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No place like home

A new study explores how ambitious, upwardly mobile Sikhs are still living like refugees in forgotten, crumbling GTB Nagar. Aarefa Johari writes.

delhi Updated: Apr 02, 2012 14:53 IST
Aarefa Johari

Raghvir Singh Matta’s cramped two-room home is lost in a maze of mosquito-ridden shanties in Sion Koliwada. Inside, his 18-year-old son Gagandeep, studies at a computer.

A first-year commerce student at Matunga’s Khalsa college, Gagandeep does not want to drive a taxi for a living, like his father and grandfather. He wants to clear the IAS exam and become a municipal official.

A few metres away, in a chawl building as dilapidated as the slum, finance student Harmeet Banga, also a taxi driver’s son, plans to become a business analyst. His neighbour, Tavleen Kaur Mehra, 21, is a medical student.

These three youngsters are not exceptions. Rather, in decaying Guru Tegh Bahadur (GTB) Nagar, they are the norm.

The residents of this area are descendants of Punjabi and Sikh refugees who escaped to Mumbai, penniless, after the Partition of 1947.

Allotted 12 acres of barren government land in Sion, they eked out a living as taxi drivers and mechanics, all the while diligently educating their children. The second generation made considerable progress, opening garages, restaurants and catering companies.

Now, the third generation has moved on to white-collar, corporate jobs.

But the refugee camp — the largest concentration of Sikhs in Mumbai — has been on the downslide all this while, and is today a rapidly decaying ghetto whose squalor and civic neglect are starkly incongruent with the pace at which its residents have progressed.

In 2010, recognising Sion Koliwada as the largest Sikh minority-dominated ghetto in the city, the state government commissioned a study into the lives and problems of its residents.

Conducted by a team of academicians from Juhu’s SNDT University and presented to the government last month, the study describes the

buildings and shanties as “dilapidated”, “uninhabitable” and “in need of urgent repair”.

While these are problems common to all slums in Mumbai, they have been more difficult to accept for a community that prides itself on being hard-working, self-reliant and well-educated despite the hardships of refugee life.

In a city where space comes at a usually-unaffordable premium, there is no escape either.

“In 1947, the Indian government took away our land and gave it to Pakistan. Three generations down the line, we are still struggling for space,” says Matta, 50. “We have been left out of the city’s development.”

GTB Nagar comprises a large slum and 25 crumbling three-storey chawl buildings built by the central government in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Twelve years ago, all 25 buildings were declared ‘dangerous’, allowing the BMC to halt even the cursory maintenance it had so far conducted. This led to water supply problems, clogged commodes in the common toilets and, often, a complete absence of garbage collection.

Since the structures were built by the Central government, to whom the land still belongs, the state government is not liable to rebuild them.

And while redevelopment proposals have been pouring in from private builders, residents are wary — a wariness now common across Mumbai, where the scramble for space has seen land taken over and redeveloped, the original residents forced to move out of the city because of inflated realty rates.

For the descendants of refugees, this fear is compounded by memories of the past.

“Our parents were homeless once after Partition,” says Amarjeet Singh, 42, a local resident and shop owner. “We don’t want to be homeless again.”

Adds Tavleen Mehra, a medical student who shares a one-room chawl home with seven family members: “Our houses are small, the common toilets are unhygienic and I don’t feel like calling my friends over, but this is the centre of our community life. I don’t want to leave, but it would be nice to have a proper, modern house.”