Mumbai’s Mahul is a gas chamber, say rehabilitated infra project-hit, prefer staying on streets
Rekha Gadge sits on a bed in her sparsely furnished third-floor room, at the end of a dark corridor in a congested apartment complex in Mahul. Stacked in one corner are her children’s books and toys. The room leads to a small kitchen, right next to the toilet. The kitchen has no utensils, food items or a gas stove — just a matka with cold water. Rekha fills two glasses and offers us some. “Don’t worry, this water is not from here,” she said.
After speaking to us, Rekha and her husband, like hundreds of other families who have homes in the Mahul apartment, will lock up the house and head back to Vidyavihar to live on the streets. “We prefer being homeless than living in a housing colony that kills us,” Rekha’s husband, Sachin Gadge, said.
Rekha is among the 5,500 people who were shifted to Mahul — one of Mumbai’s most polluted areas and home to chemical and fertiliser factories — in 2017, after the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) demolished more than 16,000 homes and encroachments along the Tansa pipeline, considering the risk to both the people and the water supply network. The move followed a 2009 Bombay high court order. At Mahul, there are people whose homes were razed to make way for multi-crore urban infrastructure projects and roads.
But why Mahul, considering it is an area that has repeatedly been categorised as uninhabitable and too dangerous to live in by the National Green Tribunal, a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report, the high court, and even by two of the chemical factories and is cut off from access to public transport, hospitals, schools and offices of the people who were sent there?
SPOT OF BOTHER
Mahul is a densely populated colony of 17,500 flats in 72 buildings. The homes are built so close to each other that windows open into neighbouring windows, and bathrooms lack privacy.
There is a constant flow of sewage water on to lanes separating buildings and garbage and debris lie piled in every corner. The buildings are boxed in, designed with little room for ventilation and sunlight. Its residents are wary of drinking the water, not only because of the worry that chemical particles from the air may settle in the overhead tanks, but also because the pipes supplying drinking water run parallel to those disposing of sewage.
Nearly every resident was coughing when HT visited the settlement. “Even 10-year-olds get fits,” Rekha Gadge said. “Just last week, our neighbour’s son was diagnosed with tuberculosis. We decided to get our children out of here,” she said. “Who will live in that gas chamber?”
Skin diseases and red eyes were common among all residents HT met.
Pragati Patil, another resident on the floor, showed us photographs of how she looked before she moved to Mahul last year. When we met her, her eyes were sunken and cheek bones were protruding. She barely managed to walk from one room to the next. “The doctors told me to leave Mahul if I want to live.”
On the second floor of the building, 48-year-old Sunita Shivaji was entertaining relatives who had come to visit her for Diwali. Sunita’s family of eight lives in a one-room flat. She welcomed us with some leftover Diwali sweets. “We had no option but to take what the government offered us,” Shivaji said. “We thought living in a high-rise was better than our slum. But we were much happier there.” Shivaji has made at least four visits to the government-run Rajawadi hospital in a week, both for her ailing mother and herself. “I have an itching sensation all over my body all the time, the skin keeps peeling off,” she said.
From one tiny room to the other, the elderly and infants were lying on the floor, almost invalid. “It’s the air we breathe in constantly,” Rekha Gadge said. “And if the air doesn’t get to us, the constant fear that a gas explosion in one of the factories nearby could kill us definitely does,” she said, referring to the August 8 blast at the Bharat Petroleum factory, 10 minutes away. Gadge, who works as a peon in Ghatkopar’s Somaiya College and is among the most active voices against the relocation, said the blast shook their entire building.
Most of Mahul’s residents lived in Ghatkopar, Sion and Vidyavihar — close to their workplaces, their children’s schools and at least one railway station. But Mahul is cut off. The closest railway station is Chembur, 8km away; the nearest hospital, Rajawadi, is around 11km away. The only cheap mode of public transport is the BEST bus, but its services are not regular. “Should we spend our money on feeding ourselves, on doctors and medicines or on getting to work and back every day,” asked Sachin Gadge.
Sunita Shivaji, who works as a cook for a family in Dadar, said it took her only 30 minutes from her house in Ghatkopar to reach her workplace. “Now, it takes me at least an hour, as I spend most of my time waiting for a bus to get me out of here,” said Shivaji. “I can’t afford to pay for an autorickshaw,” she said.
The residents said the government promised them a hospital, school and markets in the neighbourhood. But there are only a few private medical clinics that lack emergency facilities, and the promised school is an empty, dusty room. “How did the government get away with demolishing people’s homes without a proper rehabilitation plan?” said activist Medha Patkar, who has been protesting with residents for months.
