Fack Coke And Broken Coconuts
In a new slum area not two kilometres from Sanjay Gandhi Nagar,
a new community is settling in. And the cycle begins again...
Those who run the city are obsessed with cut-off dates, because they are desperate to stem the ‘tide’, the ‘flood’, the ‘surge’ of new migrants into the city. Even the imagery they use is that of natural catastrophe. They cannot acknowledge that it is a dynamic process which cannot be reversed within the existing social and economic paradigm.
Less than two kilometres from Sanjay Gandhi Nagar is Appapada. This is a new sprawl of hutments on the edge of Borivali National Park; much of it on Forest Department Land, and eating away at the edge of the forest itself. Here, you stand on the rocky heights of a site that was once far from Mumbai, and look down on the irregular rectangles of metal and polythene, shining like mirrors in the sun: the roofs of densely packed houses that are already home to some 200,000 people.
The settlement is carved out of degraded forest land. Few trees remain. Only a fresh growth of creepers, coarse grass and shrubs from the monsoon create a fragile green covering for the barren hillsides. Rocky red paths and stony roadways make crooked wounds in the greenery.
The houses here are of the flimsiest kind: bamboo, plywood, polythene, packing cases still labelled ‘Potash’, ‘Fertilizer’, ‘Tea’. The people are regarded as encroachers, trespassers, despoilers of one of the few green spaces within reach of the city.
But they are rural refugees who would never have settled here but for the activities of land-grabbers and mafiosi: a gang captures land and then sells it in small plots to desperate newcomers to the city. They may spend 10,000 rupees ($280). When they have built a small house, a second gang comes – often in league with the first. They tell the squatters: ‘This is our land. We settled it long ago. But you can stay if you pay us 20,000 rupees.’ The people borrow money so that they can remain where they are. A third group then comes and declares the land belongs to them; they may demand 30,000 rupees. People go deeply into debt to pay for the ‘right’ to stay. The money lenders are often in collusion with the mafia. The gangs are supported by politicians, police and builders.
We visited Shiv Shakti, a slum in a part of Appapada called Ambedkarnagar. Some people have come from within Maharashtra; others from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka or Uttar Pradesh. A surprising number mention lack of water as the principal reason for migrating; many have a little land, but it can no longer provide them and their families with a living. If they had a choice, they would not come to sit uneasily on these inhospitable and menaced sites. The Forest Department has already made several attempts to dislodge them. Twice, major fires have been started. They simply re-assembled their shelters; only the most basic structures, because they know they can be removed once more at any time.
Yet the rudiments of community are here, after two or three years. Only through unity and collective resistance can these people stand up to the powerful interests that seek to control their lives.
Today, at Shiv Shakti, a health post is being opened; a pledge that the people intend to stay here. A doctor who also serves Sanjay Gandhi Nagar will come three mornings a week.
Members of the residents’ committee who have organized the dispensary stand in a semi-circle. A blue and red hand-painted signboard is hung over the entrance and a garland of marigolds placed around it. Speeches are made to mark the ceremony. In them people articulate the dawning awareness of the newly urban: ekta, takat, himmat – unity, strength, courage; the prerequisites for claiming a dignified life for themselves.
A coconut is broken on the threshold of the clinic. There are more speeches, the voices of women and men who are rapidly learning the rules of the game of urban life. We, as visitors, are offered bottles of Coca Cola which they can ill afford. The Coke turns out to be fake: the bottles dirty, the liquid inside coloured water. It doesn’t matter here because people will not know it from the real thing.
It is a sad but strangely uplifting experience: despair and hope, repression and resistance. It is a poignant moment: will Ambedkarnagar be destined to the same cycle that Sanjay Gandhi has been through? The scenario, it seems, has already been written in the long history of rural migration. It remains only for these new actors to play it out once more.
Thanks to Nivara Hakk. If readers want to know more about Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, please write to Jeremy Seabrook c/o NI.
Cities of Hunger Jane Pryer and Nigel Crook (Oxfam 1988).
Freedom to Build ed John Turner and Robert Fichter (Macmillan1972)
In the Cities of the South, Jeremy Seabrook (Verso 1996) - see advertisement section.
City - a journal looking at cities and their futures. (Cuty, 127 Botley Rd, Oxford OX 2 OHD, England.
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