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At a crossroads

Shil Phata was a barren highway stop until 2005. Then came the illegal buildings, one of which claimed 74 lives this month. Now, the area is all set to be transformed again. Humaira Ansari writes.

mumbai Updated: Apr 14, 2013 00:56 IST
Humaira Ansari

Stepping out of a shared autorickshaw at Mumbra’s Shil Phata junction, 30 km north-east of Mumbai, you crave some shade from the scorching sun. But shade is a luxury here. There are no trees, just some scrub.

The crossroads — leading to Mumbra and Thane in the south, Kalyan in the north, Navi Mumbai in the east and Mumbai in the west — is vast, silent and lifeless.

Trucks speeds past the tea and samosa stall, two desi bars, ‘family restaurant’ and handful of scrap shops and garages that make up this highway stop.

Lucky Compound — where an illegal, seven-storey building collapsed on April 4, claiming 74 lives — is a 15-minute walk from the junction that gives this area its name.

Along the main road, you can see some of the 200-odd illegal buildings that have rapidly changed the skyline of what was once a barren expanse of scrap dealerships, plastic-crushing units and a few dance bars.

“Shil Phata is to Mumbra what Andheri is to Lower Parel,” says local RTI activist Imran Khan, a Mumbra resident who has been working to expose illegal construction in the area. “After erecting buildings in every nook and cranny of Mumbra such that neighbours can shake hands from their windows, builders have now trained their eyes on Shil Phata, 5 km away.”

To understand Shil Phata, you must first understand Mumbra.

A marshy nowhere land till 1993, Mumbra — now a suburb of 8 lakh people spread across 3 sq km — first began to see development after the Mumbai communal riots, when Muslim families from troubled areas such as Kurla and Ghatkopar fled here and created a ghetto.

“Most of the initial buildings were illegal, but soon, local corporators began to legalise these constructions,” says Azaz Shaikh, an RTI activist and Mumbra resident.

Over time, Mumbra went from ghetto to modern-day suburb of bustling Thane City, two railway stations away.

Roads that once housed just a few shabby eateries and grocery stores now have trendy clothing and electronics stores catering to young Mumbra-based students, small businessmen and professionals.

As the population increased and demand for housing grew, with realty rates here rising from an average of R2 lakh for a one-bedroom flat in 1993 to R14 lakh today, Mumbra-based builders began to eye the nearby expanses of Shil Phata.

As in Mumbra — which is still home to 2,000 of the estimated 5,500 illegal buildings in Thane district — it was easy to circumvent procedure here.

A trickle of new construction projects that began in 2005 turned into a flood by 2011. Most of the buildings in Shil Phata today have come up over the past 18 months.

A floating population
Lalita Patil, 47, is one of the oldest urban residents of Shil Phata.

“When my husband and I moved here from Mumbra in 1985, it was just trees and a few Adivasi hamlets,” she says. “Back then, we had to go all the way to Thane to buy basic provisions.”

Soon after, Patil’s husband, Vasant, opened the first grocery store in Shil Phata. Today, Lalita’s bright pink, two-storey bungalow, Kailash, a few metres from Lucky Compound, is a landmark.

Now a widow, Patil leases out the ground floor to shops; one of them promises PAN cards for R250 and Aadhar cards for R300, a feasible business idea in an area home to so many migrants.

Unlike Mumbra, where residents either run small businesses or travel to Navi Mumbai or distant suburbs for work, in Shil Phata, about 80% of the residents are truck drivers, watchmen, plumbers, electricians and labourers — most of them Muslim migrants from Uttar Pradesh, working for daily wage in Mumbra or Navi Mumbai.

Some earn as little as R80 a day and live in shanties. There is no municipal hospital in Shil Phata. There are no playgrounds, no designated markets.

“All the land is being ‘allocated’ to builders for residential buildings,” says RTI activist Khan. “A DP exists, but it is not really a development plan.”

For the past two years, these illiterate residents have been wooed by builders with free or almost-free temporary accommodation in exchange for occupying illegal, often under-construction buildings, to ensure that the municipal corporation cannot then demolish them.

“Most of these ‘residents’ are totally illiterate and are unable to provide even approximate ages for their children when we go door to door trying to enrol them in our school. They line up kids against a wall to guess their ages,” says Imran Farid, a Mumbra resident who runs the NGO-funded Rafiqua institute, Shil Phata’s first high school, established in 2000.

On the move
Now, as demolitions begin, entire families are living in fear of displacement. Truck driver Sabir Khan, 40, for instance, recently lost his temporary home and has no idea where to go next.

Until last Sunday, he, his wife and his four children lived in a two-room flat in the second building in Lucky Compound, for a meagre R 500 a month in rent.

“We gathered some utensils, clothes and rations before the demolition, but where do we take them now?” asks his wife, Sarjun-Nisah, 35.

Migrants from UP’s Navgarh district, Khan’s family has sought shelter at a fellow migrant’s home in Shil Phata’s Azad Nagar chawl.

Not far away is evidence of the next phase in Shil Phata’s development — a complex of 20 high-rise buildings being developed by Mumbai-based Dosti Realty. Work began in October.

“Shil Phata is strategically located, at a crossroads, with direct connectivity to Navi Mumbai, Diva and Thane. We are targeting young couples working in these areas or in CBD Belapur, Dombivli and Ambernath,” says Rajesh Shah, 57, executive director of Dosti Realty.

Amenities will include a swimming pool, gym and tennis court.

Outside, a few flowering plants have already taken root in their narrow beds in the centre of a broad main avenue.