Within months of moving to Mahul, the residents realized they had given up their homes for nothing, Sachin Gadge said. An NGO, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, is questioning their poor rehabilitation in court. “Rehabilitation is more than giving a house for a house,” said Bilal Khan from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. “There are hundreds of units in a Kurla rehabilitation complex that are built for those displaced by the airport expansion project. All we are asking for is to let us live there temporarily until the BMC can find a better place,” said Sachin Gadge.
In November, a delegation of residents, led by activist Patkar, met state housing minister Prakash Mehta, who promised to relocate them to Kurla. But soon after, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said the plan was not feasible.
Despite multiple calls and text messages, BMC commissioner Ajoy Mehta was unavailable for a comment on the rehabilitation plan.
Even as the disillusioned residents continue to fight for a decent home, the civic body has already spent ₹312 crore to build a cycle track along the Tansa pipeline to stop them from coming back. “Relocating us to a safer area certainly won’t cost as much as the cycle track or the ₹3,600 crore the authorities plan to spend on building a sea memorial for king Shivaji,” said Rekha Gadge, adding the problem was the absence of will. “We don’t want to believe the state’s promises of ‘achche din’ and ‘achche ghar’ anymore,” Sunita Shivaji said.
THE WARNINGS NO ONE HEARD
The protesting residents were not the first to point out the problems with Mahul.
A 2017 report submitted by the CAG to the state governor said the Slum Rehabilitation Authority had “incorrectly” approved a scheme for rehabilitation of project affected persons (PAPs), “ignoring the security concerns of central government agencies, and resulting in undue favour to a private developer”. The report said the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) had set aside a 28,418.78sqm plot of land, since 1963, as a buffer zone for security. “In April 2012, BARC objected to the rehabilitation scheme as it was falling under its buffer zone, and raised concerns that the scheme could be a potential threat to national security,” the CAG report said, adding that similar security concerns were raised in May 2009 by Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), as the houses were right next to their refinery.
“The SRA, however, disregarded the security concerns raised by BARC and HPCL, and sanctioned in January 2012 the construction of 59 rehabilitation buildings,” the report said. The CAG report was submitted in March 2017. The people displaced from around the Tansa pipeline were sent to Mahul in June the same year.
In 2015, the National Green Tribunal pointed to a “perceptible threat to the health of residents” of Mahul. A survey by Parel’s KEM Hospital two years before that found high incidence of respiratory illnesses among residents of Mahul.
Finally, in August this year, the Bombay high court, despite its 2009 order that prompted the relocation exercise, made it clear people cannot be forced to move to Mahul. “Neither the BMC nor the state has paid attention to the concerns raised by these bodies,” said Patkar. “They still pushed the rehabilitation and demolished people’s homes.”
Is the problem at Mahul a result of poor implementation of rehabilitation schemes or are the schemes flawed?
“The government’s relief and rehabilitation provisions, in their current form, have little regard for any building regulations. This is leading to poor living conditions,” said Hussain Indorewala, an assistant professor at the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, pointing at the incentives builders are given to build such tenements.
Here’s how it works. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), a government body responsible for developing Mumbai’s infrastructure, and the BMC have teams that allot homes to people affected by projects.
The government needs to compensate those who have lost their homes, with new homes. This, however, is not profitable for builders and landowners, as the displaced are not buying the units. To get landowners and developers to part with their land or construct apartments, the government promises Transferable Development Rights (TDR) — compensation in the form of rights to transfer the built-up area to another location, or sell it to another developer. The more units a developer builds for a rehabilitation project, the greater TDR he gets.
Many landowners with plots in areas that are not in demand, such as Mahul, make a profit off building dense colonies. Cases in point are two similar rehabilitation colonies, Lallubhai compound in Mankhurd and Natwar Parekh MMRDA colony in Govandi, that face issues similar to those at Mahul – water scarcity, poor waste management and lack of affordable healthcare and education facilities. These colonies, too, are situated away from points of public modes transport. The pattern is clear.
According to a 2012 survey by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, nearly 65% of Mumbai’s resettlement is in the M-East ward — the eastern most part of the island city, in areas such as Chembur, Govandi, Mankhurd and Deonar.
The residents shifted here were displaced by the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project (MUIP), Mithi River Development Plan (MRDP) and the Airport Redevelopment Project.
“Ideally, there should be a buffer zone around polluting industries, or dumpyards, in case of colonies in Deonar. But the government seems to be getting away with sending people to live here,” said Rekha Gadge, adding, “The government didn’t succeed in eradicating poverty, so they eradicate the poor instead.”