In tempos, several families are moving from Malad to Mahul everyday since a week. After reaching there, carrying their belongings themselves, they make the back-breaking climb on the staircase, six to seven floors, to their new homes. Almost two months after a reservoir wall in Malad collapsed under heavy rain flooding Kurar village and destroying over 100 households, 86 families, after initial resistance, have resigned to a life 30 km away, in Mahul.
Many have started shifting, even as few steadfastly oppose Mahul. The Mahul site remains contentious with the Bombay High Court observing that the area is unfit for human habitation due to its close proximity with two oil refineries and 15 chemical factories. There is no buffer zone between the industrial and residential area.
“We had no choice. Government officials said if we don’t take the keys for Mahul flats, we may not get any other rehabilitation. For how long can my family live on the streets,” asked Kamlesh Vishwakarma, whose home was wiped out in the tragedy on July 2. Vishwakarma, who works at a furniture unit in Malad, plans to take a bus from Mahul to Kurla, then a train via Dadar to reach Malad. It will take two hours and cost Rs 80 everyday. His daily wage is Rs 450.
The rehabilitation to Mahul has split his family. Vishwakarma’s three children will live at a relative’s house in Malad to attend school. Daughter Sudha has entered twelfth class, and the Mahul BMC school has classes till eighth. “I can’t travel daily to Malad,” she says. On July 2, hundreds of shanties in Pimpri Pada and Ambedkar Nagar in Malad were destroyed after the boundary wall of BMC’s Malad Hill reservoir collapsed around midnight letting lose the rainwater collected behind it after hours of heavy rain in the city.
The incident killed 31 and injured over a 100. While initial government estimates stated that 117 huts were destroyed, the forest department now says 97 families lost their homes. The BMC offered the forest department Mahul as an alternative to rehabilitate these families. For the last two months, Malad residents have been demanding rehabilitation closer to the place. While a site was available in Appapada, no progress was made to provide rehabilitation there.
“My family lived under a makeshift plastic shelter for the last two months. There was pressure from everywhere to accept the keys for Mahul,” says bangle-seller Pushpa Maurya (57). In the one-room flat in Mahul, she and husband Balendra have spread a mat, in one corner lie a pile of donated clothes. The personal bathroom, the couple says, is the only benefit of shifting. Balendra borrowed Rs 2,000 for shifting from his employer. “I can’t quit my job, I’ll continue travelling to Malad until I repay him the amount. Then I’ll start looking for work here,” he said.
When contacted, Malad ward officer Sanjog Kabare said, “Only Mahul was available for alternative housing. Therefore, we provided that site.” When asked about a National Green Tribunal direction of 2015 that found Mahul was not fit for human habitation, Kabare said he cannot comment. A forest official maintained that while Malad residents initially wrote to the department that they did not want to shift to Mahul, several families later agreed to shift and gave a written consent.
“This is temporary accommodation, we will be relocating these families in SRA buildings. But no time-frame has been decided for that,” the officer claimed.
The Malad residents have been shifted to building number 10 and 31 in Mahul’s 72 buildings constructed by the Slum Redevelopment Authority. Lifts are dysfunctional in both buildings. “When we moved here four days ago, the flats were dirty, the corridors were full of garbage. All of us have been cleaning everyday,” says Sarita Gogawane, who shifted with a family of four. In the mornings, she adds, a pungent smell wafts in from nearby factories.
When she moved in, local residents told her the pollution makes breathing difficult.
According to Bilal Khan, from NGO Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao, the government does not seem keen to provide alternative housing. “In our meeting with the civic commissioner he said housing close to Malad can be provided. But nothing happened after that,” Khan said.