Shivaji Nagar is the microcosm of most of the Muslim-dominated localities in Mumbai. The squalid ghetto on Mumbai’s periphery, where over half the population is below the age of 30, has only one BMC-run higher secondary school. And their financial inclusion is limited to two small cooperative banks serving a population of over 6 lakh residents.
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According to a yet-to-be-released survey by NGO Apnalaya, nearly 70 per cent residents of Shivaji Nagar are forced to purchase water from private vendors. Issues like these led to the rise of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Party president Asaduddin Owaisi says these areas have faced institutional discrimination with agencies like the BMC failing to fulfill their responsibilities.
With squalid conditions and crumbling infrastructure, spatial inequality is a visible reality in Muslim-dominated areas of the city. However, unlike Owaisi’s claim of institutional bias, local residents and activists blame the community’s own leadership for the conditions that they live in.
“I am not saying there is no discrimination against Muslims. But if the community’s leaders are incompetent, they will find resistance from officials who will push them back. I would like to ask people who are making these claims to show me projects that were shot down by authorities because they were meant for Muslim localities. If you do not ask for what is rightfully yours, more often than not you will not get them. You need competent leaders who are answerable to the public and know how to ask the administration,” says Samajwadi Party corporator Rais Shaikh.
Many Muslim residents believe the community has lacked leaders who would demand and ensure development work as well as capability building of the community.
Muslims, who have been an urban-centric community, have a substantial presence in Mumbai. With over 25 lakh Muslims in the city, every fifth Mumbaikar is from this minority community.
Nagpada, Byculla, Mazgaon, Mahim, Bharat Nagar, Behrampada, Jogeshwari, Millat Nagar, Kurla, Sonapur-Bhandup, Govandi, Cheeta Camp, and Kidwai Nagar (Wadala East) are areas that have a high concentration of Muslim population.
What sets the Muslims apart from other Mumbai-based communities is the lack of socioeconomic and spatial mobility, particularly after the 1992-93 riots. This over the years has turned these areas into ghettos. These areas are also far more accommodating towards the migrant population, creating dense space-starved neighbourhoods.
There are allegations that the alignments of ward boundaries ensure Muslims do not get proportional representation in the BMC. The community, which makes up 21 per cent of the city’s population, has only 23 corporators, who make up 10 per cent of the BMCs elected representatives. Interestingly, the community plays a key electoral role in close to 50 of the 227 BMC seats.
“There is a massive failure of the community leadership to get development work done. I believe that it is the failure of the community as well, as it has not been able to hold leaders it elects accountable for their work. The community has become so vulnerable fighting existential battles for its day-to-day survival that at times it doesn’t really care if the surrounding it lives in is developed or underdeveloped, clean or unclean,” says Association for Muslim Professionals president Aamir Edressy.
Activists say such segregated development is a reality of the country but also claim that not much seems to be happening from within the community to tackle this behaviour.
“You cannot write off the fact that development is segregated. If that is not the case, why do areas like Govandi, Mumbra, Malvani, Behrampada look different from the rest of Mumbai. It is years of institutional conditioning that has led to this scenario. But people are equally at fault for not pushing the system out of this slumber. There is a helplessness within the community to take on the system and their leaders,” says Dr Azimuddin, convenor of the Federation of Minority NGOs.
Azimuddin admits that the state machinery runs overtime to ensure the existing infrastructure of Muslim areas runs smoothly. However, he adds, nothing is done to improve the plight of localities and ensure their gentrification.
“The maintenance of existing infrastructure takes place in a proper way. However, very rarely do you have new development work started in Muslim areas. This is evident in the fact that you will hardly see gentrification of Muslim-dominated areas, unlike other parts of Mumbai,” says Azimuddin.
Many activists also feel there is a degree of truth in Asaduddin Owaisi’s claims. They believe even vocal and active leaders can fail to help the community in the face of institutional bias.
“For a long time, parts of Jogeshwari East, which had Muslim majority, did not have access to an ATM. Even politically aware communities or active vocal leader at times can find it very difficult to bring about change. It ultimately boils down to who is ruling the BMC. Years of conditioning have strengthened institutional bias,” says Dr Rama Shyam, social scientist and activist from Jogeshwari.
Activists claim the community needs to do its bit too to bring about change.
“You feel good and relieved when someone tells you that your plight is what it is because someone is not doing enough for you. It is a form of psychological projection where we deny our problems by attributing them to others, which in this case is the state. This is a mindset that we need to get out of,” says Kalim Shaikh, a resident of Nagpada where Asaduddin Owaisi gave his speech earlier this week.
Community watchers say Muslims lack capability building capacity to take advantage of emerging situations.
“What we need today is leadership which will foster capability building within the community to ensure that you have the ability to take advantage of opportunities. Why can’t a student who does not have access to education in Kurla travel till Byculla to get educated. We also need the willingness to engage and negotiate with the powers that be. Only when this happens will the condition of the community change,” says Dr Abdul Shaban, chairperson of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Centre for Public Policy, Habitat and Human Development.