Mumbai: Lavanya was born only six months ago. Even so, she has been uprooted three times already. Once, when the forest department demolished her parents’ house in the Bheemchaya Nagar slum in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai on June 1. She then spent a few days in Buddha Vihar, in the slums where her family shifted along with 350 others affected in the demolition. And now, finally, she is living in a makeshift structure made of tarpaulin and bamboo in the same place where their houses once stood.
Moving houses has had an adverse effect on the infant. And the incessant July rains coupled with open drainage, overflowing garbage and lack of sanitation facilities have only made things worse. “For the past one month, my child (Lavanya) has been suffering from fever and skin rashes. No amount of treatment is helping her,” her mother Sakshi Kamble says.
Mumbai has been hit badly by incessant heavy rains over the last week. Flooded streets, water on railway tracks shutting down services and the collapse of walls and balconies are a regular feature during the monsoons – this time, the effects have been devastating. In Vasai/Virar, on the outskirts of the city, flooding lasted for over four days, and residents were holed up at home without electricity or food.
Most affected have been those who live in ‘informal housing’ – slums and makeshift huts – where public services are meagre even at the best of times.
During a break in the downpour, families such as the Kambles slowly started taking stock of the damages caused due to rains. Most of the flimsy makeshift structures made of tarpaulin and bamboo post-demolition had leaked and water had entered the houses. Built over a marshland on the adjoining mangroves, which is now termed as a “protected land” by the forest department, most houses have water seeping through the cracks and crevices on the mud ground. The Kambles’ shanty too was flooded in the rains.
“As soon as the rain stopped, we tried to fill in the floor with some sand and gravel. We were afraid rodents would enter through open burrows and infest my house, making my child sicker. But all the raw material was confiscated by the forest guards posted outside the basti,” said Bhimrao Kamble. Forest guards at the entry of the basti have been keeping vigil and disallowing any work in the area. Police are called in each time the residents here resist these raids.
This is not the first time the basti has been demolished during the monsoon. “In 2005, when the entire settlement of over 800 houses was demolished, the civic authorities had come during the monsoons to flatten our structures,” Usha Baile, another resident of the slum, told The Wire. This demolition pattern is not unique to the Bheemchaaya Nagar slums. In fact, often demolitions in the city are carried out at the start of the monsoon every year, when the residents are at their most vulnerable.
“The damage is maximum that way. The officials think this will deter us from squatting back on the land and strike right when the weather is most threatening,” said Vishal Tambe, a community leader from the Govinda wadi slums near Kalyan creek in Thane district, where over 30 families have been squatting for over two decades. Some structures were demolished in Govinda wadi too in June this year.
Most slums in the city that were built beyond the datum line of 2000, an arbitrary but official deadline decided for the city, face the threat of eviction and demolition constantly. Even though the courts have on several occasions upheld the slum dwellers’ rights and directed the state to make alternative accommodation available before carrying out demolitions, these safeguards are rarely available to the poor.
The slums of Mumbai and adjoining areas provide the city with its informal workforce. Most people staying here are migrants who have over years the shifted to the city as an escape from the harsh living conditions back home. Each family here has backstories of escaping from caste atrocities, floods, earthquakes or failed crops.
Official estimates say that about 50% of the city’s population – 12 million within municipal limits and more beyond – is living in slums, though the figure could be much higher. Residents, who look for dwellings that are close to their area of work, are the backbone of the city – working as domestic workers, roadside hawkers, taxi drivers and cleaners in the city. Phenomenally expensive housing has meant that even the lowest rung of white-collar workers have had to move into informal housing. For many, their living conditions are precarious and missing out on a day of work would mean missing the day’s crucial income.
Bhushan Waghmare, a resident of Shanti Nagar slums in Wadala, a city suburb, lost four days’ income during the rains. “My house was flooded and I had to be around my family ensuring they were safe. I could not set out and drive the taxi I have taken on rent. I lost my four days’ wages, and also had to pay the taxi owner the daily cut despite not being able to work at all.”
Basic amenities – toilets, running water, sewers – are conspicuous by their absence because the slum is on encroached land, which means that the civic authorities will not provide any services there. Even the prime minister’s much vaunted ‘Swachh Bharat Mission,’ that aims to build toilets for every household, neglects the slums of Mumbai.
Jai Parmeshwarmati – an activist with Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, the largest housing rights campaign in the city, and resident of Sidharth Nagar slums in Mumbai’s western suburbs – says women are the worst affected during the rains. His slum houses 702 families and has no toilet facilities. The residents here collected voluntary donations and built four toilet blocks for community usage, but they too have been lying defunct in the absence of sewage lines and water connections in the slums. “Even the simple act of relieving oneself is a task. Men and women are forced to defecate in the open. Women have to strategise and wait until the sunset to relieve themselves. But during rains, the area gets water-logged and some women wait for days before they can relieve themselves,” Parmeshwarmati says.
With a budget of Rs 25,141 crore, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is India’s richest civic body. Of this, less than 18% gets spent on building the city’s infrastructure; slums hardly figure in the priority list. “We are doomed to live under constant fear of demolition,” Kamble says. During heavy rains, that fear is only heightened.