From Nonadanga to Ejipura: The Urban Battleground

February 23, 2013

by Partho Sarathi Ray

[The following article by Partho Sarathi Ray connects the dots between the urban eviction and displacement struggles raging across India. Photographs are from the Ejipura neighborhood of Bangalore where houses of the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) were demolished on 19th-20th January. The article appears after the photos. - Editors]

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Post-demolition EWS(21st). The homes of around 1500 families razed to the ground. While “the richer” among the poor have left, around 400 people still remain there, with their belongings, not knowing where to go. On finding people who hadn’t eaten for days,some people have been raising money to give them immediate relief in the form of food, water and blankets.An old woman who was sleeping outside in the cold for the past three days died on the 23rd.

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A lifetime of belongings. Lots of people were hurriedly transporting them in carts,small vans, and autos. Others could not afford to transport their belongings, and had no place to transport them to. A lot of residents work in the neighbourhood and finding other employment opportunities is a challenge. For instance, a large number of women work as domestic workers at the National Games Village(opposite the slum) Finding a new place to stay means having to pay a deposit of at least 20,000, which a lot of people cannot afford. The demolition has caused the price of accommodation in the neighbourhoood to rise sharply.

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Cutting the electricity lines(Saturday the 19th). Also, the water supply was cut on that day.

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“It was peaceful and voluntary”.

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The remnants of the only functional toilet complex(comprising five toilets) for the entire slum of around 1500 families. On Friday, the 18th, some people managed to gherao the bulldozer and prevent it from being demolished. The next day, it was demolished.

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The demolition of the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) slum in Ejipura in Bangalore on 19th-20th January and the brutal eviction and dispossession of the 1500 families living there is another front of the urban battle that is going on across cities in India. It is a battle which we have fought, and are still fighting, in Nonadanga in Kolkata, and is being fought in many slums and communities across the country, such as Golibar in Mumbai. At the fundamental level, this battle, beyond the rhetoric on urban development and beautification, on rights and rehabilitation, is class conflict. It is a conflict between the urban working class and the bourgeoisie, and the basic question in contention is the “right to the city”. The contours of this conflict are going to shape the future nature and the character of the cities in India, where most of the economic activity in the country is already concentrated, and is therefore of immense importance for all of us.

The history of the demolition and eviction in Ejipura bears close parallels to that in Nonadanga, both being part of the neo-liberal attack on the lives and livelihoods of the urban working class. Both have their origins in the elite dream of “beautiful” and “developed” cities, the process of “beautification” and “development” involving the gradual pushing out of the working class to the peripheral areas, the same working class which provides the infrastructural services for running the cities but whose lives are an eyesore for the elite, and reconfiguration of the land they occupy into malls and genteel living spaces. And at the centre of it lies land, the most valuable resource in the urban scenario, especially in high population density cities in India, and especially at a juncture in capitalism where real estate and services have proved to be a far more profitable mode of investment than any productive industry. As the working class, by the virtue of their very presence in the cities, has staked claim to this priceless resource, it has become imperative for capital to get rid of them and get possession of this land, all the while couching it in terms of urban development and urban regeneration. And the state, representing the dominant class interests, has been the vehicle through which this war on the lives and livelihoods of the urban poor has been waged.

The EWS quarters in Ejipura is a stark illustration of this process. Originally designated in 1984 as land for housing the urban poor, basically working class slum-dwellers who had been evicted from various slums in more central parts of the city, it took 12 years for the Bangalore municipal corporation (BBMP) to build 1512 one room tenements for them in Ejipura, an area which was then at the periphery Bangalore. These three-storied blocks of flats, named as EWS quarters, lacked basic infrastructure such as toilets or water, and the BBMP also did not care to provide any basic necessities such as schools for children or medical facilities for the inhabitants. Yet, the people, who did not have any alternatives, started staying there. Very soon, as a fallout of the rampant corruption which is always part of these processes where the state attempts to show its social responsibility towards the poor, these buildings were found to have major structural flaws and built with very inferior grade material. Many of the buildings developed cracks and in 2005 a number of them collapsed, killing three people and injuring many. Then the BBMP constituted a committee to look into the matter which recommended that 21 of the 42 blocks be demolished and the rest repaired. However, the BBMP went ahead and vacated all the buildings and tore them down. The inhabitants were settled in makeshift structures at the site, with the explicit promise that their flats would be rebuilt and they would be resettled back. Since then a lot of water has flown down the Kaveri, but these people have remained in their tin and bamboo sheds, while the machinations of elite interests have taken a turn towards ultimately dispossessing them from their right over the land.

