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Caste Away - a community vanishes in Mumbai

Nothing left. A poor but vibrant 20 year old community reduced to rubble in a day.

They’ve all scattered — their homes and lives have been split apart by a backhoe painted a cheery yellow. They are neighbours and friends who celebrated births, mourned deaths, argued, shared stories and gossiped, grew up together and some got to grow old together. Their children played together and attended nearby schools. The parents worked nearby cleaning middle class apartment buildings, driving wealthy families to their appointments, driving auto rickshaws, or working as watchmen at the airport. On November 9, they stood silently atop the pipeline, the artery that dissects the community, watching and waiting for the backhoe to make dust of their homes. On both sides of this rotund metal pipe used as a pathway, their one room homes were jumbled together in rag-tag laneways as far as the eye could see; homes and community to a few thousand people.

In a disordered frenzy, families rushed to empty their homes, tossing the contents into the laneways. They stripped their small dwellings of fans, electrical wires, bamboo rods, tin sheets, doors, anything metal, rustic shelving and useful boards and then slept in the eery darkness of their empty roofless homes without water or fans to stir the air. They woke the next morning, piled their belongings on their heads and trudged in single file up to the main road pushing through a narrow lane. Small trucks called tempos were laden with bags that used to hold rice or grains now filled with cooking pots, utensils and clothing. Their children played in the piled chaos of belongings, undeterred by the unbelievable, until the yellow machine started its engine. All their energy seeped away and they stood on the pipeline, sucking on fingers grimy from play, holding tight to their parent’s legs and watched most of their community vanish.

Sushila and her oldest daughter sit among their possessions after emptying their home.

The BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) has been ordered by the Bombay High Court to demolish slum pockets located along the main water pipelines in the city. This order affected over 5000 people along 9 kilometres of pipeline. A 24 hour warning sign for demolition was posted by the BMC near a stand of toilets. To hurry the process along and halt any notion of families hanging on to their homes, the water supply was cut two days before. Then the crude electrical boxes were smashed, wires were cut and the lights went out. A few days later, municipal workers, backed by a large gathering of police and BMC officers, armed with sledgehammers and wearing flip-flops, marched into the community and started breaking walls followed by the backhoe reducing the homes to rubble over the course of a very long day.

The BMC provides one room homes in slum rehabilitation areas to Project Affected Families who can secure documentation proving that they’ve lived in the community before the year 2000. Securing a key to these 225 square foot government rooms was difficult and fraught with paperwork. Some families slept in the rubble for days waiting for their key to a room 25 kilometres away from where they work and where their children attend school.

Hardhik standing in the ruins of the home he was born in.

In a setting out of a science fiction movie, the 72 eight-story buildings are in a remote location (Mahul Gaon) with only chemical and gas plants as neighbours, far from shops, medical facilities and train stations. The air pollution is at a critical level because of the industries nearby with many people who have lived there for a few years suffering from lung ailments among other serious health woes. The buildings are poorly constructed; many blocks are without water or electricity or both; broken tiles mar the corridors and elevators don’t work; windows don’t close or in some cases don’t open; toilets are broken or detached and the pipes that remove sewage leak down the side of the buildings. Receiving a key to this paradise cost 20,000 rupees (CAD $397) or 60,000 rupees (CAD $1191) for those who can’t provide proper documentation. A domestic worker cleaning middle class apartments earns 50 rupees (CAD $1) per hour.

This family has built a temporary shelter in the rubble. They're still here three weeks later.

Ranjana’s son,14 year old Hardhik, who was born in the community, comes back to sift through the rubble that was once his family home. He kicks at the pile of bricks and finds a familiar purple tile installed by his father a few years ago to upgrade their home. He runs his hand along the back wall, still standing because it’s attached to a perimeter wall shared by an office complex. Desperate to keep her children in their school until the end of the school year, Ranjana and her husband sold jewellery and borrowed from family to put a deposit of 30,000 rupees on a slum home not far from their children’s schools. For days, the family slept in the destroyed community with others in a cleared area until they could move. They are eligible for a slum rehabilitation home and plan to move to Mahul when the school year is completed.

Demolished homes, their back walls still intact.

While many long-term families have secured a room in Mahul with the correct documentation, many have not. In a machiavellian game of chess with real people as pawns, for those not receiving a BMC room, affordable options of alternative housing close to Saki Naka are scarce with rents and deposits out of their reach. Landlords who’ve had their rental rooms demolished refuse to return hefty deposits to their tenants. In the week leading up to the eventual demolition, with rumours of demolition becoming real, families became frantic and fanned out within a few kilometres of the community looking for rooms. Their local political official, who only a year ago marched through the community, smiling broadly, shaking hands and paying residents to vote him into office, refused to help delay the inevitable demolition. Groups of parents pleaded, citing reasons for staying, (school year still in full swing, work and jobs nearby, finding a new place to live requires a deposit they don’t have, rents have increased in other slum communities but their meagre wages haven’t) while politicians rested their hands in their laps and refused to budge.

