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Christian groups’ decade-long fight for a cemetery in Mumbai

Mumbai, like other cities, is running out of burial space, forcing communities to change funeral practices

mumbai Updated: Nov 12, 2017 23:40 IST
Manoj R Nair
Manoj R Nair
Hindustan Times

Last week the Bombay high court said that the Maharashtra government had discriminated against the Christian community living in the city’s western suburbs by denying them their portion of a composite cemetery in Goregaon.

While Hindus and Muslims have started using their sections for funerals, Christian groups, which petitioned the government to find out when they will be given possession of their share of the cemetery land, were told that their allotment had been cancelled.

Mumbai, like other cities, is running out of burial space, forcing communities to change funeral practices. Cremation, which has become popular in the West, faces a theological barrier in India among communities that bury their dead. Churches in Mumbai have restricted the practice of buying a permanent grave or reserving a funeral plot for a family. Graves are being reused and many churches have above-ground burial niches, but shortage of burial space remains a grave problem. Christians living in the eastern side of the Western Railway between Dahisar and Khar stretch have been complaining that there is no public cemetery in the area. The cemeteries at churches in the area, for example in Vakola and Kalina, are small and available only to local families. Funerals for other families mean a long journey to cemeteries on the western side of the railway line.

This newspaper has been reporting regularly about the decade-long struggle to get a cemetery closer to their homes. One plot was provided in a composite cemetery at Kandivli in 1998, but the municipal corporation did not secure it with a boundary wall and another community started using it for burials. The dispute is unresolved, but the Christian groups, who did not want to get caught in a communal dispute, petitioned the government again.

One group, the United Christian Community Centre, applied for a plot next to the Hindu and Muslim burial grounds near Aarey Milk Colony, Goregaon, around eight years ago. They were told that the approval was in the final stages. There was one problem: the land was reserved for use by the dairy department.

Even as they were waiting for the allotment, there were reports that another community had started using the plot as a cemetery. In February 2014, they met the vice-president of the Maharashtra State Minority Commission, Janet D’souza who arranged a meeting with the then city commissioner of police Rakesh Maria. “We did not want a dispute with another community,” said D’souza. “We did not want a fight and all we wanted was land with a clear title.”

Subsequent police investigation found that the reports of encroachment were unfounded. In May 2016, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) approved the use of the plot as a cemetery, but its allotment as a cemetery was delayed further when it was found that debris from the neighbouring Muslim burial ground was causing waterlogging in the plot. The BMC spent a few more months constructing a storm-water drain to keep the plot flood-free.

When the allotment of the plot was further delayed, community members filed an application under the Right To Information Act to find out the status of the proposal. They were shocked when they were told that the government, in January 2017, had unilaterally cancelled the allotment of reserved Christian cemetery land at Aarey. “We were told that the allotment was cancelled,” said Joachim Colasso. “They gave us no proper explanation, so we decided to go to the courts.”

Today, the groups campaigning for the cemetery will gather at the Bombay high court, where officials from the dairy department and other ministries will be explaining why the burial plot was denied to the Christian community.

“We do not know if this is discrimination but it is now prime land located on an important road,” said Colasso. “The government officials may want it for other uses.”

First Published: Nov 12, 2017 23:40 IST