The evictions at Agarwadi: of unworthy victims and institutional interventions

February 23, 2014

by Mrittika Desai

This is about a section of the people who have built this city with their sweat and blood, those who slog to maintain Mumbai, and in return receive  the most severe brutality from the present system. The  report is about of sixty families who were evicted from their home, so that the area where they have been living would look ugly no more. The place is near the Anushakti Nagar Bus Station which comes under the Mankhurd ward of BMC, in the periphery of Mumbai city. When these people started to live in this place, it was not a part of Mumbai. Over time, when the city expanded, the land where they were staying experienced a drastic increase in land price for which these people were pushed out from the area they had lived in for years. This is not a story only of Mumbai. It keeps repeating in every city. During the Commonwealth Games in Delhi similar evictions happened on a much larger scale. Slum dwellers were thrown out of Delhi in the name of beautification. So the basic questions are: what is the aesthetics of a city; what is the class identity of the State, and also the class bias inherent in the state machinery and media? Also, how do the NGOs work in such situations in collaboration with the existing system?

Agarwadi residents came to this city from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the year 1984. Majority of them belong to Buriya Jangam (Karnataka) and Masan Jogi (Andhra Pradesh) communities. They started their work in Morarji Mills in Worli. After few years working in the mill, they started working as construction workers. In 1992, they got a contract for constructing the compound wall of the Children’s Aid Society in Mankhurd. Even after the completion of work they never received their payment and thus in protest they decided to reside in the same location till the time their dues were met. In spite of long years of litigation their dues were never met. The workers cleared the area within the compound and made a place for living. They lived there till 2005 when they were evicted on the ground of not possessing residence proof of pre-1995. After eviction, they settled on the pavement close to the compound and have been living there since 2005. When they moved to the pavement, they started facing threats and abuse by the police, BMC and local residents that intensified around 2011 onwards. Since 2011, the threats became more frequent and regular, allegedly because of the hotelier who owns Vijay Punjab Restaurant in Deonar who wanted to build a marriage hall in the same location. His plans got affected because of their presence: they were perceived as dirt and polluting and bad for business. In early 2013, when the construction activities of the owner of Vijay Punjab restaurant got intensified, efforts to dislocate this group began again and they resisted.

During the time when the above anti-eviction struggle was taking place, at the same time the Campa Cola eviction case was also taking place in the city. But their trajectories were different. In case of Agarwadi, people were forcefully evicted from their place whereas, Campa Cola residents managed to get one year’s extension from eviction. This difference raises basic questions about the present system. How was it that the poor Agarwadi people were evicted whereas the Campa Cola people were able to resist the eviction? The answer to this question gets clearer when one dissects both the struggles.

The Agarwadi and Campa Cola struggles against eviction belong to two different classes. In Agarwadi it was the working class poor people, whereas in Campa Cola it was the upper middle class who are the main stakeholders.

As we know that class plays an important role in the trajectory of any struggle, in case of Campa Cola struggle, it was not the electronic media, but print and social media that took up their cause. As a result the Campa Cola struggle became a major issue in the media world. The Campa Cola eviction became a humanitarian issue for the media, but Agarwadi people who were also waging a similar struggle, got very little attention. For the media, the latter did not fall under the humanitarian category. Thus coverage of the eviction struggle clearly shows the class character of the media.

This eviction struggle also exposed the class bias of the state machinery like police and BMC. In case of Agarwadi, people had to face multiple evictions. The brutal and violent ways in which the multiple evictions were carried out without prior notice or warning, unlike the Campa Cola eviction, brings out the differential justice characteristic of the state machinery.

The other aspect that got exposed in this struggle is the role of the NGOs. With the gradual withdrawal of the State from social services, NGOs have become more significant. Given their positioning in the present system, their role is not free of contradictions. TISS has been working with the evicted community of Agarwadi since 2009. This work is carried out through two Field Action Projects (FAPs) namely the M-Ward Project and TANDA (Towards Advocacy, Networking and Developmental Action) in which students are also placed for field work. In early 2013, when the intensification of construction activities by the owner of Vijay Punjab started, the effort to dislocate this marginalized group restarted. An NGO named Alternative Housing also started to work with them. However one fails to understand  why the TISS administration did not take any legal step and get a stay order when these people have residence proof like Aadhar, ration and voter cards, and were staying in that area for the last twenty years.

On 20th November the police started another eviction drive but this time there were twelve students from TISS who also joined the community people to resist the eviction. Out of the twelve, there were a few who joined as part of their field work. Thus when community people and students resisted the eviction, 20 women from the community along with 12 students was arrested by the police for obstructing public servants from carrying out their duty. The police not only detained them, but many people got beaten by the police. When students in campus came to know about the students’ arrest, they went to the police station. Community people also gathered outside the Trombay police station. More than a hundred people gathered outside the police station and sang songs in solidarity with those who had been arrested.

The Director of TISS along with some faculty members and administrative staff also reached the police station immediately after they got the news about the arrest. Though it was discussed as a great act from the side of TISS administration, it is understood that it is not easy for the Institution to be inactive when their project itself was involved with the community. It is also interesting to see how the NGO named ‘Alternative Housing’ also reached the spot immediately. Initially, the TISS administration was trying to get only the students released, but the students made it clear that they would not move out without the members of the community. While the negotiations were on, students and community people who gathered outside the police station started raising slogans in support of those arrested and demanded their release. After almost nine hours of negotiation, at around midnight all were released, although an FIR had already been registered. As BMC had already cleaned the area and burnt down everything they had left in their homes, everyone started wondering as to where these people would go after this.

Now the episode entered another phase. The way TISS and the NGO dealt with the struggle subsequently was interesting. After helping everyone to come out of jail, the TISS administration promised to arrange an alternate plot for the evicted people. The community people were brought to TISS and the search for a plot began. After seven days, the administration informed the involved students that it could not do anything and the people had to leave TISS within a day’s time. The community people were shocked, and felt utterly helpless. The same people, who were resisting eviction a few days ago, now became so helpless. This is what happens to struggles when big NGOs get involved in the movement or other types of external interventions take place.

What was the final outcome of the struggle?

People were uprooted and no proper alternative location was given to them by BMC. TISS administration identified a place nearby where they  were asked to  shift, though without any guarantee of residence. The students found out that the place where they were shifted had no infrastructure and was extremely unhealthy. The TISS administration’s interaction with police and BMC continued as before.

The unity that was formed during the struggle got completely broken. When TISS gave assurance to these people that some alternative plot would be allotted to them, they became totally dependent on it, and this hope actually led to the weakening of their unity. Their zeal to fight started fading too. As days pass, the attachment that they shared with the place where they had stayed for twenty years will fade away from their memory.

The Agarwadi struggle not only exposed the class bias of media and the State apparatus, but also how NGOs directly or indirectly work in favour of the ruling class, and what happens to people’s resistance when interventions by external agencies  take place.

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