is going nowhere, defending not her remaining belongings but the little square area that housed her four walls.

Many residents claim that people from outside have come and tried to stake claim on huts that are not theirs. These ‘outsiders’ hope that if the protest is successful, as it has been a few times in the past in other parts of the city, and the slums are regularised, they would own the hut.

There are so many other issues brewing here; it’s hard to keep count.

Patkar controls her anger when she says, ‘Sixty percent of Mumbai’s population lives in six percent of its land in appalling conditions. And even here the poor of this city are not safe. Forget about giving them basic amenities that is the constitutional right of every human being in the country, the government machinery is teaming up to evict them.’

The slum dwellers rally behind Patkar, who begins a long winding rally with the aim to bring together anti-displacement slum movements and ‘connect slum dwellers from Mankhurd to Malad’ against the builder lobby in Mumbai.

As Patkar, the group of activists and 300 people walk off into the sunset beginning their rally, a woman picks up a broken broom and begins cleaning the concrete floor of what was once her hut.

She is wearing a ‘Clean-Up’ shirt made ubiquitous by the BMC in a drive to keep the city clean. She does not get the irony, does she?

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