When Rawel Singh Khosla became a refugee in 1947, he left behind 13 acres of family land in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, fled to India and eventually settled in a 230-square-foot room in a chawl in Mumbai’s Sion Koliwada refugee camp. Now, nearly 60 years since it was built, the chawl – as blocks of tenements are known in Mumbai – is on the verge of collapse. Cracks run through the four-storey structure, chunks of cement have fallen from walls and ceilings, rusted iron beams rot further in the monsoon and plants have taken root in almost every crevice.
Mumbai’s municipal corporation has declared the building, and 20 others like it, dangerous and unfit to live in and ordered the flat owners to vacate their homes by October 31.
But even as his home threatens to crumble around him, 87-year-old Khosla has refused to move out. “Where will we go if the government does not give us another place to stay?” asked the retired taxi driver, who lives with his son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. “We do not want to become refugees again.”
Khosla’s sentiments are a common refrain among residents of the area, called Punjabi Refugee Colony, where 1,008 families living in the 21 buildings have been ordered to evacuate their homes. The Bombay High Court, hearing a petition filed by them against the municipal corporation, asked the residents to submit an undertaking confirming that they will move out.
This has left the nearly 10,000 residents in a quandary. While they are keen to have their buildings redeveloped, many claim they do not have the means to live on rent elsewhere. Many also have shops in the same buildings, and leaving would put their livelihoods at risk. Neither the Maharashtra government nor the municipal corporation have offered the residents transit accommodation or compensation. The state has also not announced a plan or policy to redevelop the buildings once they are vacated and demolished.
“How do we know if the government will give us our property back once we leave?” asked Jaspal Singh Banga, a businessman who lives with his ailing mother in one of the buildings. “How can they force us to just evacuate?”
A story of neglect
Refugee Colony’s descent into dilapidation is a result of extreme neglect, on the part of both residents and the government.
The settlement started growing a few months before Partition in August 1947, when Sikhs, Hindus and Sindhis fleeing communal violence in what is now Pakistan started arriving in Mumbai. Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus – most of them from Peshawar and Hazara – set up tents in and around old military barracks in Sion Koliwada.
In the 1950s, the state government started constructing chawl-like four-storey buildings in the camp, offering flats to refugee families for sale. Twenty-five buildings were erected on the land, and 1,200 families bought flats in them for Rs 5,830 each. The rate was based on the compensation payable to refugees under the Displaced Persons (Compensation and Rehabilitation) Act, 1954. While the flats are owned by individual families, the land on which they stand initially belonged to the Indian president and is now owned by the Maharashtra government.
In the early years, large refugee families lived with limited means in one-room flats, sharing common toilets with other neighbours on the floor. Most first-generation refugees were illiterate or semi-literate, and many of them took up driving taxis. Some set up automobile repair shops and other small businesses on the ground floors. The area soon came to be known as “mini-Punjab”, and was renamed Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar in the 1970s.
Over the years, as families expanded, residents accommodated new members by building illegal extensions to their flats. On the ground floors, extensions were made by breaking a wall and claiming a patch of the footpath or the building compound. On the higher floors, extended rooms jut out dangerously from the building facade, sometimes supported by iron pillars. Those who could afford it built indoor toilets. The extensions undoubtedly weakened the structure of the buildings, but in all these years, none of them have ever been thoroughly repaired.
Since 1998, the municipal corporation has repeatedly declared the buildings to be dilapidated and dangerous. While some residents blame the government for failing to repair the structures, others acknowledge that as flat owners, they are themselves to blame.
“We accept that our buildings were never properly maintained,” said Bunty Sehgal, a travel agent whose home and shop are both in Building Number 4. “Our grandfathers and fathers were not well educated and they did not set up housing societies to look after maintenance and repairs.”
Where is the policy?
Housing societies were formed in most of the buildings more recently, by third-generation residents who claim they have been in talks with builders for 12 years in the hope of getting their buildings redeveloped. “At least 22 builders have come and gone over the years, but they keep backing out because the government has not yet announced a policy for our colony,” said Sehgal.
The policy Sehgal and other residents are waiting for refers to the redevelopment policies the state government’s urban development department makes for various kinds of properties – tenanted, privately-owned, slum or otherwise. Refugee Colony residents are unsure of the kind of redevelopment they are eligible for, and claim private builders have been unable to redevelop their buildings because the state government has not granted them a no-objection certificate. At the same time, they are opposed to the idea of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, the state’s housing board, executing the redevelopment.
“If the state authorities want us to evacuate, they will bring in MHADA to redevelop the buildings. But we do not trust them to do a good job, and we do not want to be forced into transit accommodation far away from this area,” said Ajit Singh Banga, an air conditioner supplier who lives and works out of Building Number 4. “We only want a private builder for redevelopment.”
The housing authority, on its part, claims it has nothing to do with the redevelopment of Refugee Colony. “Those buildings are owned by residents and they are responsible for their maintenance and redevelopment,” said Rakesh Gavit, an executive engineer with the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority. “The state government has not yet made any policy under which MHADA can redevelop those buildings.”
Despite numerous attempts to contact them, officials from the urban development department were not available for comment. Meanwhile, Pankaj Joshi, an urban planner and executive director of the Urban Design Research Institute in Mumbai, said that even if a redevelopment policy has not been detailed for Refugee Colony, the state should provide its residents temporary transit accommodation through the authority, as under any rehabilitation scheme. “MHADA transit housing has been provided to residents of some chawls and the Bhendi Bazar cluster redevelopment project, so why not here?” asked Joshi.
‘This is our pind’
Amid the confusion over Refugee Colony’s status and redevelopment prospects, residents have been expressing their resistance through small protest rallies and emotional rhetoric about the sentimental value of Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar in their lives.
“We call this area the land of the gurus. We call it our pind,” said Ajit Singh Banga, emphasising that as descendants of refugees, they have no home in Indian Punjab. “We call ourselves Maratta Sikh, and our Punjabi is also different, with a lot of Marathi and Hindi words in it.”
Refugee Colony and its surrounding areas have seven gurdwaras, and four temples sacred to Punjabi Hindus. Most prominent among these shrines is the Shri Dasmesh Darbar gurdwara, known for its 24-hour langar or community kitchen. The area is also home to several religious charitable trusts that residents refer to with pride.
“Whenever there is a flood or any kind of calamity in Mumbai, our gurdwaras are the first to respond by providing food and shelter to people,” said Ajit Singh Banga’s brother Satpal Singh Banga. “We are always at the forefront of helping the city, so why is the government treating us like this?”
With the evacuation deadline drawing closer, some residents with the means to rent flats have moved out, to neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Sion Koliwada. But many others are adamant that they will not leave, even as they fear the uncertainty of the next few months.
In June 2017, the city’s civic authority had attempted to cut off electricity and water supply to Refugee Colony in a bid to get residents to move out. “But we resisted and protested and the police ended up lathi-charging us. So many of our women were injured,” said Satpal Singh Banga. The civic body was forced to give up its eviction drive at the time. “We will protest again this time if they try to force us, but we don’t know what is going to happen.”
Mahendra Kumar Thapar, a 74-year-old first-generation refugee, is among those determined to resist all attempts at evacuation unless the government provides alternative accommodation. “If a person has cancer and is asked to get admitted in a hospital, he will be given food, clothes and a bed,” said Thapar, who described Refugee Colony as his holy land. “So if a building is sick and is going to be demolished, why can’t the government provide us with another home?”
All photographs by Aarefa Johari.