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MEDIA - INDIAN EXPRESS AND SLUM DEMOLITIONS

 

 

Mumbai's slum demolitions: Utter shamelessness and treachery


Photo courtesy:BBC

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 demolished.

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 motion.

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.

Shekhar Gupta, 
Editor and CEO
Indian Express

And 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 solution.

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 place?"

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 Bengal.

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 so.

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 that.

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 be lessened.

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 politicial initiative.

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

 

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