A number of things have happened in Bangalore, and nationally and globally, over the last decade. Bangalore has grown as the silicon valley of India, the focus of interest and investment by the multinationals, and has therefore become one of the largest hubs of real estate development in the country. Any visitor travelling over the 30 km from the airport to the city will be dazed by the sheer number of advertisements for huge real estate developments, each attracting potential customers to their “own” piece of Europe or America in and around Bangalore. Therefore land prices in Bangalore have skyrocketed to become one of the highest in the country. Secondly, the city has expanded exponentially as people from all over the country mainly working in the IT/ITES sector have settled in the city, with the areas which were previously peripheral now becoming targets for intense real estate development for their housing and entertainment. With a large amount of liquid cash in hand, and loans becoming especially easy to get for these corporate employees, luxury houses and hotels, malls and multiplexes have become the defining features of Bangalore’s geography. Therefore the elite pressure on urban land has become excessive. Thirdly, driven by the urban dreams of this dominant class, and catering to the need of the corporations for a more “efficient and productive” urban space, the Indian state has gone full steam ahead in reclaiming land on which the urban poor live and work, all in the name of urban development, rejuvenation or renewal. Various schemes have been devised to enable this process, such as the central government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), to implement which a plethora of government and quasi-government agencies have come into being in every major city such as the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) or Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation (KUIDC) in Bangalore or Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project (KEIP) or Basic Housing for the Urban Poor (BHUP) in Kolkata. In many cases, money from World Bank, IMF or ADB are routed through these agencies, connecting them to machinations of globalized capital. With the purported objectives of beautifying or rejuvenating cities, or building infrastructure, the main function of these schemes and agencies over the last decade has been to take over land belonging to the urban working class or dispossess them from commons land in the cities, and push them further and further to the peripheries of urban life, both literally and figuratively. Simultaneously, urban land being used productively as industries, employing and housing thousands of workers, has been progressively deindustrialized and transferred to real estate developers, as exemplified by the historic textile mills of Mumbai or the South City mall of Kolkata. In summary, the lives and livelihoods of the urban working class have been under constant attack. Various legal and commercial contrivances have been brought into play to facilitate this process and make it more palatable to urban liberal opinion, the public private partnership (PPP) model being one of the most popular. Under this model, a government agency, transfers the land to a private player, and the private player is then allowed to use most of the land for commercial purposes as long as it allocates a certain portion of it to some public purpose. Sold by the state as a win-win arrangement for both the public and private entities, in reality it just provides a fig leaf of public purpose to the wholesale transfer of public and commons resources to corporations. Followed by practically all state governments, left, right and centre, the PPP is especially a favourite of so-called populist governments such as that of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, which has put the tag of PPP on many of the blatant land grabs of the previous Left Front era.

All of these phenomena have had their effect on the hapless people of Ejipura. While they remained in their tin sheds at the ruins of their erstwhile homes, the area surrounding their slum became a lucrative residential and commercial area. The so-called National Games village, housing originally constructed for participants in a National Games, which is very close to the EWS quarters, became a major residential area. It was therefore required to “reclaim” the site from the slumdwellers. The government called for bids to transfer the land to private builders who would build flats for the people who had originally been allotted accommodation in the EWS quarters under a PPP basis. Two companies bid for this, and after a lengthy litigation, the bid was awarded to a Maverick Holdings and Investments, a big real estate developer which owns the huge Garuda Mall in Bangalore. The owner, Uday Garudachar, is highly connected both politically and administratively, being a member of the ruling BJP and the son of an ex-Director General of Police (DGP). Apparently, his connections go even beyond the ruling upper caste and pro-corporate BJP; he had filed nominations to the Rajya Sabha from Jharkhand with the support of the BSP, the major party representing dalits in north India. Maverick Holdings represent the typical class interests spearheading the attack on the lives and livelihoods of the urban working class. These are middle level developers, connected to the local politicians and government officials, and therefore favoured recipient of state largesse, leveraging that to go into the big-time developer league. In Kolkata too, a number of such developers, mostly from the Marwari community and connected to the CPI(M) such as the Todis and Neotias, had made it big, and had soon come to exert control over the decisions of the government, even getting laws amended for their purpose. A new set, mostly smaller Bengali developers or industrialists with connections to the ruling Trinamool Congress, has now come up and are the new predators on public land and resources in the urban and peri-urban landscape of Bengal.

Coming back to Ejipura, the PPP which Maverick Holdings now had with BBMP diverted 17 acres of the 22 acres of land originally allocated for housing for the poor for building a shopping mall, a shocking case of diversion of public land for private profiteering. The facade for this deal was that Maverick Holdings would build housing for the original EWS allotees on the remaining 5 acres. The reality was that most of the original people allotted housing in the EWS quarters had dispersed in search of livelihood (at the time when they were relegated to this area, there were no opportunities for employment nearby), and the people inhabiting the slum were their tenants, part of the successive waves of migrants coming to Bangalore and working as domestic workers, street vendors, auto and private vehicle drivers, house-keepers and security guards in the surrounding areas. Maverick Holdings had no commitment to provide them with accommodation, and therefore probably envisaged even converting the housing part of the PPP deal into a profiteering racket. Similar things have happened before in Mumbai. Therefore, the people of the Ejipura slum have resisted the plans for their displacement over the last one year in various ways, even approaching the court, most probably inadvisedly as the courts always stand in support of dominant interests, with a writ petition. When the court finally ruled in favour of the builder, the latter could easily put his contacts within the administration and BBMP in motion to go ahead and demolish the slum housing nearly 8000 people in Ejipura. The brutal demolition happened over the weekend of 19th and 20th January, making thousands of people homeless and with the accompanying police brutally beating up and arresting whoever stood in resistance. Twenty five women and four toddlers, including Kaveri Rajaraman, a young neuroscientist working at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who participated in the slum dwellers’ resistance as an expression of solidarity, were arrested and twenty one of them were charged with various offences. They were later released on bail. Within two days, the entire community of around 8000 people, consisting mostly of dalits and minorities, living there for a decade and contributing to the economy of booming Bangalore as essential workers, were dispersed with an uncertain future. Because of the brave resistance of the slumdwellers and their comrades such as Kaveri, and the protests of civil society organizations, the BBMP has said that the displaced people will be rehabilitated in Sarjapur, a place 15 km away, although there is nothing at that site for providing shelter at the moment. Although the first round in this urban battle has been lost, it is now up to strength of the resistance against the dominant class interests what the final outcome would be.

