Mumbai's slum demolitions: Utter shamelessness and
Mumbai can't be a Shanghai if the slums exist. But a
filthy Mumbai over a Shanghai built over lies?
BY BABYCHEN MATHEW
1. The shamelessness of you, me and Shekhar Gupta
Mumbai faces a dilemma - choosing between a
proliferation of slums, or cold-hearted demolitions.
What did you say, again? What dilemma?
For Indian Express and Shekhar Gupta, there is no dilemma.
For the Shiv Sena, there is no dilemma. For the large
proportion of the middle-class, and the elite for whom the
slums do not exist in their universe, there is no dilemma.
There is a dilemma only if you believe in something you
learnt as a child - Do not lie. Do not cheat. Sometimes, even
famous newspaper editors - not to mention the common man -
forget this teaching.
Try as we might to confuse the issue, what the
middle-classes, the English media (in this instance, the Indian
Express) and the well-meaning bureaucrats and some
citizen-activists advocate regarding the slum demolition drama
in Mumbai is cold-blooded deceit.
Let me explain how.
First, the origin of the slums. We all know how the slums
came into being in Mumbai. Political complicity, bureaucratic
corruption, slumlords and mafia and you and me needed them.
That is why they are there.
Cut to the 2004 Maharashtra state assembly elections. There
was one party which has consistently taken a stand against the
slums - the Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena and its bossman the
ageing tiger Bal Thackeray were always clear that they would
be happy to see the slums vanish overnight. They were, during
the elections, very clear that Mumbai can do without slums,
and they would demolish everything which came up post-1995.
The Congress and the NCP, on the other hand, went to great
lengths to canvass the slumdwellers for votes, assuring them
that only shanties which were built after 2000 will be
The Congress came to power. Within a week of coming to
power, Vilasrao Deshmukh, the Maharashtra Chief
Minister, started talking about turning Mumbai
into another Shanghai. He pushed the BMC to demolish the
slums. Well-meaning former administrators and bureaucrats and
a section of the media applauded, and the process was set in
That was outright lying and cheating.
And you, the Mumbai resident - if you think that this is
necessary, you should have voted the Shiv Sena into power. If
it really mattered to you. If you did not and preferred the
Congress, and then prefer to see them going back on their
promises and destroying the homes of thousands, then you are a
hypocrite and as much a danger as the lying, cheating
politicians this country and Mumbai are infested with. If you
still prefer the treachery of the Congress to the abrasive
truth of the Sena, you are asking for it. A society which
prefers that the politicians lie to it because it is
convenient for them today will get its comeuppance tomorrow.
And remember that your children are earning from your
hypocrisy, picking up your values. When they show you the
finger tomorrow, remember not to cry.
Am I saying you should have voted for the Sena? No. The
Sena has a different vision for Mumbai - the vision of a large
fort around the city of Mumbai, with Bal Thackeray perched
atop a flagpole with a saffron flag fluttering. The
Bangladeshis are their primary evil, followed by Muslims, then
North Indians, South Indians and then Christians in that
order. In that vision, Marathi spreads across the country and
the world under the tutelage of Shiv Sena. And if slums exist,
by the grace of Shivaji Maharaj, they will be Hindu, Maratha
slums. No, I don't subscribe to that vision, but that still
does not justify breaking promises.
Editor and CEO
now we come to Indian Express and Shekhar Gupta. Is this not
the same paper that takes politicians to task for not
fulfilling their election promises? Isn't Indian Express the
same newspaper where past and recent statements of politicians
are compared side-by-side in large boxes, so we can be
suitably shocked at their hypocrisy? Is it the same Shekhar
Gupta who lets out this heart-wrenching cry over stoppage of
demolitions the same editor in chief and CEO who makes
sarcastic observations about the shamelessness of politicians?
Let us now take a detailed look at what the Indian
Express printed in its pages on 19 Saturday February 2005.
The three stories on the demolitions in Mumbai - The front
page story on Vilasrao Deshmukh's misery after Sonia stopped
him; the Edit piece and Shekhar Gupta's edit-page piece
'Mumbai Shanghaied to Patna' - hold a mirror to what we are.
Ignorant, ostrich-like, selfish and hypocritical.
Shekhar Gupta's piece, especially. So, because he threatens
Mumbai that it is on the way to being a Patna. Oh the horror.
