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Anatomy of a self-destructing system

Another builder-led demolition drive at Sion Koliwada, an area that homes Mumbai’s indigenous Koli community, means thousands will be rendered homeless. The Lok Sabha has just passed the Land Acquisition Bill, but Javed Iqbal finds the state — its agencies and its representatives — is at the heart of the culpability

JAVED IQBAL  31st Aug 2013

Residents of Sion Koliwda protest on the first day of a demolition drive on 22 August

he notice for demolitions at Sion Koliwada arrived a day after Independence Day. Yet it was only in January that mass protests by slum-dwellers across Mumbai led to the Principal Secretary, Housing, Debashish Chakravarti—by direction of the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan—ordering a stay on demolition drives in six rehabilitation projects across the city, in each of which residents have made allegations of fraud and forgery by the respective builders.

But it was the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's Ward Office of F-North in Mumbai that passed an 'allotment' notice (allotment, in this case, working as a euphemism for demolition) on the 16th of August.

From the moment the notice arrived, to the falling of the first brick in the days that followed, the actions and practice of agency by the Kolis of Sion Koliwada, who marched from government office to office, and then the reactions from police officials and the administration, give glimpse into a system where checks and balances are now completely flatlined, and the state acts as monolith, with no space for the discourse of rights. It is time once again to acknowledge the role of the market as the new dharma of state officials.

The Core Committee of Sion Koliwada, comprising young men and women, armed with prima facie evidence of forgery and a number of documents acquired through the Right To Information Act that detailed discrepancy after discrepancy, had, on the afternoon of 29th April, sat with the Principal Housing Secretary, the builder's coterie of lawyers and armed guards, and members of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, and would finish their presentation at the hearing, leaving the builder's lawyers with nothing to say. If that was indication of the worth of a democratic institution, then their morale, their belief in the system that day, was justified. And would be further justified a few months later when Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte ordered that the builder's vast steel fence, which had hidden Sion Koliwada from the world, to be removed.

Yet the demolition notice would arrive, despite the constant delay of the publication of the inquiry report by the state. Close examination of the events between 16th and 21st August paints a disturbing picture of the problems inherent in dealing with the state. When the notice arrived, the matter was discussed by the residents of Sion Koliwada. They decided they would not challenge it in court as the matter was already under inquiry by Debashish Chakravarti, who had given them a commitment that he would have this resolved by 15th May. Chakravarti has still not done so.

But the residents did decide to meet the politicians they could to explain the matter, contacting the Chief Minister, Home Minister and Chief Municipal Commissioner.

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In the evening, they saw the builder and his lawyers, along with the committee members from Sion who had supported the builder, at the BMC premises.

Their first meeting took place on Monday, 19th August, with the Chief Minister's personal secretary, who quickly called up the Deputy Municipal Commissioner and asked him the basis for the issuing of the relevant order. Reportedly, the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Sudhir Naik, claimed he didn't know there was a stay order, and the outcome of this conversation with the Personal Secretary and the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, in front of Sion's protesting residents, was verbal confirmation that there would be no demolitions.

The delegation of residents then went straight to the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Sudhir Naik, and requested they be given, in writing, a stay order. Naik at this point confirmed that he would contact Assistant Commissioner Narendra Berde, who passed the first notice, and sort it out with him. They were told that they would get their written order by seven in the evening. They waited till 7:30. Nothing happened. It was only as they managed to catch Naik as he was leaving office that he said they should come the next morning—the reason for the delay, he claimed, was the requirement of the signature of Sitaram Kunte, the Chief Municipal Commissioner.

The delegation arrived the next morning (20thAugust) to find Sitaram Kunte in a meeting. They returned in the afternoon and they still found him in a meeting. In the evening, they saw the builder and his lawyers, along with the committee members from Sion who had supported the builder, at the BMC premises. They were then informed that they would receive a decision the next day, from Debashish Chakravati, the Principal Secretary of Housing, himself.