For those of us who have been closely connected with the struggle of the Nonadanga slumdwellers, the parallelism with Ejipura has been both unnerving and illuminating. Unnerving because it demonstrates the magnitude of the forces ranged against us and illuminating as it becomes clear that these struggles are part of the same continuum of class conflict in urban India. The area of Nonadanga, at the southern periphery of Kolkata, was also designated for housing for the urban poor under the ADB-funded BSUP scheme, mostly slumdwellers who have been evicted from various parts of Kolkata as a result of beautification and infrastructure development drives by various government agencies. The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) built one room flats for these people in the area, with entire families of 8-10 people being herded into a flat. No basic necessities such as schools or healthcare facilities have been provided. As a community has slowly developed in the area, more working people, evicted from their slums or migrating to the city to escape the ravages of natural calamities such as cyclone Aila, have settled down in the vacant spaces, building their lives around small shanties which they had set up. Then last year, the KMDA decided to stop building the flats on their own because of a purported funds crunch and decided to go in for a PPP with an as yet unknown builder who would use the major part of the land for commercial purposes . Prior to initiating the PPP, and handing over the land to the private party, it decided to clear the land of all the people settled on it, people whom the agency calls encroachers. Therefore, they came in with bulldozers and the police at the end of March, and demolished and burnt down around 150 homes, demolishing the hopes and aspirations of around 600 people in the process. However, the people organized and put up a resistance, facing police lathicharges and waves of arrests, and still hold on to the land on which their homes were. Again, all machineries of the state, and the ruling Trinamool Congress party, have been put into motion to disperse them, and “reclaim” the land, including a concerted attempt to divide the resistance by intimidation and inducements such as the promise of houses at another site. The movement, however weakened by internal dissensions, police repression and physical attacks by ruling party goons, has survived and is still a challenge to the dominant class interests in this urban battleground. What will be the final outcome will yet be decided by the strength and unity of the resistance.

Therefore Ejipura and Nonadanga are both part of the continuum of urban class repression and resistance. The same is happening in numerous other urban and peri-urban areas across the country; at the moment slumdwellers in Golibar and other slums in Mumbai are resisting their displacement and corrupt deals of builders and the government to usurp their land and housing rights. In all these places the victims’ class merges with their identities, for everywhere the victims are dalits and minority community members, trying to eke out a living in the cities by participating in the huge urban informal workforce. And everywhere, in the forefront of resistance are women, who see their dreams and aspirations crashing down in front of the state’s bulldozers. What is required now is a countrywide alliance of these resistances, based on the understanding of the overall class nature of the conflict that we are facing. Over the last decade or so, the focus of most activists and organizations, including radical left organizations, have been mostly on the countryside, where large scale displacement and land grab has been going on in the interests of national and multinational capital. However, in the meantime, the urban conflict over land, over the right to the city, has also become more and more intense. Actually, the conflicts in the rural areas and urban areas are interlinked by economics and commonality of class interests. In the villages, due to the increasing loss of agriculture as a remunerative source of livelihood because of withdrawal of state support and loss of land to commercial interests, out-migration has become a defining feature. Millions of people are migrating from the rural to urban areas in search of livelihoods, joining the informal workforce and building the reserve army of labour, and populating the sprawling slums in the cities. It is interesting to note that in the last five years the only sector which has seen significant growth in employment is construction. Therefore a vicious cycle has been set into motion across the country: people losing livelihood in villages and migrating to cities, joining the urban workforce engaged in construction and allied services sectors, settling down in slums in the cities, then losing their homes as the land on which the slums are situated are taken over by the real estate developers, and moving over to more peripheral areas together with other recent migrants to the city and building their homes and lives again only to lose it again in a few years as the city sprawls outwards and more and more land are usurped by elite class interests. This vicious cycle defines the class conflict in the cities, and closely interlinks it with the conflict in the villages. The state understands it, and fears that this conflict will coalesce with the greater anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles of the country; hence the witch-hunt for Maoists in every urban struggle. As the adversary understands the general nature of this class conflict, it is upto the working class, and the radical forces arrayed on the side of the working class, to also realize that and build alliances spanning across cities and villages to fight this battle.

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