Stung by Congress’s rout in Mumbai’s Lok Sabha constituencies that are dominated by slums, the Prithviraj Chavan-led government in Maharashtra has made a final and desperate attempt to woo the slum dwellers, considered to be a loyal votebank of the party for decades, ahead of the October 15 Assembly elections.
Just three days before the model code of conduct came into force, the Congress-NCP government issued a notification declaring its intent to undertake in-situ rehabilitation or on-site rehabilitation of the 90,000-odd families settled on the fringes of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
The rehabilitation of the slum dwellers in the flats, now proposed to be built on the airport land, has been a long-standing demand of the residents, whose stiff opposition to being moved elsewhere has until now stymied all plans to free up the 276 acres they occupy within the severely space-constrained airport.
Curiously, the sudden declaration of the on-site rehabilitation flies in the face of the state government’s and the GVK-controlled Mumbai International Airport Ltd’s (MIAL) contentions until now that this would be untenable and that the land occupied by the shanties was critical for aeronautical and non-aeronautical uses for India’s busiest airport.
But Naseem Khan, the guardian minister for Mumbai’s suburbs and the local MLA, says the party had always been pushing for in-situ rehabilitation. “We have been demanding this since a long time but the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the private airport operator did not want this. They wanted the land to be left vacant so that they can themselves develop it,” Khan told Newsline.
The notification, dated September 9, said the Union civil aviation ministry had written to the state government in July informing that the AAI had given an in-principle approval for on-site rehabilitation.
Separately, the urban development department of the state government issued another notification the same day allowing additional Floor Space Index (FSI) for commercial buildings such as starred-category residential hotels and convention centres within the airport land. Once the decision is finalised, such buildings will be entitled to an additional FSI of 1 over and above the maximum FSI of 4 for an individual plot. The notification said that the MIAL had made a request for the same. An MIAL spokesperson declined to comment when asked if this additional FSI would make up for the loss of land to the rehabilitation of slums on airport land.
Ashish Shelar, president of BJP’s city unit, said the move was a “desperate attempt to woo their voters” just ahead of the Assembly polls. “Not only that, favour is being done to the developers. We are fine with the decision of having in-situ rehabilitation considering this was a long-pending demand, but when our government comes to power we will review the decision of granting additional FSI,” he said.
A poll stunt, lollipop? Residents ask
Slums across Mumbai constitute over 40 per cent of the city’s population as per the 2011 census. They have been the bulwark of the Congress’s vote in the city. The defeat of Congress MPs like Priya Dutt and Eknath Gaikwad in the last Lok Sabha elections to first-timers was a indication that for the first time in decades, the slum dwellers of Bandra East, Kalina, Kurla, Chandivali and Dharavi had turned their back on the party.
These seats, Mumbai (North Central) and Mumbai (South Central), were the safest Congress seats, held by Gaikwad for multiple terms and by Sunil Dutt before daughter Priya. They were ceded to the Shiv Sena-BJP combine by a comprehensive margin.
Activists in Mumbai’s slums say this constituency is now no longer a reliable Congress stronghold for several reasons.
After years of hand-wringing, the Congress-NCP in 2011 proposed to circumvent legal hurdles and push through the extension of “cut-off date” to give protection to all slums built until 2000, up from the previous cut-off date of 1995. But that was delayed too — a very large percentage of slumdwellers, including nearly half of the airport’s shanties, were living in pre-2000 structures that they had purchased after that cut-off date of January 1, 2000. A “transfer fee” policy was then designed for such residents but the delay meant slumdwellers simply lost faith. Meanwhile, the appeal for the 2000 cut-off date, a very attractive poll promise in the 2004 general elections, lost its sheen as 2014 approached. The cut-off extension was finally executed weeks before the general elections, but it was too late.
“Slowly, the slum dwellers became aware of the fact that sops announced for them time and again are just election gimmicks. They have realised that they need to assert themselves and voting is largely based on issues such as price rise and corruption,” said Jockin Arputham, Magsaysay awardee and founder of Society for the Promotion of Area Research Centres, a non-governmental organisation focusing on housing and infrastructure issues for the urban poor.
The gradual change in the demographics of Mumbai’s slums has meant that the old staple of a free house in buildings that have no amenities worth the mention does not any longer cut ice. As for the Congress’s new promise, residents are suspicious after years of failed assurances.
Nicholas Almeida, a resident of Sahar village and a local activist, said he is still hesitant to believe the government on its decision of on-site rehabilitation for airport slum dwellers. “It is certainly an election stunt. This is just giving a lollipop to people. If they had to work out in-situ rehabilitation, they could have done it a long time ago. Even before the previous elections in 2009, two former Congress chief ministers had visited our area and promised to work towards rehabilitating the residents within a 3-km radius of their original homes, but nothing happened,” Almeida said.