citizen activism

Assaults, false cases: Mumbai RTI activist's murder highlights dangers faced by civic crusaders

Bhupendra Vira, who battled illegal constructions, was shot dead in his home last week.

In the past six years, Bhupendra Vira filed more than 3,000 applications under the Right to Information Act regarding encroachments and illegal construction in his neighbourhood in Kalina, Mumbai. On the night of October 15, the 61-year-old’s activism was brought to an abrupt halt when he was shot dead by an intruder at home.

Two days later, on Monday, the Mumbai Police arrested Razzaq Khan, a former corporator, and his son Amjad Khan for the activist’s murder. The Khans were the biggest targets of Vira’s RTI inquiries. They had allegedly taken hold of the activist’s godown illegally and had also been arrested in 2010 for assaulting his son.

Vira’s murder has not come as a surprise to activists like him who routinely use the transparency law and public interest litigation to take on the land, mining and sand mafias. Since the RTI Act came into force in 2005, citizens who have used it have been vulnerable to threats and attacks from those they have targeted. In the first 10 years of the law, at least 39 activists have been killed across the country and another 275 assaulted.

In 2011, the Whistleblowers Protection Act was introduced, and amended in 2015, but it has been criticised as an ineffective paper tiger. Activists in Mumbai, where real estate irregularities are rampant, claimed they have learnt to live with the death threats, intimidation, false cases and assault.

“Expecting police protection is pointless for many of us,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environment activist with Mumbai-based non-profit Vanashakti. “I have found that the police often end up protecting the offenders rather than the activists.”

Saving a mangrove

Harish Pandey did not know Bhupendra Vira, but when he read about the latter’s murder, he could not help but think that it could easily have been him instead.

Pandey’s apartment in Dahisar, Mumbai’s northernmost suburb, is close to a notified mangrove forest. In 2009, when he noticed that nearly 425 acres of the dense forest had been destroyed by bunds, he decided to file an RTI application. Several queries later, he uncovered some dubious dealings. The forest land, originally owned by an old salt manufacturing company, had been handed over to a real estate group, which had obtained questionable approval from city authorities to start building bunds on the land.

“The approval had ostensibly been given for the purpose of cultivating salt, but it came with a rider that the mangroves could not be cut,” said Pandey, a businessman and secretary of the New Link Road Residents’ Forum. “How is that even possible?”

Over the next three years, Pandey and his team at the residents’ group filed numerous complaints with the state’s revenue department to bring the violations on record. The state, in turn, filed police cases against the builder, which Pandey diligently followed in court. As a citizen activist, he had fought illegal construction before, but this time the backlash was intense.

“From 2009 to 2012, I was threatened with dire consequences several times,” he said. “I once got a call from someone who said I would be killed and buried in the mangroves if I did not stop. At one point, the builder’s goons attacked my car. Once, a group of them surrounded my building, came up to my doorstep and threatened my wife and son. My watchman was thrashed. They openly offered me crores to give up the case.”

Pandey went to the police to ask for protection. He said he was called to the police station several times to give his statement, but was never given protection. He feared for his life and that of his family. But he was determined to follow up on his complaints as a matter of integrity, he said. Even when a few members of his team opted out of the fight.

“I had to take some hard decisions," he said. "I sold my car so we could travel untraced, and our movements had to be restricted.”

The real estate group filed a counter case against Pandey and two of his fellow activists, accusing them of attempt to murder and demanding Rs 10 crores in extortion money. “This is the standard modus operandi, implicating activists in false cases,” Pandey said. “In this case, the builder’s allegations were quashed when we moved the High Court.”

Finally, in 2012, Pandey won the fight with a court order to the builder to pay a fine for destroying 425 acres of notified forest land. Since then, Pandey has worked on several other cases of land grab and continues to face threats and bribe offers from affected companies and politicians.

“I am not going to give up, but one precaution I have taken is to make myself debt-free,” said Pandey. “That way, no one can blackmail my family if something happens to me.”

Police involvement 

Like Harish Pandey, Dayanand Stalin – a full-time environment activist fighting to protect mangroves, wetlands and forests in Maharashtra – is no stranger to threats, intimidation and false cases.

“When I enter mining sites, my exit routes are often blocked by the mafia, and I have to use my influence with the residents to help me get out,” said Stalin. “At least on three occasions, I have been charged with trespassing on government or private property. But they have never been able to prove these allegations in a court of law.”

Three years ago, Stalin was leading a campaign to block illegal mining in the Western Ghats in Sindhudurg district. “I had already been threatened by the mining mafia multiple times and on one occasion, when I was supposed to address a village meeting, there was an attempt to kill me,” he said.

Stalin was on his way from Goa to Sindhudurg to attend the meeting when he got a call from well-wishers telling him to stay away because an attack on him had been planned. As his car approached the meeting venue, Stalin said he saw what appeared to be a group of protestors standing outside. “When my friend approached the mob, the goons engulfed him but when they realised it was not me, they began to ask specifically for me,” he said. “It was clear that they were not there just to protest.”

Stalin also claimed there was a clear nexus between various land and mining mafia and the police. He said that on several visits to the Kanjurmarg landfill in Mumbai last year to document garbage dumping violations, police vans had met him within 10 minutes of his arrival. “They would tell me I could not enter the site without permission, but they did not target any other civilian going in,” he said. “And how would they even find out I was there? Clearly the contractor at the dumping ground had a lot of influence with the police.”

Despite Vira’s murder and his lack of faith in the police, Stalin said he was committed to his work. “These dangers are an occupational hazard,” he added.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.