Watching snatches of a recent Bollywood film on a small flat-screen television in a 100 sq ft room in Annabhau Sathe Nagar, Govandi, an eastern suburb of Mumbai, is a surreal experience. The volume of the television set is turned “full on”, as the popular term here goes, and competes hard with the rising volume of cuss words and threats that a group of women rain down on a teenager for harassing a girl on her way back home from the municipal school nearby.

The unreal feel comes from the visuals on the screen. The advertisement break showcases a barrage of items people can aspire to buy. Among them is a commercial for luxury bathroom fittings. Jaggu, 18, a school drop-out who does odd jobs when he finds them, grimaced. “Did you see that bathroom,” he asked with a mix of wistfulness and bitterness. “That one bathroom is four times the size of my whole f*%^ house”. The worst cut? Jaggu and his five-member family may not even have this tiny house the next time the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or district collector’s bulldozers come calling.

It is common to be starved of space in Mumbai (except for the few who are fortunate enough to live in a stately bungalow, a luxurious sea-facing apartment or an entire cantilevered 27-storey building). But even by Mumbai’s space-starved standards, slums with their 100 sq ft or 120 sq ft houses are a compromise to human need and dignity.

In the M-East ward, Mumbai’s poorest part, with nearly 78% residents living in utterly neglected slums, even that one-room home cannot be taken for granted. Evictions and demolitions are routine across its many bastis (settlements) and lanes. Seven out of every 10 residents do not have piped water. As for toilets, people spend precious time and money at the community toilet blocks. Three of them died earlier this month when floors of the ill-constructed and ill-maintained toilets caved in.

(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).

“The bastis in M-East are a different world altogether,” said Bilal Khan, social activist with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, a non-profit advocating housing rights. “They are more like the nether-world of the 1970s Bollywood films. There’s drama, action, drugs, crime and free entertainment here but there aren’t houses, jobs, colleges, banks and all those things that you take for granted in the city.”

The M-East ward has 15 seats in the 227-seat Mumbai municipal corporation – the largest number for any ward. The civic body elections are coming up on February 21.

Thriving slum property market

The slums of M-East, in which some of the poorest Mumbaikars live, share little except the pincode with the area’s modest housing colonies for firemen, teachers and other employees of the municipal corporation, and the new high-rise buildings for middle class residents. The slums here house Mumbai’s informal labour and its latest migrants. They are stark evidence of the complete shambles in which the city’s housing sector finds itself and of the sham of affordable housing.

Across the slums, as far as the eye can travel, there are single- or double-storey tenements. A few rise above the squalor with an additional floor or with bright colours. Many were here before the official cut-off year 2000, which makes them legal in the eyes of the state government, though not necessarily more liveable. Swathes of slums have grown over the last 15 years, occupying state government or municipal corporation land, but the authorities resolutely stick to the cut-off year determined by vote-catching politicians. This renders these slums illegal – and open to demolition anytime.

(Photo credit: Venkatraghavan Rajagopalan).

Here in Annabhau Sathe Nagar, Maharashtra Nagar, Indira Nagar, Adarsh Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, Rafiq Nagar, Cheetah Camp and so many other slums, the Union government’s grand slogan of Housing for All by 2022 takes on an unreal quality – like that of the luxury bathroom. How will it come to pass?

“The state government and BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation] are simply not interested in providing secure housing here,” social activist Medha Patkar told this reporter last year. “They won’t give clearances. The only time they show alacrity is when it comes to demolitions. The Right to Housing or Shelter has been recognised as a Fundamental Right under Article 21, so it is the obligation of the government to provide the homeless with a home.”

In fact, the cut-off year that determines whether a slum is legal is itself a mystery to many. There are at least four different limits. The state government pegs it at year 2000, the authorities tasked with the protection of mangroves in the area allow slums established till 2005, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, which are constructing infrastructure projects in Mumbai and have resettled project-affected people in M-East, treat the date of their initial survey at a location as the cut-off date, the collector’s office cites 1995 in its survey slip as the cut-off year.

