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Turbulence at Mumbai airport

The state government should talk to slum-dwellers regarding the acquisition of airport land and offer them proper rehabilitation, feels Sundar Burra.

india Updated: May 15, 2007 04:25 IST

The modernisation of Mumbai airport is a front-page story these days. About 85,000 families of slum-dwellers are reportedly occupying some 276 acres of land. It appears that Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL), the company given the job, has approached the Supreme Court against an earlier Mumbai High Court order that benefits cannot be given to slum dwellers who have occupied an area after January 1, 1995.

Though one has not seen a copy of the order, some newspapers have reported that the Supreme Court said that MIAL is free to approach the Government of Maharashtra (GOM) with a scheme to rehabilitate all the slum dwellers. MIAL had argued that unless the slum dwellers were rehabilitated, they would be unable to meet the deadlines laid down in the contract.

Does it make sense to have a cut-off date and say that anyone entering the city after that date will have no entitlements? If we look at the evolution of slum policy in Maharashtra in the recent past, we find that the GOM first commissioned a slum census in 1976. Those covered by the census were assured some kind of rehabilitation if their land was needed for a public purpose. The protection given to slum-dwellers was in the form of a new policy rather than by passing a law. Even though the kind of rehabilitation promised was not specified in detail, at least it was a step forward to protection.

Subsequently, over time, the cut-off year of 1976 was extended to 1980, to 1984, to 1985, to 1990 and then to January 1, 1995. For some years, the protection has become statutory. Some saw in this repeated extension of a ‘cut-off’ date a capitulation to vote-bank politics. Others saw it as a legitimate response to the fact that migration was a continuing process and cannot be said to end at some particular point in time.

Whatever might have been the motivation behind the repeated extension of the cut-off dates, the sanctity of having such a date at all is certainly questionable if it can change so often. GOM has extended the date to 2000 for special projects, such as an earlier airport resettlement project as also the Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project (MUIP). Moreover, in a special concession, the GOM agreed that under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), a World Bank-financed project, that all slum dwellers who would be displaced by the project would be resettled, provided their names were there in the Baseline Socio-Economic Survey (BSES). Thus for MUTP, there was no cut-off date, for the eligibility date was the BSES date and the BSES could have been conducted in any year. Of course, slum-dwellers who entered the area after the BSES was prepared would not be eligible for rehabilitation.

Under MUTP, NGOs were contracted to do the BSESs and these were checked by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) staff. About 20,000 families have been resettled over the last few years without the use of police force or violence. Except in one or two pockets, where small groups of shop-keepers protested, the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) efforts went off smoothly. To a large extent, this was because the MUTP policy stressed community participation in R&R where people were involved at every stage: preparing the BSES, the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) and the actual implementation of RAP. Many will agree that MUTP has significantly improved the functioning of the suburban rail system as the majority of those resettled lived along the railway tracks. It has often been described as a ‘win-win’ outcome: more trains are running on the same tracks, trains are running faster and so commuters’ delays have decreased, the productivity of the city’s economy has increased and, last but not least, all eligible slum dwellers have got safe and secure housing. The fact that the date of eligibility was the date of the BSES was an important factor in ensuring smooth R&R.

In infrastructure projects where large tracts of land have been encroached, it makes sense to do what was done under MUTP. GOM itself has followed this procedure under an earlier airport project. If only some slum-dwellers are held eligible, where will the others go? Their huts will have to be demolished to vacate the land needed. There will surely be discontent and opposition, possibly leading to violence but certainly leading to delay. Potential returns from the proposed infrastructure improvement would fall and its benefits delayed. From a financial point of view, R&R is not very expensive when the land is available free. Under MUTP, the cost of R&R is about 10 per cent of the project cost. So that cannot be an argument against providing R&R for all.

There is a piquant situation in Mumbai today. Some slum dwellers are treated according to the January 1, 1995 law; others, such as in MUIP, have an eligibility date of January 1, 2000 and still others, as in MUTP, do not have a cut-off date fixed. Is this a coherent policy? Would this policy withstand scrutiny from a Constitutional point of view that insists that people in similar circumstances be treated in similar fashion? Moreover, when there is a cut-off date and documentation is required to prove eligibility, there is a lot of corruption. Some people will fake documents to become eligible and some government servants eagerly collaborate.

We need to think deeply about whether there should at all be a cut-off date. Worldwide, demographers tell us that urbanisation is inevitable, whether it is desirable or not. Does having a cut-off date inhibit migration? Conversely, if there is no cut-off date, will that increase the rate of migration? The answer to both questions, it is suggested, is in the negative. People’s behaviour in relation to migration depends upon a host of factors including employment opportunities in rural areas, the declining viability of agriculture, dreams of life in the town or city and so on. If this argument is accepted, there are hardly any grounds to have a cut-off date.

The Railways agreed to share the costs of R&R under MUTP with great reluctance but finally did so because the World Bank was the only available source and that money was available conditionally upon implementing R&R. Caught in a cleft stick, the Railways said that they agreed to R&R only because it was a condition of MUTP and not as a policy that would be a precedent. But is this sound reasoning? What is the difference between slum dwellers resettled under MUTP in Mumbai and the tens of thousands of slum-dwellers occupying railway lands all over India, except that the former were covered by MUTP? Even in Mumbai, there are 20,000 families living on railway lands who are not covered by MUTP and hence not being resettled. Is it not possible for the Railways to formulate an R&R policy for all slum dwellers on its lands?

Slum dwellers living on airport land in Mumbai are seething with resentment. No one has publicly stated what the R&R package is. They are also in a panic because they do not know the criteria of eligibility, where they will be shifted nor what impact the shifting will have upon their livelihoods.

At a recent press conference, the Airport Slum-dwellers Federation demanded that the MUTP procedures be adopted for their R&R. They feel that a Baseline Socio-Economic Survey should be conducted and those enumerated in the BSES should be considered eligible. The BSES could be conducted by NGOs and findings checked by Government agencies.

The people feel that open and transparent procedures should be followed with substantive community participation. Their demands are modest and reasonable. But neither GOM nor MIAL is engaging in a simple dialogue to remove the apprehensions that people have. It is not too late to open channels of communication. The anger and frustration of people will otherwise spill out on to the streets. No one wants a Nandigram or the problems with SEZs. Will the GOM and MIAL listen – before the opportunity is lost?

Sundar Burra works for an NGO in Mumbai on issues of urban poverty, housing and infrastructure