here’s looking at us
Almost half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. However, slums make news in the city’s English press only in specific situations: either when the government discusses slum related policies (in which case the news is on page 1), or when they are demolished (and relegated to the inside pages).
Six years ago, when Mumbai witnessed its biggest ever demolition drive in recent times – 90,000 homes bulldozed between December 2004 and March 2005 – it made front page news. This massive destruction was part of the Manmohan Singh-backed Mumbai-to-Shanghai makeover - Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s dream. Just months before this drive began, the Congress had promised to raise the slum cut-off from 1995 to 2000, where those slum dwellers who could prove they had been living in their houses since 2000 would not be subject to the demolition of their homes. The hope of this guarantee secured many votes for the Congress Party from Mumbai’s slum communities. The demolitions were an obvious betrayal of this promise, but few reports highlighted this.
Right now, slum demolition is big news. Medha Patkar has just broken a nine-day fast sparked off by the demolition of one particular slum in Mumbai. She started her fast in the half-demolished slum colony of Ganesh Krupa Society at Golibar, near the domestic airport, on May 20. However, while Indian Express and Hindustan Times reported this immediately, the Times of India and DNA did so only on May 24. In all four papers, the news was in the inside pages. And when she broke her fast, she made front page news again only in the HT and the DNA.
Medha Patkar is not new to Mumbai’s slums. It was only when she came to the city during the 2004-05 demolitions, and led the dishoused slum-dwellers to protest, that the demolitions stopped. Medha was dragged by the hair while leading protesting slum dwellers outside the Mumbai municipal headquarters, and the protesters were subjected to a lathi charge which left100 injured. It made front page news. This agitation saw the birth of the Ghar Bachao Ghar BanaoAndolan (GBGBA). Since then, the Andolan’s activists have, with the help of the RTI Act, unearthed many such land scams in Mumbai, where builders have benefited from largesse given by the state’s chief ministers, including the Adarsh scam.
The slum where Medha was on fast till yesterday is part of a scam involving Unitech, the same company that features in the 2G spectrum affair. Apart from that, the Golibar case has all the ingredients characteristic of Mumbai’s slum rehabilitation scheme, under which the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) allows private builders to demolish slums, house the slum-dwellers in a few new buildings, and exploit the rest of the slum area for commercial purposes. SR schemes need the consent of 70 % of the slum-dwellers. However, clause 3K of the Slum Areas Act allows the government to direct the SRA to allot slum land to builders without a competitive bidding process, and does away with the 70 % consent condition. The Times of India reported in February this year that between 2008 and 2010, 500 acres in the city had been gifted to just six builders through the 3K clause. Two of these projects have been stayed by the current CM, Prithviraj Chavan. The Golibar slum was the first one in which this clause was used - a full nine years after it was introduced.
There are other problematic issues regarding the redevelopment of the Golibar slum. Through RTI applications, the slum dwellers learned that some of their signatures had been forged to show consent. They also discovered that the buildings meant to rehabilitate them were built on land belonging to the Air Force, and without the requisite NOCs. Alerted by them, the Air Force has filed a case through the Ministry of Defence against Shivalik Ventures, the builders,
for encroaching on their land. The slum dwellers too have filed a writ petition in the High Court asking that the inquiry ordered by the court against this project be expedited.
Despite all this, two rounds of demolitions took place in Golibar in January and February. The February demolition was carried out even though the High Court had ordered the arrest and custodial interrogation of the chief promoters of Shivalik. The arrests never took place. The third round of demolitions took place last week.
The demolitions have been carried out by the Collector armed with a court order in the builders’ favour which set a deadline for eviction providing all necessary conditions were met- according to the slum dwellers, they were not. Moreover, the question remains: can the criminal cases against Shivalik be ignored? Under SRA rules, any developer charged with a criminal offence must be removed from an SRA project.
In January too, like last week, Medha was arrested while protesting the demolitions. Perhaps the Mumbai press sees this issue as passé. On the 7th day of her fast, a chance mention of her failing health to an avid newspaper reader in the city brought forth the response: ‘Who? Irom Sharmila?’
Contrast this with the treatment given to a stray remark by Jairam Ramesh on the calibre of the IIT and IIM faculty. The day after Ramesh said that the faculty was not world class, the front pages of all newspapers carried reactions by faculty members. The Indian Express even had an edit page rejoinder by an IIT Dean within two days, and on day 3, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal called a press conference to counter Ramesh’s remarks. Obviously, for both the press and the government, IITs and IIMs make big news.
But no Mumbai newspaper has thought fit to do a detailed Q & A with Medha on why she insists on continuing her fast despite negotiations with ministers and officials. Nor has the CM made any announcement on her demands, though his disapproval of the 3K clause is well-known. About 5 lakh aspirants gave the IIT JEE this year, and 1.86 lakh the CAT (for admission to IIMs) last year. Multiply both sums by four and add another 10,000 (faculty and their families) to arrive at an estimate of how many readers would be personally interested in what Ramesh said. Then compare that number with the 6 million people who inhabit Mumbai’s slums.
But they are not the readers of English newspapers.
For two decades now, English newspaper editors have unabashedly said that their space is too valuable to be wasted on those who are not their readers. Slum dwellers are not; but both journalists of English print media and their readers live with them in their homes: our domestic servants live in slums as do our drivers, milkmen, and practically everyone who provides us with the essentials of daily life. It is understandable that we, and our readers, are indifferent to the plight of Golibar’s residents. But can we afford to be so to the plight of Mumbai’s slum dwellers? Golibar represents what could happen to our bai’s (female domestic workers) home.Will she come to work if her home is demolished?
The outcome of Medha’s fast was no less than historic. For the first time, those regarded as unauthorised encroachers on public land, had won through a Gandhian struggle, the right to live in the city they have built, without fear of their homes being torn down. Their trusted representatives would have a say in deciding their future, instead of bureaucrats openly contemptuous of them, working for a builder-controlled government. From a professional’s view point, the Golibar case had all the ingredients of a good story. Imagine the sight of senior bureaucrats wading through a swathe of slum dwellers to reach a fasting Medha Patkar and show her the two new GRs passed on her insistence.
Alas, Mumbai’s readers never got to see that sight, or even read the slum dwellers' description of it. All we got was a stock shot of Medha accepting juice from a slum dweller. Obviously, most newspapers had simply sent their photographers to the site. And only HT carried this pic on Page One, with a small para; the rest of the story was inside. The slum dwellers' victory was top of DNA’s `briefs’, with a story inside. But the Times and Express relegated this historic denouement to the inside pages. The Times’ coverage was as usual, unique. Their reporter described the government’s acceptance of Medha’s demands as a ``blow to the residents of Guru Krupa Society’’, and quoted one of the residents who had opposed the agitation. The report didn’t think fit to clarify that these residents comprised one-fourth of the total, those who had accepted the builders’ compensation and moved out.
And guess what was Indian Express’ anchor? `IIT JEE toppers form Physics Olympiad team.’