The fire, a death
and the cooking pots
How Sanjay Gandhi Nagar came into being – and how it
survived against all odds until the day police moved in...
In 1976, a construction company leased a piece of wasteland close to Nariman Point to house its workers. Mostly migrants from Karnataka, they built the 20-storey blocks that create the impressive skyline of Marine Drive. Normally, building workers live in huts or barracks on site until the building is completed; they are then expected to disappear.
In this case they didn’t. When the lease expired in 1979, they stayed on. There was plenty of work in the area. Some worked on the cancer hospital, others on an extension to the five-star Oberoi Hotel.
Their land had been reclaimed from the sea, and was considered worthless – a place of marsh, rugged rocks, coarse grass, unsuitable for more formal building. To the same site came others, attracted, paradoxically, by the security that came from its undesirable condition – poor peasants from all over India. Many found work as hawkers, sellers of paobhaji (puffed bread with spicy vegetables) and snacks to the thousands of people commuting to Mumbai and working in offices at Nariman Point. Others sold cold drinks – from a metal cart of refrigerated water at 50 paise a glass – plastic windmills for children, balloons and novelties around the Gateway of India.
Eventually, the huts covered more than one hectare: a conspicuous pocket of squalor in a high-rise city which makes Marine Drive one of the most dramatic urban landscapes in India. The people levelled the ground, strengthened the flimsy huts of construction workers, reinforcing them with wood and tin; bricks and old tyres were placed on dusty polythene roofs so that they would not be blown away in the fierce sea-wind.
Although a number of women worked as construction labourers, the majority were servants in the houses of the well-to-do in Colaba. (Some women reject the word ‘servant’, and insist that they are domestic workers.) They washed vessels and floors, looked after children, maintained the houses they had helped to build.
It was not long before the people they served expressed their distaste for them as neighbours. The Cuffe Parade/Colaba Residents Association brought pressure upon the local authority to remove them from sight. As a result, the colony was demolished by the Municipal Authority in 1980. Having nowhere to go, the people simply rebuilt their huts. In 1981, the same thing happened.
In 1982 the slum was to be razed once more. Thanks to the intervention of Nivara Hakk, a local non-governmental organization that works with the urban poor, it was reprieved on condition that people would move voluntarily to a suburban site at some point in the future.
The people began to organize in preparation for the move. A residents’ society was registered in April 1982. A school was established thanks to the efforts of some of the more far-sighted women in the rich high-rise buildings. They understood that if their servants were not allowed to stay close to their workplace, they would be denied the cheap labour which makes their lives conspicuously more pleasant.
The society took 10 rupees a month from the residents towards the costs of relocation, whenever that would be. In the meantime, the pressures of daily life gave little time for distant dreams. They had to live and work where they were, raise their children. Food absorbed the greater part of their daily wage. In the evening, by the light of kerosene lamps, in the little market and shops that had grown up in the slum, they bought rice, dal, vegetables, bananas, sugar and tea for the evening meal.
The rudiments of community were born under the constant threat of eviction. Removal meant more than loss of shelter: it involved the destruction of livelihood too.
In November 1985, the slumdwellers received notices from the Collector’s office declaring each hutment owner an encroacher and liable for demolition. It was said that the site was to be occupied by a fire station.
That same evening, the slum was destroyed by fire. A child was burned to death. Although there was no evidence of arson, the use of fire by the authorities has now become a well-established means of clearing sites required for urban development – shopping malls, condominiums, urban expressways.
In this instance it was probably started by people inside the slum, with the support of outsiders, so that in the confusion they could loot and steal. It was just after the payment of the bonus given at the festival of Divali; many people lost their life savings, their wedding jewellery, the few belongings they had accumulated over a decade of labour.
The day after the fire, the State Government announced cash aid of 70,000 rupees – just over 100 rupees (about $4) per person. Relief material offered by charity was pilfered. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Government promised that the slum would not be demolished; but when the commotion died down, the State Housing Minister insisted that the people could not stay on the site.
