Monday, April 22, 2013

Homeless, again and again

There's a petition going around, from 'Shaheena' who could not write her exams recently. Her mother couldn't pay the school fees, because her mother couldn't find a new job after their house was demolished. This was in Bangalore, where a slum was demolished and several thousand people rendered homeless to make way for a new shopping mall. The kids are either in makeshift tents or on the footpath.

There's been another such demolition in Mumbai recently. Some homes in Golibar, Khar (east) were demolished illegally. Illegally, yes. At stake are over a hundred acres of land on prime property (near the domestic airport), and the Golibar slum rehabilitation project. Some private land was reportedly acquired by the builder. But the consent letters, according to the residents of Gurukripa Society, are fraudulent. Signatures were forged; dead people's names were used. And according to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), no objection certificates were not obtained even from the defence ministry or the central excise department. However, the local police did not file an FIR until the court ordered it.

Some residents and activists had asked the Union housing minister Ajay Maken to intervene. Maken wrote to chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, asking that residents not be evicted until the question of permissions and rights was resolved.

But Chavan ensured no such thing. Activist Medha Patkar had been on a hunger strike for nine days before he decided to visit and offer some assurances. But looking at what happened in 2011 and then again in December 2012, it is hard to feel reassured.

After the 2011 demolitions in Golibar, there were reports about a young girl, Tejashree Mistry who scored 93.64% in her Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exam despite having had to study 'surrounded by debris and discord'. I wonder about Tejashree now. Does she live somewhere safe? Is she going to college?

Observers believe that several schoolchildren from Golibar whose homes were demolished are traumatized. Some appeared for their final exams but left their answer sheets blank. I wonder what's going on in their heads. Do they already see the deep fissures in our society and are they already disenchanted?

In Mumbai, slum clearances and rehabilitiations are hotly debated. People who can afford non-slum apartments believe that slum-dwellers do not deserve 'free' housing, for they resell the flats at a profit before moving back into a slum.

The truth is that often, people move back into slums because the 'rehabilitation' buildings are not habitable. They cannot afford the maintaince. There's no water, no elevator. Besides, they have to try and live near their place of work because they can't afford long commutes.

People will migrate for work. Or they might be forced out by famine and war. If they cannot afford to rent a place, they will live on the streets. They will try and get a brick wall instead of a piece of plastic. And none of us has any moral right to tell them to leave.

Housing will remain a prickly issue, until the population stabilizes and every single individual has a house of her/his own. That is a goal worth aspiring to, but meanwhile, we cannot punish those who had very little to start with.

Before there were laws to govern the sale of houses and the separation of land into public and private, all we had was access to the earth. Everybody picked a corner and began to build a life. It is grossly unjust to tell someone that just because she/he was born too late, they have no right to a safe corner of this earth.

First published here

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