On Wednesday, 21st August, they were given a written order by the BMC, signed by Debashish Chakravati, that confirmed the demolitions were to take place. The letter, a jumble of strange logic, states that since the writ petition filed by the residents was dismissed by the High Court in 2010, and that his own stay order of January of 2013 exempts demolitions as per High Court orders, then the demolitions would have to take place. He would further mention that that allotment letters were given to 'not-cooperating' tenants three times before his own stay order of January 2013.

The residents quickly went to the Mantralaya and got an appointment with Debashish Chakravati in the evening, who admitted to have a meeting with the builder and his lawyers, and refused to entertain the protesting resident's concerns, stating that their case was dismissed by the High Court. The residents, for their part, continued to assert that the High Court had not ordered any demolitions, and nor was there any order against the builder.

They spoke for over thirty minutes, but the residents realized Chakravarti was not going to budge.

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What makes worse for the residents the stand the officials have taken is the attitude of the police, the first face of the state for Sion Koliwada. Calls to senior policeman on Monday (19 August) informed them that the demolitons were cancelled, but the minute the turnaround took place, they decided to give police protection to demolition crews, which is perhaps indication of whose side they are on.Image 2nd

A senior police officer at Sion, a veteran of the force, described by some residents as "a tormentor", does admit, in a private conversation with this correspondent, that the system needs changing. But he is pessimistic about the possibility of change, is too impatient for Dr Ambedkar's social revolution, and ironically voices the CPI (Maoist) dictum 'that one needs to be in power to change the system.' He feels that those protesting are not being practical, 'saamne walla jaisa karta hai, tum bhi waise hi karo' (do what everyone around you is doing); and one man can't change the 'system', and if you fight it, the system will not help you, and they, the residents, should just take what they are getting, 'that a person who can't change their principles, can't be successful.'

This is, of course, the free market.

And the free market, symbolized by four bulldozers, drove into the small colony in the middle of Sion. This time the residents did not physically protest, deterred by the threat of further police cases against them, yet an incident reveals the attitude adopted by the administration quite clearly. The words 'stay order' spread like wildfire amongst the residents around 4 pm on the first day of the demolition drive, and residents who were quietly watching their homes broken down, suddenly empowered, began to protest, hurl abuse, demanding that the state stop destroying their homes. The police and the BMC started to withdraw, without much hesitation, almost revealing that they themselves felt they had no right or authority to demolish. But when the elusive order was merely revealed as a fax of an admission of an emergency petition slated to be heard at 5pm at the City Civil Court it was tossed aside — both literally and figuratively — by one of the police officers. The police and the wrecking crews returned, but by then it was already 5 pm, which is the slated time to suspend such work.

The demolitions continued on the second day. 39 homes were demolished and one man injured.

A day after the demolition drive hundreds of distraught residents congregated at Walkeshwar. They attempted to get a meeting with the Chief Minister, who they felt had betrayed them. There was no meeting, as they argued about the size of the delegation, and instead they would sit in front of the gates to his home until the police forcefully removed them, putting them in police vans and depositing them at Azad Maidan. It is worth mentioning that on that day anyone who looked like they belonged to the working class was stopped by the police from even entering the road at Walkeshwar that leads to the Chief Minister's residence.

This self-destructing system is now catering to a general environment of gaping paradoxes where 13000 square feet high-end apartments worth Rs 100 crores are advertised in financial magazines, where the working classes are quick to observe that the urbanscape is filled with towering buildings that lie empty, where the middle classes have a general perception that all slums are illegal and should be destroyed, even as they themselves are slowly being priced out of living here, a city of such apathy, of a populace possessing neither the imagination or the capacity to challenge the builder lobby, where judges build their colonies on mangrove land, and pass orders that the poor cannot, where land meant for the 'dishoused' becomes another judges colony, where the history of collapsing housing markets across the world are not matters of polity's concern, where social housing, which can once again position housing not as 'investment' but 'right to shelter' for all, remains a distant dream.

The dream remains, but only if the state can wake up from a nightmare it has perpetuated.

 
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