It was August 21. Swati Jadhav and her three children travelled 30 km in a tempo from Kurar village in Malad East to Mahul, bundled up like luggage, to a new home allotted by the government to them in a high rise. It was a 125 sq ft flat with a bathroom, a toilet, and a dedicated kitchen space — a far cry from the 100 sq ft hut and community toilet that the family shared in a slum settlement.
Swati was thrilled. She arranged their belongings — four utensils, two bedsheets, a mat, and a few items of clothing — and even set up a tiny temple. But, it took all of 10 days for them to return, in another tempo, to Kurar.
“My neighbours ask me why I left a pucca flat in Mahul for this kuchcha house. I tell them I can’t breath there,” she says.
On September 3, hearing a clutch of writ petitions filed by Mahul residents, the Bombay High Court expressed shock over the conditions in which the government had pushed people rehabilitated due to its projects to live. Pulling up the Maharashtra government and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog said the State must treat all its citizens, rich or poor, with dignity. “You cannot let these thousands die. This is not correct,” he said, directing the government to assess the pollution levels in Mahul.
Hugging Mumbai’s eastern front, Mahul used to be a fishing village. Early this century, land was taken over near it to build a housing colony for slumdwellers under the ‘Project Affected People’ scheme, with construction carried out from 2006 to 2010 by a private developer. The initial idea was to house slumdwellers displaced by the BMC’s upgradation of the storm-water disposal system. But over the next decade, 10,000-15,000 families, roughly 60,000 people, were moved to Mahul as part of rehabilitation for various projects. Now the cluster of 72 buildings, seven to eight storeys each, holds an estimated 5,500 families, all in 125 sq ft flats.
Any given day, a cloud of smoke hangs over Mahul, emitted by 15 chemical factories and two oil refineries. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) requires a buffer zone of minimum 800 metres between an industrial unit and a residential area; here, a narrow road stands as a nominal divider. Residents claim that not just the air, the groundwater too is contaminated from the chemicals seeping into it.
MPCB Assistant Secretary Pundlik Mirashe insists, “Air quality levels in Mahul are at a par with the rest of Mumbai. We get factory readings every day.”
The high court based its observations on multiple environmental reports. One such report, by the MPCB in 2014, found the presence of 21 ‘volatile organic compounds (VOCs)’ in the area, among them benzene, styrene, toluene, xylenes, diethylbenzene, trimethylbenzene and dichlorobenzenes. Mainly released by industrial units, VOCs are known to attack the central nervous system, causing irritation in the eyes, nose and throat.
The scariest levels were of toluene in air — 0.169 parts per million, much higher than the threshold of 0.021 ppm. Toluene can affect kidney and liver, and impair the immune system. Toluene, the report added, was released by the two refineries nearby, of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL).
The same year, a King Edward Memorial Hospital report stated that the health impact on Mahul residents was similar to Toluene diisocyanate exposure, that can attack the respiratory tract and cause asthma. It added that 67.1 per cent of Mahul’s population suffered from breathlessness, 86.6 per cent had eye irritation, and 84.5 per cent felt a choking sensation.
A year later, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) said “there is perceptible threat to the health of residents of Village Mahul and Ambapada (adjoining village) due to prevailing air quality in the area”. Around the same time, the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) rejected a proposal to move its base camp to near the Deonar dumping ground (a few kilometres from Mahul), citing hazardous gases.
The latest report is of the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research)-NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute), released in 2018, after over three years of research. It recommended that Mahul be declared ‘Air Control Region’, with no residential premises allowed, and called for plugging of equipment leaks, pumps, valves at factories, and thorough inspections to reduce emissions from both plants and refineries. Based on that, the Central Pollution Control Board was asked to devise an action plan.
This year in April, five months before its September order, the Bombay High Court said clean air was a fundamental right and directed the BMC to provide Rs 15,000 rent each to Mahul residents so that they could live elsewhere. The BMC got a stay on it from the Supreme Court.
Even the refineries had objected to the housing colony coming up in their midst. In 2007, BPCL filed a petition in the high court citing security risks from the colony, but it was rejected two years later. Around same time, HPCL moved the high court and later the Supreme Court citing carcinogenic dangers of VOCs released by its refinery.
In 2010, Mumbai Police personnel were allotted flats in Mahul, but no one took them up. While clarifying that possession of all flats had not been handed over to police when he retired, former Mumbai police commissioner Sanjeev Dayal says, “I think police personnel had an issue with the existing refinery and the pollution problem. I don’t know if anybody eventually moved there.”
