In Mumbai, slum dwellers are unremittingly struggling to secure housing.
In a city like Mumbai, whose size has tripled since India’s Independence, and has surpassed 20 million inhabitants – assuming that any census performed in such a rapidly expanding metropolis can be reliable – space constitutes the greatest wealth. For a multitude, intimacy is a distant dream, obtained at the price of a cinema ticket that grants its holder some hours of privacy and tranquility in the dark room of the cinema hall.
Yet, in spite of the tremendous human density, pollution, discomfort, lack of infrastructure and the accompanying violence, migrants keep flowing into the city, in search of jobs and better life. They swell the ranks of slum dwellers, who already make up over 60% of Mumbai’s population. Slums today constitute an integral part of the city, providing a precarious solution to the extreme spatial challenge of the biggest Indian metropolis. But because space is scarce and precious, slum residents face the attacks of developers as well as the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. Developers intend to raze the slums and make profit out of the vacated land. Worse, they receive the support of a government that envisions a slum-free city.
On paper, the slum rehabilitation policy provides the Mumbai Municipal Corporation with a legal framework to destroy slums built after 1995 and force the relocation of its residents. This controversial policy allows developers to grab any land in exchange for building free houses for slum dwellers. But only those able to prove that they have been residing in the slum prior to 1995,- in rare cases before 2000 – are entitled to the scheme. As a result, 70% of slum dwellers in the city are ineligible for these benefits, and stand to lose everything if their homes are razed. With this in mind, it is easy to understand the stiff opposition of Mumbai slum dwellers. Even those entitled to free housing often oppose the policy, on the ground that relocation means moving away from their community, from a network of mutual aid and support, and often from sources of employment.
It is only with these elements in mind that one can understand the anger and distress of the 3000 Maharashtra Nagar slum residents. On March 4th, 2011, their slum was completely demolished by the Municipal Corporation. Many of them watched as their lives scattered that day; losing precious documents, utensils and all other belongings. Amid the turmoil, the residents did not lose hope and mobilized to reclaim their rights over the land they had occupied so far. Most of the slum dwellers have been living there for years, but proving their rights over land might turn out to be impossible, given that most of them do not possess any documents attesting their rights or that these documents have been lost or destroyed when the slum was razed. What’s more, many of them settled after 1995, and as a consequence, are not entitled to any rehabilitation.
In any case, what most of the residents want is merely to obtain decent housing within the slums they used to live in. The slum provided them with a community, with a sense of belonging that they cannot find elsewhere in the city. What they expect from the government is merely to make this place inhabitable.
As it is often the case in Mumbai, the cases linger on for weeks, or even months, while slums are reconstructed, after only hours or days, because the dwellers have nowhere else to go in the inhospitable metropolis. In the fight over space, slum dwellers might be weak and disarmed when facing the developers and bulldozers, but they are numerous and unremitting, and above all, they have nothing to lose.