What better way than to garner the support of the denizens of
Mumbai who abhor the criminality, administrative coma and
caste-politics than to tell us we are on the way there? And
how utterly shameless too. Because while scaring us with that
nightmare, Shekhar Gupta is supporting our tacit approval of
our own politicians going back on their word. That, I believe,
is a shorter route to Patna than the route through slums.
Read through this: "Just a drive around Patna could
help you see the ongoing slum demolition controversy in Mumbai
in a comprehensive perspective. If you allow divisive vote
politics to determine every aspect of governance, this is what
you get: India's most non-functional capital of India's most
non-functional state. If all that matters to you is winning
elections, and if it does not matter to you that you do it by
dividing and exploiting the people, you can get three or even
more (who knows!) terms in power. But, in return, you also get
the state of Bihar." Shekhar Gupta says that it is
votebank politics that is forcing Vilasrao Deshmukh's hand. It
is. Who played the votebank politics? The Congress. Natural
that the snake will bite them back. It should. Hopefully the
forced turnaround will make everyone think about a long-term
Shekhar Gupta suggests that the cut-off date of year 2000
is 'scandalous and self-serving'. As Congress was in power in
Mumbai from 1999 till now, and they do not want to touch slums
that have benefited from their benign eye. If that is so, the
same goes for 1995. Then, the Sena was in power in Mumbai, and
they do not want to touch anything from that period either.
After that, for a moment, Shekhar Gupta sees the light. He
asks, "You cannot deny that demolitions are inhuman, and
reasonable rehabilitation is a fair demand. But should there
be no punishment, no price paid by anybody, official or
political, for allowing encroachments in the first
Ah-ha. But then he goes on rambling about land, land mafia,
property rights and rent rules that are not in tune with the
times. If those are the issues, solve them before you break
people's homes. Doing it now without any plan apart from
destruction is a short-term measure. If Shekhar Gupta truly
believes that those are the reasons why Mumbai is where it is
now, he should argue for reforms there before the demolitions.
He won't. Because he too is caught up in the little lie - that
if we close our eyes tight, the slum-dweller will go away. The
fact is, Mumbai's slum problem is a large issue that cannot be
tackled through demolitions, rehabilitations, or punishments
to politicians and bureaucrats as everyone is responsible for
the current mess. Arguing for demolitions now and the serious
work later ignores the fact that we are talking about the
people who live in those slums as a disposable, slave class
with no humanity. Probably, if the slum kids had fairer skins,
we could think about them as humans too?
To Shekhar Gupta and the shameless middle class who
preferred to turn off NDTV and switched to Zoom TV when little
kids were rummaging through the broken rubble to retrieve
their textbooks - you shall reap as you sow. Your clean,
beautiful Mumbai cannot be built over lies. It does not happen
that way. You want it, go about it like an honest society.
Make your politicians tell you the truth. Understand the
reasons why slums exist, and what are the solutions. Be
prepared to do your bit for Mumbai - but do it as an honest,
civilized city would. Think about the lives of human beings
who die or turn to crime because they can't earn what you
spend on your pet dog in a day. Crapping on the lives of
beggars and little kids is not the way ahead.
Photo courtesy: BBC
2. The lucky middle class and elite of Mumbai
You may not know, living as you are in Mumbai, about how
lucky you are. The slum demolitions which have destroyed
90,000 shanties so far - that's a couple of lakhs of people
without homes - were perfectly capable creating a giant social
upheaval. Thank your lucky stars it did not happen, as we
denizens of Mumbai closed our eyes to the dreams being laid
barren next door to our apartments.
I am a migrant from Kerala, the land of the leftists. The
land where people have a good idea - some may say more than a
good idea - of what their rights are in this democratic
country of ours. You may not watch the Malayalam channels -
but if you ever care to watch the news, you would see some
strange sights. Daily battles between party workers and the
police, people stoning buses, vehicles being burned down,
protestors stoning the police, the police stoning them back.
That is Kerala for you.
Imagine the slum demolitions that are happening in Mumbai
happened in Kerala. You would have a gigantic explosion on
your hands. The slum dwellers would attack government
buildings, burn every vehicle on the street, attack the
middle-class and anyone who looked like he was living in pucca
housing. The attitude would be - we have a right to housing,
and if we lose it, neither will you have your little house.
Kerala has come to a standstill for issues a 1000 times less
important than people losing their houses. I say you are lucky
in Mumbai, because the poor do not have a grasp of their
rights as they have in the communist states of Kerala or West
I guarantee you, if the people of slums decide to protest
as a group, our favourite Mumbai would cease to exist as we
know it. You would need the Army to bring law and order back.