When she moved to Mahul, Swati did not know all this. In fact, she says, she hadn’t even heard of Mahul, having never travelled much beyond the slum settlement of Pimpripapa in Mumbai’s western suburbs in 12 years of her married life.
Then, on July 2 night, a 35-ft BMC wall holding back a reservoir collapsed under heavy rains, inundating her slum and that of adjoining Ambedkar Nagar, and sweeping huts down a slope. Swati’s hut was located just a few feet from the wall. “I was sitting, my husband was standing by the door. Our children were playing around when we heard shouting. Then suddenly, we were swept away,” Swati recalls.
An injured Swati spent the night looking for her three children, who were rescued by neighbours. Daylight revealed that 31 people had been killed, including Swati’s husband Dattatray Jadhav.
Jadhav made about Rs 20,000 a month, making statues. Swati struggled to support her family on the Rs 8,000 a month she earned as household help. She left Mumbai with her children for her Latur village. About a month later, her brother-in-law called to say the BMC and Forest Department were giving temporary flats in Mahul to those who had lost huts in the tragedy.
Swati says she didn’t raise too many questions, delighted that she would get a house in Mumbai — an impossible dream — for free. “I signed the allotment paper.” Her first view of Mahul, from that tempo on August 21 — carrying belongings mostly donated or borrowed from neighbours and others — was of towering chimneys. Fire spit out of a few, and smoke filled the air.
The first three days, Swati says, she kept scrubbing the floors of her flat and the corridor outside to clear stubborn grime. Her children had not gone to school for two months by then, and rather than send them to the only school nearby, a BMC-run school up to Class 8, she kept them at home. She tried looking for work as domestic help in the vast industrial sector but could not find any.
On Day 5, Swati’s elder daughter Sugandha complained of an itchy throat. The next day, she says, her other two children said they could not swallow food. “I felt it too, the sore throat. There was a smell every time I stepped outside the building.”
When the itchiness gave way to persistent cough, Swati was alarmed. By then she had heard of many families falling ill to Mahul’s pollution and moving out. So, she decided to go back to Karur.
First Swati took a tiny room on rent for Rs 4,000 close to where her demolished hut stood. Four days later, when incessant rains flooded that room too, she moved to another, for the same rent. Her three children still cough intermittently, their recovery hampered by the dampness of their surroundings. But at least they have rejoined the private Queen Mary High School they used to go to, Swati says.
Back in Mahul colony’s building number 28, Rashmi Pandit (18) has patches all over her legs, due to reportedly a skin infection persisting for two years now. “The doctor says it is the water,” says Pandit, who moved to Mahul in 2017. Having spent Rs 5,000 on medicines, her family now buys drinking water from outside Mahul.
Rashmi claims that she hoped to become a doctor but had to quit after Class 12 as she could not afford the Rs 100-150 daily commuting cost to college. So she joined the BMC school as a teacher.
Usha and Kamlesh Vishwakarma, also displaced due to the Kurar wall collapse, moved into Mahul on August 21. But they left their children behind at a relative’s house in Malad so that they could continue school there; their daughter Sudha is in Class 12.
“This rehabilitation has separated our family,” Usha, 33, weeps. Kamlesh, who works at a furniture unit in Malad, says he would now have to take a bus, then a train, followed by another bus, to reach his workplace. “It will take two hours. I earn Rs 450 a day and I will spend Rs 80 on transport,” the 35-year-old says.
Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) data lists 45 resettlement and rehabilitation colonies in Mumbai, with 208 more under construction. Under the regulations, a housing colony must have social infrastructure, recreation facilities and livelihood for its inhabitants.
The National Building Code of India (NBCI) further mandates 500 tenements per hectare as maximum density for a low-income colony, besides specifying minimum ventilation, space between buildings and courtyard width for high-rise buildings.
In 2018, the Collective for Spatial Alternatives — an association of urban researchers, academics, professionals and community organisers — noted that Mahul had 1,327 tenements per hectare, far in excess of the NBCI guidelines. It also said less than half were occupied.
“The scheme is very poorly planned, designed for stocking up as many tenements as possible, rather than to produce a liveable neighbourhood,” the report stated, listing leaks in sewage drains contaminating drinking water, poor construction material, and lack of parking space.
Located at one end of Mumbai, Mahul is connected to the city via one bus to Ghatkopar, with poor frequency, and a few buses to Kurla. An autorickshaw ride to Ghatkopar and Kurla local train stations —the nearest — costs at least Rs 100.
For the 5,500 families of Mahul housing colony, there is that solitary BMC school, which now has 350 students till Class 8. The next closest school is in Chembur, a Rs 100 autorickshaw ride away.