Evictions in Mumbai were stepped up after July 1985, following a Supreme Court judgment that the municipality had the right to evict people obstructing footpaths or encroaching on public land. The words of the Supreme Court judgment became notorious for the social bias of judges. Of the street dwellers, the Supreme Court declared: ‘They cook and sleep where they please. Their daughters come of age, bathe under the nosy gaze of passers-by, unmindful of the feminine sense of bashfulness. The cooking and washing over, women pick lice from each other’s hair. The boys beg. Menfolk without occupation snatch chains with the connivance of the defenders of law and order.’
But still people held out. They had to. According to a survey conducted by Nivara Hakk, the average income per worker in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar was only 350 rupees ($14) a month. They could afford to serve the city only because they had no travel expenses.
Then, without warning on 12 March 1986, the slum was destroyed again. Police and municipal workers invaded the site, and ordered the people to evacuate the area without delay. They were allowed to take such belongings as they could carry, and the clothes they were wearing. The municipal workers set about the work of demolition with hammers and crowbars. Many huts were locked, since their occupants were working. The more robust structures were destroyed by tying nylon ropes from the central support to a municipal jeep, which then drove off, dragging the building to the ground in a cloud of dust and a tangle of metal.
All the construction materials were carried off in trucks, so that the people could not re-occupy the site. By six in the evening, nothing remained of the community but some broken glass, some shreds of polythene and plastic, torn pictures of film stars and shattered images of household gods, some chappals, splinters of wood, charred cooking vessels. The ash from old cooking fires swirled in the night air. The compound was surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded by the police, so that the people should not be able to return.
But the slumdwellers decided to try and re-occupy the land taken from them the previous week. This is what I wrote at the time: ‘The meeting to organize the re-occupation is held one evening at 8.30 pm. By that time, most people have returned from work, and finished the evening meal. All along the pavement, fires are smouldering. Women clean the cooking utensils, scouring them with grit until they shine; others are finishing the meal of chappatis, vegetables and chillies, the nourishment of the poor. Children sleep on a piece of sacking on the edge of the busy road itself, vulnerable, trusting, secure in the fragile chamber formed by each other’s bodies. Suddenly, the whole scene is illuminated by the theatrical beam of the headlight of a passing car. Older children do their homework by the orange light of smoky woodfires or the pallid blue glare of streetlamps.
‘Some of the people have painted placards and fixed them above their pathetic shelters. These read, in Hindi, Marathi and English: “No Jobs in Villages. No Shelter in Cities. Where Shall We Go?” In a few words, they encapsulate the whole epic story of urban development in India.’
The slumdwellers are accompanied by some influential members of Nivara Hakk: Gurbir Singh, journalist and activist; P Sebastian, the human-rights lawyer; Anand Patwardhan, whose film, Bambai Hamara Shahar, raised the profile of the slumdwellers of India’s richest city; social worker Anna Kurian; and the actress Shabana Azmi.
The effort to re-occupy the land is only partially successful. The police have been tipped off, so that soon after daybreak, four dark-blue police wagons with barred windows are parked outside the compound.
The police post themselves around the empty piece of ground; all have lathis (truncheons), some carry guns. The people are completely without any form of self-defence. The police tower over the women, bellies sagging over their trousers. ‘Hamara zamin le chalenge!’ the people chant. ‘We’re taking back our land!’ They are warned against any attempt to do so. They move forward. The crowd presses against the stakes that support the barbed wire: the posts yield. It is strange to see people trying to occupy this barren sun-baked piece of ground. It looks what it is – a transit camp, a place for refugees from developmental violence; the kind of place you might expect them to struggle to escape from.
A break is made in the wire and within a minute all the people are inside. The police set about them, beating them with lathis, rounding them up and herding them into vans. Partly because of the presence of the celebrities, the papers next day are full of the story. A concession is wrung from the Municipality. All those who were here before 1980 (not 1976, the previous cut-off date) will qualify for re-housing. An empty concession: most have lost everything, including their precious ration cards, which for the poor of India have a symbolic importance, for they legitimate their right to live where they are.
