Samwad Yatra Report, Day 65: Mumbai

The first program for the day was a meeting with the teacher of Vipassana, Shri. S.N. Goenka by a  delegation from the yatra. The delegation made a presentation on the issues of the movement and sought his support for this struggle. Shri. Goenka offered to facilitate a meeting with some industrialists and senior bureaucrats to explore ways to strengthen the struggle and succeed in the objectives of the movement. The next meeting for the day was a joint press conference with Swami Agnivesh, Shri. Lalit Babbar, Shri Subhash Lomte and Rajagopal P.V. Rajagopal then met youth from 3 colleges at Khalsa College who are all part of Dharma Bharathi Mission. These youth carry out after-school programs and English classes to youth from slums. The final meeting for the day was with activists from Mumbai. This meeting was organized by Shri. Lalith Babbar.

There were numerous cotton mills in Mumbai several years ago and many of these mills have been shut down gradually. Around 2.5 lakh workers from these mills are today facing  unemployment and have been affected by the closure. The mill workers have been demanding a decent house to live in. The settlement plan was to split the total land owned by the mills evenly between 3 groups: builders, mill workers and poor people of Mumbai. But most of these lands are being transferred to builders of high rise apartment complexes. The government had constructed 16,000 housing units for 2.5 lakh mill worker families. Because of the unfeasibility of distributing fairly 16,000 houses among 2.5 lakh families, a decision was taken to sell these houses and distribute the money to them. This plan has been rejected by workers as they expect to get about 4-5 lakhs and this is insufficient to buy a small housing unit in Mumbai. Taking a more broad perspective into the issue of housing in Mumbai, Mr. Madhu Mohite said that roughly 60% of population of Mumbai live on 8% of the total land in the slums of Mumbai. Many of those who are born in these slums are branded illegal residents. These people come to Mumbai for work but are unable to find a house in the city. The city is entirely dependant on the work of slum dwellers but is unwilling to provide them with a decent living condition. Efforts to provide housing for slum dwellers is being carried out under the slum rehabilitation plan. Mr. Shakeel alleges that the plan is a way to reduce the land holding of the poor from 8% to 3-4%. There is no city wide plan to rehabilitate slum dwellers. Several projects have been started to rehabilitate slum dwellers and each plan has its own cut-off date. These cut-off dates are being used to deny slum dwellers access to decent housing. Those who are denied legal status through these cut-off dates are denied water supply. Close to 20-30 lakh slum dwellers are today compelled to purchase water for all their needs. We were told that the problem of housing is not unique to only slum dwellers but is also affecting the middle class. A participant mentioned that a middle-class person will have to earn at least 1 lakh per month to afford to buy a small apartment in Mumbai. This problem of housing can be addressed by increasing the floor space index (FSI) but we were told that FSI is being kept low to maintain high prices of apartment units. If FSI were to be increased there will be a huge supply of apartments and this will bring down the price of apartments thus reducing the profitability of builders.  The builders are able to transfer large tracts of land into their possession by influencing local politicians. We were told about the case of Hira Nandani complex that acquired land at dirt-cheap prices and even got the government to forgive penalty for certain digression of rules. The city’s map does not even recognize the places where the poor live. Most of the slums are marked as either parks, or no-development zones. Builders who have constructed on forest land in places like Powai have managed to get the land converted into revenue land to protect the interest of their customers but the government is not willing to convert slums on land that has been classified as forest land into revenue land. In such a situation Mr. Shakeel said that the only way to address the housing needs for the majority of residents of Mumbai is to reserve 40% of all new housing construction for poor people.

Mr Ramesh Heralkar retired as a sweeper and explained the problems faced by sweepers and cleaners in Mumbai. There are close to 400,000 sweepers and cleaners in Mumbai. They have been engaged in this job for 5-6 generations. They were settled in different parts of Mumbai by the British and were provided small housing units. These units have not been maintained and we were told that most of them are in inhabitable condition. Mr. Ramesh told us that their eligibility to stay in these houses is subjected to their continued employment as sweepers and cleaners. Upon retirement, their jobs are given to their children. If their sons/daughters  refuse to take up the job as a cleaner or sweeper, they will have to vacate their house. People’s need for housing in a city where it is very difficult to find a house is being used to arm-twist them to continue working as sweepers and cleaners. In other government departments, children of workers do not face the restriction that children of sweepers face as they are allowed to take up other jobs in the government and retain their government provided accommodation. Mr Ramesh told us that attrocities are being carried out on the sweepers, most of whom are dalits if we were to consider their living conditions and arm-twisting that is taking place to keep their successive generations as sweepers. He felt that dalits who left villages to escape exploitative heriditary occupations are being forced to be engaged in the same profession.

     Baba Saheb’s dream behind asking dalits to move out of villages into cities was a way to come out of their heriditary professions but this dream seems to have been defeated as most sweepers and cleaners are engaged in the same job for 4-5 generations now. Mr. Prabhakar added that the sweepers and cleaners have been highly oppressed and prevented from organizing themselves. Mr. Ramesh told us that a number of social workers have carried our research and executed projects in the name of sweepers and built their own careers but the conditions of sweepers has not improved. They are eager to take leadership for their issue and advocate for their rights.

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