From a footpath in Vidyavihar, Kantabai Shinde (50) points to a “jamun ka ped” (jamun tree) across the road where an excavator is busy levelling soil for a jogging track. “I used to live there”.
On May 13, 2017, she vacated her hutment near the Tansa pipeline when Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) workers demolished the slums. She stayed put, along with over 1,000 families, on the footpath. A month later under harsh rains, her resolve broke. She moved to Mahul where the government had allotted her a 125-sq.ft. flat. The flat was larger, tiled, nothing like her previous hut. But 11 months later she was back on the footpath.
“It is better to live without shelter than to die there,” she says. Her younger daughter was diagnosed with lung cancer months after moving into the Mahul flat. She died on August 28, 2018, despite treatment in Sion hospital and Tata Memorial hospital. Kantabai’s grandson Kartik developed spinal tuberculosis around the same time. He lies on the cobbled pavement. Kantabai herself developed a skin infection. “This is because of the air and water of Mahul,” she says.
Homeless but healthier since she left Mahul, Kantabai has joined 800 Mahul residents, all rehabilitated from across Mumbai because of the Tansa pipeline, who are on an indefinite protest since October 28 to demand better housing. The protest completed 85 days on Sunday.
Mahul, situated towards east of Mumbai, is an industrial unit with 15 chemical factories, including two oil refineries. The entire area has no buffer zone between the chemical units and residential quarters constructed for rehabilitated people. From the terrace of these 72 buildings, the sky, in fact, is filled with fumes from the petroleum refinery situated right across. “I hope one day the government gives us a safe house, not for me but for my grandson,” Kantabai says. A gas stove, a blue plastic bag with a few clothes and utensils are her only belongings, now kept on the open footpath. For others, Mahul took away not just safe shelter, but also access to education and employment.
In 2006, NGO Janhit Manch filed a PIL demanding demolition of encroached slums alongside the pipeline, citing water theft, frequent leakages and even a possible threat of terror attack through the wide British-era pipeline. Following the PIL, the HC directed the BMC to demolish the slums and provide alternate housing to legal residents. The Tansa pipeline runs from the Tansa reservoir for over 150 km and ends in South Mumbai. The BMC has planned a jogging and cycling track along the century-old pipeline at a budget of Rs 300 crore.
As she sees the work on the jogging track on land where she once lived, Jannobai More fumes. Her grandson Sahil (11) contracted pulmonary TB six months after moving to Mahul. “He would cough, get fever. Twice he underwent surgery to remove water from chest. Eventually a doctor in Rajawadi hospital told us to leave Mahul.”
It was an overnight decision. In April 2017, Jannobai packed essentials and the family left Mahul. She now lives on the footpath opposite Kantabai.
For Jannobai (65), the rehabilitation broke her family. Her elder son shifted to Pune, younger one moved to live with his sister in Kamraj Nagar to look after Sahil, and she herself started living on the footpath. “My third son’s wife moved to Malad. She will return once we have a house. See how development for Mumbai left us homeless.”
Several children dropped out of school after their rehabilitation in Mahul. Rashmi Pandit (18) aspired to be a doctor, but dropped out of Class 12 last year. In room 129, building 28, the Pandits have been living since two years after they were moved out of Sakinaka near the pipeline.
Rashmi would wake up at 5.30 am to reach her college in Sakinaka at 7 am, spending Rs 200 on travel every day. “I developed a skin infection because of the water. We spent Rs 5,000 on treatment but there was no relief. Then there was the additional cost of travel.”
Her father is a driver. She decided to drop out of education. Now she walks 45 minutes from Mahul to a private primary school to teach.
An auto ride to Ghatkopar costs Rs 120, to Kurla Rs 100. Only one bus runs from Mahul to Ghatkopar with poor frequency, and few buses to Kurla.
The Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) has 72 buildings housing 5,500 families in Mahul. There is only one BMC school and one BMC clinic. When The Indian Express visited the clinic on January 16, it was shut.
In the school, 350 students are enrolled. “When I first started teaching here, I would feel breathless. Now I am used to the air,” said teacher Rashmi Gilbile. Gilbile added that students from MHADA’s rehabilitation area often take leave due to illness or travel.
In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) observed that “there is perceptible threat to the health of residents of Mahul and Ambapada due to prevailing air quality in the area”. The NGT based its judgment on a KEM hospital report (2014) that noted that symptoms of adverse health impact on local residents was similar to luene diisocyanate exposure. The report also recorded the high respiratory illnesses in the area. A 2014 Maharashtra Pollution Control Board report observed toluene levels at 41 mg per meter cubic in Mahul, much higher than safe levels.
The report found that 67.1 per cent of Mahul’s population had breathlessness, 86.6 per cent had eye irritation and 84.5 per cent had choking sensation in chest.
When the BMC allocated a base camp near the Deonar dumping ground for the National Disaster Relief Force in 2015, the latter had rejected the proposal for long-term stay citing hazardous gases. “Mahul is much worse. But we have been dumped in Mahul despite our strong opposition,” alleges Anita Dhole, who is leading the protest.
She claims on December 28, 2016, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Housing Minister Prakash Mehta had reassured the slum-dwellers that they will not be resettled in Mahul. Nearly 400 families were given keys for Kurla settlement. “In May 2017 when demolition happened, we were handed over keys of Mahul,” she alleged.
In the last 86 days since the indefinite protest began, MHADA has provided 300 more flats in Borivali to Mahul residents. “But 5,200 families still remain,” says Bilal Khan, from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. There are 1,200 families from Vidyavihar, 1,000 from Andheri, 450 from Bandra and the rest from Ghatkopar, Kurla and Powai.