This lack of clarity allows an illegitimate market in slum protection to thrive. Residents pay up to Rs 3,000 a month to lease that one-room house without amenities. Often, the legality of one’s house in M-East is an administrative whim as the residents of slums near the Deonar landfill discovered last year. In the aftermath of the massive fires that broke out in the landfill and the public clamour for action against the slum residents living nearby for their possible involvement, the local ward office carried out large-scale demolitions.

“The land was reserved for housing in the area plan,” said social activist Bilal Khan. “When we challenged the assistant municipal commissioner, he said, ‘It will take me only a few minutes to change the reservation, so don’t challenge.’ That’s how the poor are gypped of their rights.”

The M-East ward is not yet an attractive place for the powerful, profit-hungry private builders to take up Slum Redevelopment Scheme projects – however flawed they may be – because the land is not as valuable as, say, in the suburb of Andheri.

Livelihood linked to housing

During a local election such as the upcoming municipal corporation poll, the promise of better homes, permanent tenures, and amenities is all over the place.

“We don’t want free homes, we want better homes with proper facilities,” said Meera Kadukar whose family was rehabilitated here eight years ago when their original settlement was cleared to make the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, an arterial road connecting eastern and western Mumbai.

The family found that its standard of living had declined after moving. “We had access to facilities like colleges and gardens there,” said Sheetal, Kadukar’s daughter, ruefully. “Most important, we could find jobs there.”

Sources: Government of Maharashtra, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Tata Institute of Social Sciences​, Apnalaya's Situational Analysis Report, National Alliance of People's Movement, Census Survey of India, Mumbai Police.

In the M-East ward itself, the opportunities for work are few and far between. The institutions, refineries, chemical plants and pharmaceutical units present in the area prefer educated and skilled labour, and more importantly, workers with good references. Often, the addresses of those who live in M-East’s slums, which read Govandi or Cheetah Camp – bywords for wrongdoing and lawbreaking in Mumbai’s collective imagination – disqualify them.

Residents are forced to stay in the informal sector. Many of them work as daily wage labourers in the construction industry, or sell vegetables and fruits in other areas of the city. They are also masons and painters, carpenters and electricians, drivers and automobile garage workers, loaders and electrical repairs men, tailors, teachers and aanganwadi workers, and so on. Work is irregular, their income sporadic.

The average monthly family income is Rs 8,000, barely 40% of Mumbai’s average of Rs 20,000 per month. As with low income areas, indebtedness is high. Slum dwellers borrow from the local moneylender for a host of reasons: to start small businesses, for children’s education, expenditure on healthcare and household bills. “Half of the people in the slums have taken loans and pay interest at the rate of 20% per month even,” said a former corporator. “That’s a shocking 240% per annum, but they have no option. They take small amounts but because of the high interest rates, they become more and more indebted.”

Demonetisation introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 8 presented more challenges. The bastis, which mostly saw small-value transactions, run on small denomination notes, and lived by cash, did not know what to do. “Where are the banks here for people to go and exchange notes?” asked Aftab Ansari, an electrician whose work takes him to the more prosperous suburbs of Mulund and Ghatkopar on Mumbai’s East.

Rampant unemployment

One in every two able-bodied men is unemployed here. The absence of colleges and vocational training institutes nearby mean that skills’ training is not as equitably accessible as it should be. Residents of slums are relatively better off in areas where far-sighted non-governmental organisations run programmes specifically directed towards education and job training. For instance, in Shivaji Nagar, where the well-regarded non-profit Apnalaya runs health centres with emphasis on pregnant women and malnourished children, women’s empowerment and gender justice, education and livelihood programmes.

“There is an unbelievable extent of missing basic services in the M-East ward,” said Arun Kumar, chief executive officer of Apnalaya. “This compels us to engage in various areas to run our programmes or help implementation of government schemes. There’s no doubt that in terms of amenities and services, M-East is the most under-served ward of Mumbai. But the question is whether there’s lack of development or deliberate denial of development [here].”

(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).

In bastis that do not have this level of social sector intervention, the development indices are shockingly poor. Most adult men are jobless, women struggle to keep the kitchen fires going, children are out of school because fees are unaffordable due to the ridiculously low income levels, many illnesses are ignored for the lack of finances and unavailability of even informal loans.