The BMC dispensary, open only during day, receives patients complaining mostly of cough. Many are enrolled for the government’s free tuberculosis treatment. In the evenings, with the dispensary shut, a steady stream waits outside the multiple homeopathic clinics in Mahul, including of Dr Ashish Gaud. “This season a lot of viral patients came. But through the year, I get patients complaining of cough,” he says.
For a long time, Mahul residents bore it stoically, afraid of losing free housing in Mumbai. Then, in 2017, about 3,000 families were rehabilitated to Mahul from slums razed on either side of the 100-km-long Tansa water pipeline. The high court had directed the BMC to clear the encroachments, saying these posed a threat to the British-era pipeline. It moved them to Mahul, drawing up a plan to replace their settlement near the pipeline with a jogging and cycling track, for a budget of Rs 300 crore.
In 2018, Mahul residents filed a writ petition in the high court against their living conditions. On October 28, over 800 started an indefinite protest on a footpath in Vidyavihar — one of the settlements cleared from near the Tansa pipeline. The protest crossed 330 days on Sunday.
Speaking about the Kurar families settled in Mahul, BMC Ward Officer Sanjog Kabare says they had no choice in the matter. “Only this colony was available for alternative housing for them,” he says. A forest official, who doesn’t want to be named, insists Mahul is a temporary arrangement. “We plan to relocate them permanently to some other colony.”
Asked about the Mahul protests, BMC Deputy Municipal Commissioner Chandrashekhar Choure says, “The matter is sub-judice, we cannot comment.” A BMC spokesperson told The Sunday Express, “Meetings are going on with protesting residents of Mahul for a solution.”
Among the protesters on the Vidyavihar footpath is Kantabhai Shanti, 50, who lived in Mahul for 11 months, after being shifted from the Vidyavihar slum. Shanti claims she decided to move from Mahul after her daughter died of lung cancer and grandson was diagnosed with tuberculosis. “This is because of the air and water of Mahul.” Her frail grandson, who lies on a mat on the footpath next to her, no longer goes to school.
Private physician Dr Shahid Barmare, who sees patients in Kurla, says most common ailments in Mahul are skin infections and respiratory disorders. “This indicates the presence of a high level of air and water pollutants,” Barmare says.
BPCL authorities say they regularly monitor their VOC emissions and have air filters in place. While BPCL refused an official comment, its officers point out that they had themselves raised concerns when the housing colony was planned a decade ago, but were ignored.
Bilal Khan of NGO Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, that is leading the Mahul protests, says, “We are not sure if rules are being complied with by all factories. Even if they are, the lack of a buffer zone from industrial units continues to pose a threat.”
Anita Dhole, among the 800-odd protesters sitting on the Vidyavihar footpath, says, “This is a fight for our survival, not for comfort.” Dhole was among those who was moved to Mahul from near the Tansa pipeline, but she shifted out within a year. “Within a few days we realised this is a hell-hole,” she says, listing ailments ranging from persistent coughing fits to skin irritation.
A plastic sheet her only shelter, Dhole sits across the road from where her hut once stood and where labourers are levelling soil now. Polio-afflicted, she attends all the court hearings, has preserved all the documents, and guides whoever wants to leave Mahul.
Over at Pimpripada, Swati also keeps returning to the debris of her hut. Standing atop them, she says, “I came here every day to look for my belongings. We could not find even a needle… The Prime Minister has said he’ll give a house to the homeless. Where do I apply for it?”
2006-2009: Construction begins on Mahul housing colony
2007: BPCL files petition in court against the colony, citing
2010 onwards: Rehabilitation in Mahul begins
2015: NGT finds high pollution levels in Mahul
2016: NEERI appointed to conduct three-year study
2017: Thousands vacated from slums near Tansa pipeline and relocated to Mahul
March 2018: Writ petition filed by Mahul residents against rehabilitation to the colony
August 2018: Bombay HC says govt failed proper rehabilitation in Mahul
Oct 2018: Over 800 Mahul residents begin an indefinite protest
April 4, 2019: Bombay HC says clean air is a fundamental right, asks govt to pay Rs 15,000 rent to Mahul residents so that they can live elsewhere, BMC gets a stay
Sept 2019: HC orders reassessment of pollution levels in Mahul
560 rehab buildings
Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) website lists 45 rehabilitation and resettlement colonies in the city
Along with structures developed by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority and Maharashtra Housing And Development Authority, there are 560 buildings for resettlement available in all in the city
Just for MMRDA projects such as Mumbai Urban Transport Project, Monorail and Mithi river development, over 40,866 people have been rehabilitated across Mumbai