//Mumbai slums in the grip of land mafia

Mumbai slums in the grip of land mafia

Wednesday, March 29, 2006 (Mumbai): Most of Mumbai’s illegal slums are controlled by slumlords who use a powerful network of police and local officials to turn empty plots of land into slums. Their main targets are government lands lying free for years.

In fact, from time to time, slumlords break down their own slums so that they can resell the land at a higher price."The land mafia are local goons who have connections with the police, administration and local politicians. Nobody comes to an illegal slum expecting a free stay,” said Simpreet Singh, member, National Alliance of People’s Movement. The Ambujwadi slum is a classic example. 23 acres of this slum is on land belonging to the Collector. The rest extends to the very sensitive Coastal Regulatory Zone.

The slums have eaten into the mangroves. The slumlords have covered the swamps with building debris so that the waves don’t touch the plot. But a year ago, the bulldozers came and much of Ambujwadi was demolished. Thousands lost their homes.

Deep trauma There was deep trauma in this Malad slum. One of the biggest demolitions in 2004 sparked off a bitter debate. Mumbai’s dilemma soon had a larger audience. Human rights activists and UN officials came visiting to hold public hearings. To counter criticism that they were anti-poor, the municipal corporation also began targeting illegal structures of the rich. But in Ambujwadi, like in other slums, the slum mafia sat back and waited. Once the bulldozers and the television crews had left, they slowly went back to business. Bit by bit, they began selling the land once again. Today, a year later, pieces of land have been sold to the 10,000 people who now live here. Obviously there is neither lease nor deed on paper. It’s life on the razor’s edge.

On one hand the bulldozers and on the other, the land mafia carrying out their own evictions as a way of reselling the land again and again. ”Now they want us to vacate this plot. For 40 years I have been a poor widow. With my income as a tailor I have brought up by kids. First we were ravaged by monsoons. Now they have broken down half my house,” pleaded a local resident. Her plot would now be resold to another buyer at a bigger amount. In fact, the occasional demolitions make it easier for slumlords to make a profit.

Land sold – When the settlers return, they find their land has been sold to outsiders ”The local police helped the slumlords bring in people from Dharavi to this slum. When we protested, the police registered complaints against us. The police are openly supporting the slumlords,” said a resident.

As a potential buyer, the NDTV correspondent asked for an assurance from the slumlord for a deal which he knew was illegal. "Nobody will cause any trouble. I will be there," replied the slumlord. In fact, there are credit systems in place. You can pay in installments or even pay later on an interest.

”It’s all about give and take. We are in the business. Now this land is reserved in your name. The next customer will just have to do without a good plot,” said the slumlord. Clearly operative here is a vicious circle of poor workers looking for places to live and big slumlords waiting to catch them. After the slums become a residential colony over the years, the government demolishes them. And in place of the old slums, new ones grow. Those who control this cycle remain the same, only the victims change. And the government remains a mute spectator till the next series of politically motivated demolitions.