The people remain on the pavement in the following weeks. On 1 May, a 12-year- old, Ravi Sharanappa, son of Mallamma, a domestic worker, is knocked down and killed by a car driven by a naval officer. This child was haemophiliac, and the family had spent much of their earnings on medical expenses to treat him.
Angered by an accident which they had foreseen from the moment they had been forced to occupy the narrow strip of sidewalk, people forcibly occupy the office of the Additional Collector. Two slum-dwellers, Mallamma’s husband, Hazma Alvi, Gurubai Koli, together with the actress Shabana Azmi, begin a hunger strike to demand alternative accommodation for the ousted people.
Gurubai Koli has been one of the principal activists in defending the interests of the community. She has been on hunger strike, been arrested and beaten by police.
A powerful presence, she exercises a quiet authority in the deliberations of the community. It is to Gurubai that people turn for adjudication in disputes, for a balanced judgement, for opinions on matters that divide and confuse them. Now in her forties, she has the wise, if sorrowful, face of one who has suffered much; but she is not embittered by misfortune.
Without land or resources, she came from Karnataka when her husband died and her children, Sunita and Bhagwan, were small. She came to Sanjay Gandhi Nagar because neighbours from Gangapur, her home district, were here. This is how most migrants to the city come – a relative, a kinsperson, a neighbour has told them there is work, a space to survive. Gurubai worked as a domestic, among other places, in the house of Dinesh Afzalpurkar, when he was Secretary to the Housing Ministry of Bombay. He was the man responsible for slum demolitions at that time. It is unlikely that he knew where she lived; he would not have recognized her if he passed her on the street.
When they came to the present site, Gurubai’s house was a poor structure close to a former quarry used as a garbage dump. Her son made a garden around the house: a trellis with creepers, blue trumpets of morning glory, golden gourds clambering over the roof, a tulsi or holy basil, and other medicinal herbs; a gesture of remembrance to irrecoverable rural origins. Since then, the house has been rebuilt. With help in the acquisition of materials from a German non-governmental organization, Gurubai now has a structure with red roof-tiles. There is a tiled floor; a television and radio; plastic flowers in a brass vase in a recess: an arch constructed in the wall that divides the living space from the kitchen.
When I saw Gurubai in 1993 she had remarried; a man somewhat older than herself whose wife had died. At that time, she was transformed: she expressed relief at what she saw as the end of the loneliness and insecurity that haunted her life while the children were small. I took a picture of the family then. She was smiling, more expansive than I had ever seen her.
This time her husband is nowhere to be seen. I wonder if he is perhaps working. No, she says. He died four months ago. A heart attack. He died in my arms. A tear runs down her cheek; a brief interval of tenderness, swiftly stolen away again. Gurubai, emblem of the endurance and stoicism of Indian women, says it is not her destiny to be happy. She has worked instead; for her children, for the community, for others.
Gurubai, all her life a domestic servant, is one of the most intelligent, able and sensitive of people. She says: ‘Slumdwellers are misjudged. You cannot tell what is in a person’s heart by where they live. I have worked in some of the finest houses in Bombay, and some of the people are cold and hard; and I have lived among the poorest, and there many of the people will share with you their last plate of rice.’
Sunita is now married, with a little boy of three. Bhagwan, who is 24, has a small milk business. He gets up at four in the morning, goes to the dairy to buy milk, which he distributes in the neighbourhood, especially to the rich colonies and blocks of flats nearby. In the evenings Bhagwan teaches with a friend in the community school; two hours’ tuition to supplement the less-than-competent education which the children receive in the municipal schools. Bhagwan is devoted to his mother, who is proud that, as his teaching shows, he shares her concern for the community.
Gurubai is still working as a domestic, but she no longer travels to Colaba. She goes to four flats in the new buildings, from about nine in the morning till late afternoon.
Gurubai’s memories of Karnataka are of terrible poverty, hunger and want. She would not wish to return, even if she had the money to go. She is content with the improvements in her life, and asks nothing more than to be left in peace.
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