Letter from India
House Demolitions: Mumbai
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By ANNA HUNTER*
MUMBAI -- LOCAL GOVERNMENTS in southeastern India are frantically working to rebuild and rehouse thousands of people left homeless following the devastating tsunami on December 26th, meanwhile across the country local government is demolishing thousands of slum homes, leaving over 200,000 people homeless in the city of Mumbai alone.
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (municipal government) and the Maharashtra State Government in cooperation with the Mumbai police force are continuing a project of forced eviction that was started a year ago, to demolish illegal shantytowns in the city of Mumbai. Thus far 67,000 hutments have been totally flattened. No notice was given to the residents' and many had time only to grab a cooking pot, or small valuables before their home was destroyed.
On one single day -- 25 December 2004, the day before the Indian Ocean earthquake -- about 6,200 huts on Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) owned land in Ambuj Wadi were removed in a single go, rendering thousands without a roof over their heads. As far as one's eye could see, there were mounds of wood, tin and tarpaulin, the remains of 6,200 "illegal" homes, flattened by a heavy excavator running on tank-like tracks and giant motorised claws. "Such a demolition has never happened before in the state," Deputy Municipal Commissioner V M Kalam Patil proudly told the Indian Express as he surveyed the end of the sprawling slum of Malvani in the western suburb of Malad. As stunned families of painters, taxi drivers, vegetable vendors and others from Mumbai's blue-collar workforce watched after a day of anger and hurling stones, Patil explained that 39,000 shanties had now been flattened since the city's biggest ever demolition drive had begun just 18 days before.
The evicted tenants are now living near the demolished sites without any shelter, food or other basic amenities during the harshest winter months. Many have lost their ration cards, water services have been stopped and children can no longer attend school. Over 50 per cent of Mumbai's 12.5 million population lives in slums similar to those recently destroyed and slum communities occupy 14 per cent of the city's land.
In an effort to make India's richest city, Mumbai, a world-class city and encourage further international trade and investment, the municipal government in 2003 devised a $71 million plan. A main tenet of this plan is to free up government land for private housing and commercial development. The government has determined that all slum settlements built after 1995 will be destroyed, in an effort to prevent more rural families and individuals from migrating to the cities, and perpetuating the slum housing cycle. The government has made it clear that poor people who immigrated after 1995 are not welcome in Mumbai, although those who have brought wealth and commerce since 1995 are welcomed with open arms. In the last two months of forced evictions, the government has freed up 123 acres of prime land. The final target is a remaining 375 acres, but it has a hefty price.
The greatest irony for the recently evicted slum residents in Mumbai is the role they played in electing the political party that has now forcibly removed them from their homes. During the campaigning period for the recent election Congress Party Chief Minister candidate Vilasrao Deshmukh promised slum dwellers security of tenement and a commitment to regularizing all huts built before the year 2000. However, after reelection the very opposite of these promises has been enforced. Moreover, Vilasrao Deshmukh is at the helm of the slum demolitions. Now more than 100,000 will lose their right to vote, once the slum razing is complete.
The recent actions by the Indian government are clearly dictated by the neo-liberal ideology that has shaped the housing policies in many countries, including Canada. Reforms that represent a commitment to increased privatization, decentralization and trade liberalization.
The state of Maharashtra has been under pressure to increase their own finances following the devolution of power from India's national government. One response to this growing pressure has been the push to utilize land that will ensure greater economic returns. By destroying slums, and freeing up urban land for alternate use, it is creating opportunity for state and municipal government to raise revenue. Once this land has been freed, private companies will be encouraged to purchase and build high-end housing or commercial buildings. The social and human cost of this action is not considered, nor is the alternative of upgrading slums, to increase living standards for the poorest citizens of Mumbai. The state government is clearly making decisions dictated by profit and not the well-being of all its citizens.
Leading urban planners declare that the only way to turn Mumbai into the economic epicenter that politicians desire is to build low-cost affordable housing for the cities 12 million people that live in slums. This will have an enormous effect on the large labour force comprised of slum dwellers. Despite this proposition, the government continues its agenda to destroy slums without constructing any new affordable housing. Exacerbating this agenda is the lack of protest against these atrocious acts. In fact, leading businesses and the majority of middle and upper class citizens have outwardly supported the demolitions, and resistance from the slum dwellers themselves has been met with police repression and many have been arrested or simply go missing.
With no end in sight to the slum demolitions, and a state government that is eager to see foreign investment grow at the invariable cost of human life, organizations such as Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) are beginning to speak out. It is necessary for public attention to be drawn on this issue, and to reflect the hypocritical response by the Indian government, while they spend millions of dollars on building houses for those affected by the tsunami, they are tearing down homes and livelihoods for thousands of people. Consequently, destructive housing policies around the world need to be met with people's resistance, direct action and international solidarity, as the fight for housing is a global struggle.
*Anna Hunter is former co-ordinator, Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, in whose newsletter "Dignity Through Resistance", January 2005, an earlier version of this report first appeared. She may be reached at email@example.com
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