As Mumbai looks to redevelop its eastern docklands, the more than one lakh slum dwellers living on land owned by the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) are being left behind. In the last couple of months, it has become clear that these communities have been entirely left out of the city’s 2014-34 draft development plan, as if they never existed. Not surprisingly, the MbPT started demolition drives against these slums earlier this year, breaking down homes in Powder Bandar and Kaula Bandar.
These demolitions contradict the government’s own recommendations. The December 2014 report of a panel on dockland redevelopment proposed comprehensive rehabilitation of all slum residents. This is a reasonable plan. But MbPT officials are trying to renege on this recommendation by dismissing these slum dwellers as “encroachers”, painting a picture of opportunistic migrants who just recently set up shanties to freeload benefits off of Mumbai’s law-abiding citizens.
This is untrue. Since 2009, Pukar, a Mumbai-based research collective, has been conducting public health research and education in Kaula Bandar, a slum of more than 14,000 people on MbPT land. Far from being recent in origin, the nucleus of this community migrated from Tamil Nadu three to four generations ago, after being recruited to work on Mumbai’s then-burgeoning port. Some continue to work for the MbPT informally. Many others work for the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) as drain cleaners, sewer workers or garbage collectors. These slum dwellers thus face the tragic possibility of being evicted by the very government entities that employ them.
The residents of Kaula Bandar and other MbPT slums have provided crucial contributions to the city despite being systematically denied access to nearly all civic amenities for decades. Formal water and sanitation infrastructure has never been built. Kaula Bandar residents pay about 50 to 200 times the price of water paid by more affluent city residents. There are fewer than 19 functional toilet seats for the entire population. The city stopped providing new electrical connections in the early 2000s; as a result, many residents are forced to tap into the electricity supplies of the minority of households that already have meters.
Not surprisingly, this government neglect has taken a serious toll on the community’s health. We published a study comparing Kaula Bandar’s health statistics to a representative sample of other slums in Mumbai captured in India’s 2005-06 National Family Health Survey. The statistics are sobering. An infant born in Kaula Bandar is more than twice as likely to die as those born in other slums in the city. Forty-six per cent of children in Kaula Bandar are moderately or severely underweight, as compared to 36 per cent in other Mumbai slums. Men in Kaula Bandar are substantially more likely to be underweight, and women are less likely to give birth in healthcare facilities. The rates of illiteracy are twice and three times as high among men and women respectively, partly because of barriers to creating municipal schools on MbPT land. And these dramatic disparities are evident when comparing Kaula Bandar to other slums in Mumbai, much less to the city’s formally housed population.
What does the city of Mumbai and the MbPT owe to the people of Kaula Bandar and other MbPT slums? We believe that the fate of these slums, some of the most severely marginalised in Mumbai, is central to the city’s moral identity. The MCGM and MbPT should implement the recommendations of their own December 2014 report and comprehensively rehabilitate all slum dwellers on MbPT land. Also, these communities should be included in the final plan. After decades of filling Mumbai’s most unwanted jobs while being starved of nearly all civic resources, slum dwellers on MbPT land have suffered enough.
The writer, a research advisor at Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research (Pukar), Mumbai, is associate physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and research fellow at Harvard Medical School, Boston.