“Even if one of us had regular work, we would have lived a normal life,” said Zubeida, 35, mother of three whose household expenses last month were under Rs 5,000, half of it borrowed. The condition of a municipal school nearby is such that sewage water runs next to classrooms, which get flooded with filth in the monsoon. She does not send her children to school in that season.

Healthcare challenges

The next big problem after jobs is health – or the lack of it. The fact that adequate clean water is not available and community toilet blocks are so heavily shared – sometimes nearly 200 people to a toilet seat – means people go to doctors “complaining of terrible itching and rashes around their genitalia, which is a result of bad hygiene”, said Dr Naseem Ahmed in Rafiq Nagar.

Said Amita Bhide, dean of the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences: “The M-East ward is an entire extended poverty region of Mumbai. There isn’t the space or opportunity for people to say ‘this is my right’ here.”

The institute’s campus is part of M-East ward, and Bhide heads its five-year-old Transforming M-East Ward project.

“There’s no provision for anything like this ward in the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation] law and systems,” said Bhide. “Transforming M-East would mean an overhaul of the BMC’s systems which begin with defining citizenship in Mumbai because citizenship brings rights. Else, people remain outside the system.”

The citizenship question

As things stand, the validity of their citizenship depends on one or two of the most prized documents that every family tries to first generate by whatever means possible and then guards more ferociously than anything else in their fragile lives. These could be the voter ID card or the survey slip issued by the district collector’s office or a licence or receipt issued by the municipal corporation. “Most houses will have a pavti [receipts] or papers bag in locked trunks or something like that,” said Shabnam, a 20-something, tailor, in Sathe Nagar.

Across the slums here, the litany of complaints is similar: there are no playgrounds for children, most of the dadas-babas-sahebs – local strongmen – control every aspect of life, from housing to power and water connections, jobs and political representation. The same set of people provides loans too and residents say they are forced to go to them because there aren’t any banks here.

It is a well-oiled slum economy in which some of the poorest people in Mumbai shell out large proportions of their meagre incomes to live in squalid conditions in homes that are periodically threatened by demolitions, and for civic services that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation cannot or will not provide. It is a perfect setting for crimes to flourish. It is little wonder then that Zone VI of the Mumbai Police, which covers most of the M-East ward, registers the highest number of crimes in a year. And the graph has been rising.

The illicitness in every aspect of life in this area allows illegal immigrants and those running from the law to find shelter here. The periodic police raids “to flush out Bangladeshi migrants” and “sleeper cells of terror organisations” mean that the residents’ relationship with the local police is antagonistic. The presence of large numbers of Muslims who share a mostly inimical relationship with the police adds another layer of brittleness.

“Most young people are into drugs of some sort,” said Moinuddin, 30, a volunteer with a non-profit. “It is a serious question here which goes beyond law and crime but who pays attention?”

Those who control the pipeline of the basic necessities of life in these slums – the mafia networks that supply water and power – also have a finger in the drug distribution network, said local residents. The social factors don’t help either. “There are a number of boys who hang around at places, bullying and molesting girls who pass,” said Ahmed Shaikh, principal of Sakina Sayeed Ahmed English school, near Vashi Naka. “I want to slap them but can’t because they are politically connected.”

(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).

The political clout of this network seems to be common knowledge. “They are ruining our young boys,” said Bilal Khan who has tracked this subject for a couple of years. “The cops know who they are but they don’t take action perhaps because the cops at the lower levels may also be conniving collaborators.”

However, officials at the Govandi police station denied the allegations and explained that the police is doing its best to nab the culprits as and when they have information, but the kingpins of the network elude them.

This, say social scientists who are part of the M-East ward project, is a vicious cycle: marginalisation, non-availability of civic services, joblessness, poverty, and more marginalisation.

“The BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation] has to think and imagine differently for M-East,” said Amita Bhide of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. It’s anybody’s guess if the country’s richest civic body will actually do so.

With additional reporting inputs by Minal Sancheti.

This is the third part of a series on the poorest part of India’s wealthiest city. The first and second can be read here and here.