Posted on 20 December 2010.
When plans were announced to expand Mumbai’s overburdened airport, many in the city welcomed the development. But for over 100,000 families living in slums on land surrounding the airport, it signalled the start of a long battle.
In the past few months, thousands of slum dwellers have been evicted from their homes in Khar and Santacruz to make way for a modernisation project that includes a flyover, a shopping complex and parking lots. Others are staying their ground believing they have earned their right to the land over the decades, even if it is not on paper.
We’ve heard modern India’s development tale, this is the dark and controversial other side of the story:
Geizabai: A fight to death
My name is Geizabai Kishan Magede. I came to Ambedkar Nagar [near the Santacruz domestic airport] in 1974 when I got married. In those days, the slum was a swamp and sewage would flow right through our house. We would bring empty mango crates from the market, place them on the ground and sleep on them, while gutter water flowed below our makeshift beds.
Geizabai Magede, Ambedkar Nagar
Eventually, with some money coming in, we tried to build houses and improve our living conditions. Our children did not have clean water to drink, so we would collect water from the leaking water tanks in nearby buildings and filter that water so we could drink it. We paid about Rs 5,000 each to start getting electricity here. At that time, the government was not interested in this area.
I bring vegetables from Dadar market [in south-central Mumbai] and sell them here at a roadside stall. I also work as a maid in some of the nearby apartments. My husband is a daily wage labourer and sometimes does construction work. If the government evicts us from here, how will we start over in a new area? How will people know us or trust us? I don’t have the money to commute every day; if I spend everything on commuting, how will we eat? How will I fund my children’s education?
When Sahar airport [Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport] was built, the government needed construction labourers, so they brought us from the villages to Mumbai. The airport is ours, we built it. Why should we go from here? If they want to build malls, why can’t they build them somewhere else? If they can make big shopping malls and tall buildings, why can’t they make two storey houses for us? Here, where we have made our lives, where three generations have grown up. If the government has to rehabilitate us, we don’t want to be relocated to some far-flung place. And we want proper houses with facilities.
All these years, when we live in such difficulty here, did the government come and check on us? Every election season, they promise us water, toilets, roads, and clean gutters, but it ends there. How is it that the government never asked us for proof of ownership at the time of elections? After five years, will they not need our votes again? If they build shopping malls and evict poor people like us, who will vote for them? People living in tall buildings don’t vote; people like us go and vote.
If they don’t need us, we don’t need them either. This government is only five years old, and GVK [the company redeveloping the Mumbai airports] has been here for three years. We have lived here 40 years and yet we have no say over this land. Bombay belongs to us, the poor, the labourers. We will fight till death to stay here.
Palaniamma: Who does this city belong to?
My name is Palaniamma and I live in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, near the Santacruz domestic airport [Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport – Domestic Terminal]. My parents left Salem [in Tamil Nadu] when I was seven because there were no rains in our village, and we came to Mumbai. I’ve been here for 45 years. I grew up here, got married, my three children grew up here and got married. Where are we supposed to go now?
Palaniamma, Sanjay Gandhi Nagar
I have a small space in the Dadar Flower Market where I sell flowers. It is the only way I know to feed myself for the past 25 years. How will I set up this business again in a new area? Everyone knows me here. We’ve built our lives here. Where were the government and airport officials all this while? They should have asked us to vacate back then.
We went for meetings with the officials a few times. They said they would rehabilitate us and gives houses in Mankhurd [a north-eastern suburb]. Some of the people from our locality went and saw the houses there; there was no water, no basic facilities, so we’ve refused to go to Mankhurd.
It’s because people like me sell flowers that the rich can garland their Gods. In the same way, if the auto driver stops driving his auto, how will rich people go to their offices? If the people who clean your bathrooms don’t show up for one day, what will you do? And if there is a problem with your water connection, you need a plumber to fix it. Everything in this city runs because of poor people. It’s because of the poor, that the rich can function. So, who does this city belong to? Doesn’t it belong to the poor? Or is it just the rich? Don’t we have the right to live here?
— As told to Faiza Ahmad Khan and Sima Agarwal
To follow the issue and the people’s movement, check out www.khareastandolan.wordpress.com