The residents of Sion-Koliwada have waged a long battle against builders usurping their land under the guise of ‘slum’ redevelopment. But does anyone care about their fate?
Text by Priyamvada Jagia
Cover Photo by Javed Iqbal*
“Why should I tell you anything, what will you do for us?” These are the first words flung at me by an old Koli woman in Sion-Koliwada. As I ask more questions about the recurrent demolitions in the area and the purported land grab by aggressive builders, I realize that the harshness in her tone is not entirely misplaced. It possibly stems from feeling repeatedly abandoned by those who came before to question and investigate. The Sion-Koliwada story is complicated and long. Behind the grave mush of its details lies bare the protracted struggle of the indigenous Koli community of Sion to protect the land that has been inhabited by them since 1939.
When the Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) came into being in 1995, private players got a big role to play in slum redevelopment. The Act, which was initiated to rehabilitate the slum dwellers living in adverse conditions, gave developers easy access to the land occupied by slum dwellers in various parts of Mumbai. The slum dwellers were to be shifted into vertical housing built on the same land as their slums but with better living conditions. The people of Sion-Koliwada allege that since their land is part of an original fishing village (Koliwada) of Mumbai, it does not fall under the purview and conditions of the SRA. Their contention is simple: we are not a ‘slum’. Unfortunately, private developers choose to interpret the law differently – reminding us of the arbitrariness of the definition of a slum given by the government.
Resident Prathamesh Shivkar, a student and an active participant of the protests in the area says that builder Sudhakar Shetty of Sahana Developers (who also owns the TV news channel Jai Maharashtra), who is interested in acquiring redevelopment rights for the land in the area, offered his community one-room apartments, in buildings. These buildings would be built on land that would be acquired after demolishing the existing chawls in which they live. As the SRA allows builders to make a profit out of the remaining, undeveloped land, Shetty would also get similar benefits in the open commercial market. In fact, activists feel that this is just one more attempt in the city to gentrify a poor neighbourhood by building over-priced housing units for the middle-class and marginalizing the original residents.
The people of Sion-Koliwada allege that since their land is part of an original fishing village (Koliwada) of Mumbai, it does not fall under the purview and conditions of the SRA. Their contention is simple: we are not a ‘slum’. Unfortunately, private developers choose to interpret the law differently – reminding us of the arbitrariness of the definition of a slum given by the government.
The residents of the Koliwada rejected the proposition for newly built homes at once. An elderly lady outside a temple in the area said, “The developer has been trying to fool us. We do not like the project and what is being offered to us in exchange. It is a trap.” She refused to be named.
An important condition under the SRA is for the builder to get the consent of 70% of the residents of the slum – a condition that deterred Shetty to acquire land in 1995. Prathamesh continues, “He failed then but he came back in 2006.” Despite people’s disagreement, the builder managed to get possession of the land. “This time he gained the consent of 70% of the people by forging signatures of residents or by threatening weak families. This was evident when the builder was discovered to have documents with the signature of Eknath Koli, who had died many years before,” says Mahesh, another resident. “Some people were forced to sign but when they demanded to read the agreement, they were denied that access,” adds Prathamesh.
These kinds of tactics of forgery are a common practice in various SRA projects across Mumbai but this community was not powerless and was not ready to throw away their livelihood into uncertainty and darkness. Soon members of the community filed an RTI case against the builder.
Once the matter was in the court, the developer was ordered not to proceed with the project. But shockingly on May 29th 2012, the developer entered the premises with bulldozers and brought down a number of houses. In defiance, local people then attempted to rebuild one of the houses. “We then sat for the next two days outside our homes in a peaceful protest until 31st May when a police force interrupted our protest,” says Mahesh. The rebuilt house was demolished and 25 residents, mostly Koli women, were arrested for 14 days under various false charges.
“When the protests started being organized under the leadership of prominent activists like Medha Patkar, this struggle received full media coverage. After Medha Patkar’s meeting with the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan, he ordered a stay on demolition drives on six rehabilitation projects across the city where residents like us had alleged fraud and forgery by the builders,” says Prathamesh.
But even after the intervention, the construction of buildings by Shetty has continued as have attempts to demolish more houses. Police harassment has also continued. The police patrols the area almost every day, restricts media organizations or any other activists from speaking to the residents. Local municipality officials hardly pay any attention to their pleas. No wonder then the people of Sion-Koliwada feel besieged and now trust few outsiders. Foolji Saroj, a paan-shop owner in the locality says, “The developer is breaking houses despite the stay order on the demolitions by the court. This is because the developer is a powerful man. He has probably bribed higher-ups involved and keeps getting the case extended or delayed.”
The rebuilt house was demolished and 25 residents, mostly Koli women, were arrested for 14 days under various false charges.
Presently, the Koliwada youth are fighting the battle through a legal process. They have formed the Shiv Koliwada Welfare Adivasi Association, which handles the legal documentation and paperwork of the case. They have started a web portal (flashnews.net.in) to gather support for their cause. With many media schools and channels documenting their struggle for interests of their own, this community decided to make a short video about their struggle. This allowed them to represent themselves not as powerless victims but as strong survivors who are protagonists in their own story.
Mumbai’s rapid surge towards unchecked development and urbanization has put the homes and livelihoods of the city’s oldest inhabitants at stake. Loopholes in the SRA, unaccountability on the part of the government and its distaste in even listening to its marginalized residents has created fissures not just in Sion-Koliwada but across the city. Unless, Mumbai hears the voices of its poor, marginalized and dispossessed citizens and recognizes their right to their homes, it cannot become the great city it so desires to become.
* Noted photographer Javed Iqbal, much of whose work has focused on the poor and the marginalized, took this photograph in mid-2012 when the residents of Sion-Koliwada faced severe police brutality for opposing the redevelopment project.
Map by Vishal Langthasa