Saira, a 40-year-old woman resident of Govandi’s Shivaji Nagar slum, lives just off road no. 15. Her make-shift hut shares the air of the nearby dumping ground. She used to hold a daily job in Vashi, but now runs a small shop in the slum itself. Her kachha house, where she resides with her husband, two sons and two daughters, is a far walk from their main source of water. The journey bringing large buckets back home is a tiresome one, but more importantly, an irregular one, since the slum’s water supply is unpredictable and scarce. Her older daughter is now married, and she’s looking for a suitable match for her younger one.
On Tuesday April 5, Saira, along with fifty-odd men and women from her slum, gathered at the Carnac bridge T-junction at Masjid Bunder, just outside the RPF chowky. They were joined by hundreds of slum-dwellers from Mankhurd, Chembur, Deonar and even Pune’s Kothrud slum area. Members and supporters of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) joined the group, equipped with banners and placards of protest. Messages such as ‘saaf hava-paani hai jeene ke adhikar, isko mat cheeno humse sarkaar’, and ‘bijli, paani aur shauchalaya nahi hai humare basti mein, achhe din ke vaade pade thandi basten mein’ were sprawled across the signs, held high, and the group warmed up to start their march.
Close to 150 police officers stood by, and the number of protesters kept growing. As each new set of fiery demonstrators got off the train at Masjid station and walked to the junction, they chanted slogans loud and proud, and were met with a chorus of applause and approval. Half were women, if not more, and screams of ‘Mahila shakti aayi hai, nayi roshni layi hai’ echoed through the area.
Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao (GBGB), an organisation for the rehabilitation of eviction victims, is spearheaded by activist Medha Patkar. It was conceived in 2005 after bulldozers razed Mumbai’s Mandala slum, amongst others, and demolished the houses of thousands in one sweep, leaving them homeless and devastated. Anwari Sheikh, mother of 11 and resident of Mandala who lost her home in the demolition, has spend the last decade fighting for housing rights and basic amenities. She is one of the many veteran activists whose activism has kept Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao alive, with Patkar’s support. In June of 2015, the Mandala slum, which residents rebuilt, was demolished again.
“Woh hume Mumbai se bahar nikalte rehte hai, itna ki ek din hum Karjat pahunch jayenge. Lekin hum nahi jayenge,” screamed Santosh Thorat, a resident of Annabhau Sathe Nagar and strong voice of the organisation, on the microphone attached to a portable speaker. As the mic was passed around, brief yet passionate speeches were delivered by other members of GBGB, calling out “woh jo badi building mein rehte hai” for their hypocrisy, stating that the slum-dwellers and other members gathered are the labourers and workers that have built this city, acting as the backbone of Mumbai, and without them, those in cosy houses wouldn’t get their daily paper or milk, or even have firm brick walls. The speeches asked the “andhi, behri sarkaar” (blind, deaf government) to wake up, and were followed by chants of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’.
As Medha Patkar arrived at the junction, the group organised themselves into two lines of men and women, and marched peacefully, banners held high, down the street towards Azad Maidan. The police force present cooperated with the peaceful protesters, and was met with cheers of ‘Darne ki kya baat hai, police humare saath hai’.
At Azad Maidan, Bilal Khan from the GBGB and Medha Patkar laid out their demands. “Dumping ne poore sheher ko gas chamber bana diya hai,” Khan said while calling for waste management and a scientific solution for the air pollution choking large districts of Mumbai city courtesy a fire that originated at the Deonar dumping ground.
The list of protesters’ demands as laid out by Khan included housing rights, due process by the Forest Department regarding matters of forest land, basic amenities, and a steady water supply. He added that despite the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan being in place, open defecation is a reality for a majority of slum-dwellers. Further, he mentioned that the group was also protesting against corruption within the Slum Rehabilitation Authority.
As the mic was passed to Medha Patkar, she called out the Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government’s ‘housing for all’ scheme, which was formally adopted in December 2015 and promises affordable housing in 51 cities by 2022. Patkar asked in her speech, “Kya 2022 tak sab log foot path ya station par pade rahe? Yeh humara sawaal hai.” Further, she reiterated the set of demands, and as she called out corruption and negligence, her words were met with cheers of agreement.
Words & Photographs: Rhea Almeida