Since 2015, the number of forced evictions of slums in Navi Mumbai has drastically risen, largely driven by Smart City plans and metro railway constructions. Communities which had never been evicted since their formation in the 90s have faced repeated evictions from 2015. Those that used to face evictions twice a year earlier experienced them almost twice a month in 2016. No official notice is provided in most cases, even though it should be provided. While the Maharashtra state government cut-off date of 1 January 2000 is applicable for these slums, as is the provision of rehabilitation in case of evictions, in the absence of any slum upgradation, rehabilitation or improvement scheme, evictions render hundreds homeless overnight. Bulldozers arrive, homes are reduced to rubble, and the next day’s news coverage contains a scant factual summary of the situation, if at all.
Meanwhile these lived realities, and the resultant fears and insecurities continue to plague residents of informal settlements. It is their resilience, however, which drives them to start afresh each time the home comes under attack. They take solace from the objects they have been able to save during evictions (sometimes not completely successfully) and these items have as much a story to tell as the people behind them.
Presenting the first instalment of The Material History Project, which shares stories of resilience and courage in the face of repeated evictions and violation of rights. The first three stories, reported verbatim, are from Tatanagar, Belapur (Navi Mumbai), a settlement that has faced repeated forced evictions since 2016.
Nirmala Ramesh Bhavar has lived in the Tata Nagar basti since 1991. She moved here with her family to find work. In the initial years, Nirmala worked on the Belapur CBD railway construction site. In recent years, she works as a house help in the nearby areas.
In her one-room dwelling structure, occupying pride of place is Tuljapur ka Ammai, more popularly known as Tuljabhavani of Solapur.
‘This idol is our kuldevata (family God). My mother had got the idol, and when she died I took charge of her. Every day I light a lamp and pray to her’, she says. The Goddess is adorned with coconuts on either side and surrounded by other deities. She wears a blue cotton garment sewn by Nirmala. Multiple lamps, an incense holder, a bell and other items are placed around the idol.
Nirmala’s dedicated care of these idols is evident from their spotless condition. She shows us the powder which helps her keep the brass idols shining. She mentions how, when the Goddess was first brought home, they bathed the idol in milk and made an offering of bananas. A big puja was organised at the time and their family was treated to a meal.
‘Whenever there is a threat of eviction, the first thing I do is place Ammai in a secure basket so that she does not come under harm’s way,’ she says.
Kamal Sitaram Shivsaran has lived in the Tata Nagar basti for almost 25–30 years now. She lives in a small one-room structure. At first Kamal worked as a domestic worker, but in recent years her ailing health has not permitted her to work anymore.
‘At first, our condition in the basti was very stark. We had to burn firewood to cook our food, and oil lamps needed to be lit every evening. As time went by and I became more aware of my rights, the legal entitlements that I applied for and received made my life easier. Now I have a water and electricity connection here’, she gestures and says. On top of her cupboard is a white metal trunk Kamal purchased 20 years ago from a local market.
‘Earlier, my documents had even fallen in water during evictions, but now I keep them safe in this trunk,’ she says.
Be it her Ration Card, PAN Card, or Aadhaar Card, each one of these documents has been acquired after a long struggle and Kamal doesn’t want to be dispossessed of them anymore. These documents help her assert her identity in the city, empower her in her fight to secure a house for herself as a legal citizen, and offer her access to basic services.
When Parvati Babu Kalunkhe came to settle at Tata Nagar 12 years ago, she was a waste recycler earning Rs 50–60 daily. Over the years she worked hard to try and improve her economic situation, and applied for her legal entitlements (PAN Card, Voter ID, Aadhaar Card) so that she could claim her space in the city.
When her children were small, a neighbour was selling her television. Parvati bought it from her for a princely sum of Rs 1,500 and then there was no looking back. ‘The television helped us spend many a happy hour, whether by ourselves or with others in the family. Sitting in front of it, we could be transported somewhere else and forget our cares and worries for a while. While I would watch the saans-bahu serials, the children enjoyed the cartoons and the cricket matches’, she said. Whether it was just half an hour in a day, or even slightly longer, the television brought together the community. In 2005 when heavy rains lashed Mumbai, Parvati covered the television in plastic painstakingly, so that it would not be spoilt.
Though it does not function anymore and has been relegated to a corner outside the house, Parvati still keeps the television safe, as it has been the carrier of many of pleasant memories. Repeated evictions have taken place over the years, but each time Parvati has done her best to keep the television set safe.
YUVA’s work on forced evictions spans three decades. We work with communities to prevent, respond to and document forced evictions across the country. In 2016, we published a report, Unequal Realities: Forced Evictions in Five Indian Cities. You can read it here.