That's no threat - we're just lucky that there is no one who
knows how to capitalize on the anger and frustration of the
slum dwellers. The political parties are staying away from
organizing any mass agitation. It is only the thoroughly
impractical and emotional Medha Patkar who has been
protesting, and a few civic activists. Medha has hardly a
record of success - thank God it's her who is taking up the
cause of the slum dwellers. There are no naxalites in Mumbai.
No one who believes in armed revolution to attain your rights.
The Mumbai riots would seem like a minor scuffle if the slum
dwellers had spilled out in anger. Thank them for not doing
3. Save Mumbai - abandon it.
Back to Mr Shekhar Gupta. Mr. Gupta, I do not know if you
have traveled around Mumbai - or if your travels have been
limited to the city, the Indian Express office or the Gateway
of India. The answer to Mumbai's problems are very much in
front of us - only, the politicians and the average Mumbaikar
too - choose to ignore it.
Abandon Mumbai. Get out of there. It is not livable
anymore. The geography of Mumbai does not allow any further
expansion. Amendments to laws, more flyovers, slum
demolitions, multiplexes, traffic restrictions - nothing can
save Mumbai. It is a piddly little island surrounded by water
with land so precious that the more you try to clean up its
infrastructural problems, the demand would just as easily fill
it up. There is no way you can provide affordable housing for
the middle class in Mumbai - forget affordable housing for the
slum-dwellers. The land is too precious for that. The average
Mumbai citizen will stay in the suburbs, and travel to his
office in town in the morning in the millions, and travel back
in the evening by local trains and buses. Nothing can change
Unless you take Mumbai out of Mumbai.
Do to Mumbai what Noida and Gurgaon did to New Delhi.
Satellite towns with facilities. Places where the offices and
companies can shift to. There is no real reason why the
government or any of the major private companies need to be in
Mumbai city any more. The logistics of expanding Mumbai along
the western line past Virar, on the central line past Thane
and Kalyan and on the Harbour line, encompassing the ready and
planned development of Navi Mumbai would be a lot easier than
trying to solve the problems of Mumbai proper.
The only way out is to move out. Move the government out of
Mumbai. Move the courts out of Mumbai. Embrace Kharghar, the
upcoming city node in Navi Mumbai - supposed to be the second
best designed city in India after Chandigarh. The Agricultural
Produce Marketing Co-operative markets were moved out of
Masjid Bunder years back, and the benefits it brought to the
congestion there was huge. Stop giving people a reason to
crowd closer and closer to Mumbai, and Mumbai's problems will
Who has understood the benefits of moving out of Mumbai?
Reliance, for one. Wipro. Tata Tele. Mumbai International
Infotech Park. And more than a million people.
What will happen to slum dwellers then? Right now, the slum
dwellers are where they are because there is demand for them
in the heart of Mumbai and in and around all the suburbs. The
means for them to make a living are concentrated in Mumbai
city. Spread it out. Do not allow any further constructions in
Mumbai. Move government and all major institutions out. Spread
them out beyond Panvel and Kalyan and Ambernath and Virar.
What would happen? The slum dwellers will move with the
demand. Mumbai's population will move with their jobs and
businesses. Land is relatively cheaper once you are out of
Mumbai. Provide affordable and cheap housing in those places,
and ensure that slums do not come up there - that is much
easier than uprooting existing slums. For example, there are
very few slums in Navi Mumbai. There are poor people there
too, who work as our istriwallahs, bais and watchmen. But they
have some kind of housing, and they are more or less legal. It
is easier to ensure that there is no new land mafia than to
try to rout the existing ones. The poor can't afford housing -
but only in Mumbai. Once out of Mumbai, there are places for
them to rent out, buy and live with proper planning and
Face it. Mumbai will never be a Shanghai. It will not even
be Mumbai. Leave Mumbai as the cultural and historical capital
of Maharashtra. A place where we take our visiting guests to
show them Hotel Taj, the Gateway of India, Victoria Terminus
and Churchgate station. A place you visit to remember those
days of pollution, traffic, slums and congestion. Let Mumbai
out of its limits, let it breathe. So that millions of people
- the middle classes and the slum-dwellers have a chance at
something resembling a life.
BY BABYCHEN MATHEW