Last week was tense in the Muslim-dominated Morarji Chowk in old Bapunagar area, where the Gujarat Housing Board (GHB) has planned to come up with an affordable housing scheme on an open piece of land, used by the residents as a playground and venue for social and religious functions since 1950s. The residents have protested the move and accused the government of playing mischief.
The GHB, on the other hand, maintained that categorisation of the land as playground was a “mistake”, which has been corrected. This was the second attempt by the board to use the land for housing scheme. In 1989, residents of the area had moved the Gujarat High Court where the board declared that it was not coming up with any construction on the plot, and the petition was disposed of.
Recently, when the GHB started construction on the plot, despite a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the scheme pending in High Court, the residents protested the move. Dozens of policemen from Rakhial police station were deployed there.
A fresh petition was filed in the High Court and a vacation bench last week ordered stay on construction activities till June 6, before the matter goes to a division bench post summer vacation.
According to the GHB, the piece of land, spread over 10,000 sqm, was never categorised as playground. In response to the PIL, the GHB filed two affidavits in the High Court through its executive engineer Maulik Kanubhai Katariya, justifying the proposed scheme. In the first affidavit, dated August 17, 2015, the board said the “land was never reserved to be kept as open land/play ground”.
The board filed an additional affidavit in March 2016 wherein it stated, “…in the internal planning of respondent no-2 (GHB), the said land reflected as a playground and by mistake the said nomenclature is reflected in the development plan, which mistake is required to be corrected with the immediate effect.”
The additional affidavit also disclosed that “…the fact has been accepted by the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority and necessary resolution to that effect has been passed by the competent authority under the powers granted to it to rectify bona fide mistake…”
Documents annexed with the affidavit revealed that a letter was written by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to section officer, Urban Development and Urban Housing Development Department, Gandhinagar, to remove the disputed land from the category of “PG (playground)”. The letter mentioned that the land, which is owned by the GHB, has been kept in “PG” by mistake.
This letter was dated at least a month before the GHB filed its first affidavit, claiming the “land was never reserved to be kept as open land/play ground”. The GHB in the affidavits have alleged that many residents have encroached upon the land and illegally constructed their houses, including petitioner Mohammed Ahesan Faruq Shaikh, against whom a showcause notice has been issued.
On the allegation of snatching away the land kept as a common plot, the affidavit stated, “the common plot was provided to the housing schemes in Bapunagar area as well, but unfortunately the residents encroached upon the common plots by carrying extra and unauthorized constructions and thereby increasing their residential area by constructing additional rooms, kitchens, toilet etc.”
The affidavit further alleged, “A mosque has also been constructed on the common plot which has resulted in shortage of open space.”
Locals, however, disputed the housing board’s claims. “The government is doing it purposely. I have played, prayed and celebrated festivals on this very ground since my childhood. This is the only open space left in the locality and that’s the reason we didn’t allow even the victims of the 2002 riots to settle on this land,” said 69-year-old Moin B Pathan, whose house is located beside the disputed land.
“This is against minority,” claimed one Sajidbhai. Another resident Naushad Shaikh, who is also a lawyer, said: “There are similar open pieces of land in Hindu localities also which are not being touched by the authorities.” When contacted, housing commissioner (GHB) Ashwani Kumar said that he can not talk on the issue as the matter was sub judice.
In 1954, the Bombay Housing Board, in undivided Maharashtra, had constructed a total of 5,008 tenements in the localities where Hindus and Muslims occupied the houses. The GHB map made in 1954 does show similar open land in Hindu localities which, the residents said, have not been touched by the authorities. After a major riot in 1969, segregation started in the neighbourhood, and by the 2002 post-Godhra riots, almost all Muslims shifted to Morarji Chowk, named after former prime minister Morarji Desai. Eventually, Morarji Chowk today stands as a Muslim ghetto.