Families moving in to their Mahul room.

Sushila, who works as a garbage picker, and her four children, camped in the rubble for ten days in the place their home once stood, surrounded by their possessions packed in barrels and old bags. They found large pieces of thin wood, laid them on bricks and slept in the shadow of the water pipeline, while they canvassed the politicians office in hopes of securing a home in Mahul. When the news came that they would get a room in Mahul they found a man with a truck and loaded their few things and themselves into the gaping back compartment. The five of them, along with a neighbour, waved to us until they were out of sight, ecstatic to be heading to a home regardless of what they had heard about the living conditions in Mahul. Within days we visited their room in Mahul. We had chai and biscuits sitting cross-legged while her oldest daughter washed the floors and rinsed laundry. The other children were busy toting pails of water from an outside shared well — their room and all the other rooms in the building are without electricity and water. The rooms here are larger than what most slum dwellers have lived in before, and include a toilet, but most rooms in most buildings lack water, electricity or both. They are without fans and depend on brackish well water or water supplied from water trucks to drink and bathe with. Despite the mounting garbage outside her building, her job as a garbage picker will have to resume in Mumbai. There are no small depots to take her pickings for payment within miles of her new home.

Hauling water in Mahul. Many rooms don't have water or electricity.

Those who are left in the community (there are two large intact areas of homes on private land) pick through the rubble almost as a way to cope. Some come to sweep the top of the pipeline as they did before. There are pieces of doors with a family name, a shard of a photo frame, bits of shiny fabric, sandals, sequinned dupattas and flattened jeans and shoes. The backs of walls that were once homes are lined up against the perimeter wall undisturbed with calendar pages that flap in the breeze; posters of gods and goddesses remain glued to colourful walls and children’s playful scribbles mock the man-made disaster. We trudge over mounds of debris that were once homes where we drank chai and celebrated birthdays with the children and families not affected by the demolition to use the two cleared out garden spaces surrounded by green fencing, strangely free of debris. Undaunted, vendors still tote their wares, walking along the top of the pipeline, using it as a shortcut to avoid the traffic on Saki Vihar Road. Janvi Charitable Trust now holds their kindergarten classes under the shade of trees in the garden area instead of inside the small building Dirty Wall Project helped them construct in 2010, of which a small portion of yellow wall still protrudes out of the debris.

For those who live in the many homes that were not demolished including the area where Indu’s Tuition centre is located, they continue to celebrate, learn, live and carry on. We continue to help those who have moved to different communities, including Mahul, by paying their children’s school fees and answering their needs for medical attention. In a daily game of hide and seek, we spend a lot of time in an auto rickshaw finding the families who require help. The families who’ve moved to Mahul wander the corridors like zombies, stopping to peer over the side of the wall into the courtyard area, watching the ant-like movements of others moving in as other slum areas down the pipeline are demolished. They hope for water, they hope for electricity and they hope to make a community of peers in a strange new world.

The corriders of Mahul.

We were observers of this disaster holding children on our hips, helping move items out of homes and standing with long-time friends as this large part of the community disintegrated. Our ability to help was hindered by the sheer size of the problem for so many people. Once the dust settled we helped the few who were left behind with money for tempos, mosquito netting, rations and flashlights.

They will adjust as they always do in a way that those who have never lived in poverty can never understand. Those who’ve been relocated to Mahul, or the edge of the earth as they see it, struggle with surroundings that seem purpose built to halt community engagement. Women and children line up at water trucks or wells taking turns filling buckets. This wasn’t the time to make new friends — water had to be hauled up as far as the eighth floor. This government initiative has failed on so many levels. No one here is happy and soon many will be suffering from respiratory issues because of the critical levels of pollution. Many parents travel into Mumbai to keep the job they have adding up to four hours a day for travel to their 14 hour work days. The children wander the corridors peering into filthy unoccupied rooms and play near empty elevator shafts while keeping younger siblings safe. Their parents try to organise their few belongings and pay money to have security bars installed on windows that don’t lock. No one engages here. These buildings are human warehouses. Those who have moved to slum communities nearby have had their rents and deposits double overnight.

Shushila and her family are happy to have a room in an unfinished building without electricity or running water. The blue barrel holds water for their daily needs. Candles light the room at night.

The families have huge reserves of stoicism, they seem to understand that their lives are complicated and life can be unbearably unfair, but few wallow in their bad luck. Some parents have set up small shops on tarps outside their building in Mahul selling combs, plastic buckets, tobacco and food items. They make a few rupees a day. The game of life for the poor here is played out with forever shifting ground rules despite the fact that they make up almost half of the population of Mumbai. They are the ones who pull handcarts with heavy loads, serve as nannies, clean apartments, remove waste, recycle mounds of garbage, drive rickshaws and ferry businessmen and women to their meetings, sweating for the rest of the population, all for a few rupees a day. Their struggle continues.

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