Activate - Mumbai land grab
The Right to Information Act has helped uncover many land grab scams in Mumbai [Al Jazeera]

‘Mumbai – where being poor is a crime’

Slums occupy only seven per cent of the city’s land yet house a disproportionate 60 per cent of its population.

“I feel like a refugee in my own land,” said one resident of the Maharashtra Nagar slum, where we were shooting three days after the Indian government had demolished 1,700 homes there.

“It’s like I’m committing a crime, when all I want is a roof over my head,” he said while looking for bamboo sticks that he could salvage from the wreck the bulldozer had made of his home.

The state government considers homes built after 1995 on public land illegal and thus feels no obligation to provide their occupants with access to basic rights – housing, water or sanitation. Every few months bulldozers show up to remind them that they should not be there.

That is the story of a million people in Bombay, where being poor is a crime.

I became involved with the housing rights movement in the slums two years ago. A slum called Golibar, the second-largest slum in Mumbai, was being illegally demolished, or in government parlance, ‘redeveloped’. Unlike Maharashtra Nagar, Golibar is a legal slum.

Although slums occupy only seven per cent of the city’s land, they are home to a disproportionate 60 per cent of the city’s population.

But with real estate in Mumbai being among the most expensive in the world, even that seven per cent is worth billions of dollars. And so under the garb of development, the government, with a little help from private builders, created a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA).

Under the SRA, the builders would demolish the slum, shift the residents into buildings on a small part of the land and use the remaining land for their own use. So essentially public land was simply being handed over to private builders.

It was obvious that the only development happening was for their profit. And with politicians and bureaucrats becoming directors in these private companies after they retire, the interests of the government and private builders have merged into one.

The greatest land grab in Mumbai’s recent history was on – with the government’s stamp of approval.

In Golibar, this corruption had taken a turn for the absurd. At least that is what I thought at the time.

Now, however, I know that this is the case with nearly every SRA project in the city.

The builder, Shivalik Ventures, had forged the signatures of the slum-dwellers on documents agreeing to the redevelopment plan. In one case, a document included the signature of a woman who had died five years before.

Based on the forged documents, demolitions had started taking place. Land had already been cleared in three parts of the slum and residents moved to abysmal transit camps nearby.

But a resistance was brewing.

Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (Save Homes Build Homes Movement) or the GBGB is a movement of slum-dwellers from across the city who have been fighting for their rights since they first came together in 2005.

Among the movement are slum-dwellers from Mandala who had experienced brutal displacement when their homes were burnt down in 2005, slum-dwellers who lived in the worst imaginable conditions on the garbage dump in Govandi, and slum-dwellers from Ambujwadi who had stood their ground, literally, and fought being displaced.

Many others – including architects, lawyers, activists and artists – lend their support to the GBGB.

Simpreet is an activist who is part of the core group at GBGB. Although not from the slums, he fights shoulder to shoulder alongside the slum-dwellers and has been using the Right to Information Act to uncover many a scam in the city.

He helped uncover the Adarsh land scam that led to the resignation of a chief minister.

But the fight is not easy.

A judge, DY Chandrachud, who was hearing the Golibar matter in the High Court is named in a complaint by GBGB that is being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau for building on land that was reserved for the homeless.

And two years after the Golibar forgery case was filed, the police have found nothing wrong with a dead woman signing a document.

Yet the slum-dwellers fight on. As one of them told us: “We built this city with our hands. Of course we’ll fight for a place in it.”