“If the government gives us some land where we can move and build shanties, we will leave. But otherwise, we will continue to live here.”
Mumbai: At Chembur’s Amar Mahal flyover, construction crews are working away at breaking it down part by part to enable its reconstruction. The demolition work has been ongoing since June, after damage to the flyover’s joints was detected. But 50 metres away from the section currently being demolished is a small community of 14 families who call the area under the adjoining section their home. With the sound of hammering and drilling as a background score, women and men cook over the acrid fumes of wood fire, barefoot children play with each other and families sleep on tattered mats. In around two months, the construction activities will reach this section, requiring it to be evacuated. But this community is refusing to move.
The settlement under the flyover comprises members of the Phase Pardhi community, which was listed as a criminal tribe by the British through their 1871 Criminal Tribes Act. Under this Act, all members of the listed tribes were branded as ‘criminals’; the rationale given for this was that crime was a hereditary community profession among them. Though they were ‘denotified’ by the government after independence, members of the Phase Pardhi community, and other ‘denotified tribes’, continue to be subjected to much stigma and discrimination. Young men from such communities are still picked up and harassed by the police as suspects for crimes without any proof.
While the community under the flyover say that they are originally from Marathwada, they have no homes to return to and no land of their own. Caste has followed them to the city, as evidenced by their threadbare existence. However, they find that working as daily-wage labourers by cleaning drains and working at construction sites for the Public Works Department (PWD), as and when such work becomes available, selling items at traffic signals and begging offers them a better livelihood than working as landless labourers in the village.
Their ‘illegal’ status means that with the ongoing construction, they have not received any written notice to vacate the area. Instead, authority has been communicated to them through improvised means. There have been polite requests and advice to leave by the PWD, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and the police. But residents also claim that policemen burnt all their possessions two months ago, forcing them to move from the section of the flyover they were occupying at the time to where they are currently living. However, members of the community are resolute about not being bullied out of their home. Their contention is simple: “We have nowhere to go from here. If the government gives us some land where we can move and build shanties, we will leave. But otherwise, we will continue to live here. If the flyover collapses, let it fall on our heads,” says Bhama Arun, who has been under the flyover for the last 20 years.
The demolition and reconstruction has been ongoing for the last two months. As the building process gradually approaches the section of the flyover they are living under, the residents are aware of the immediate threat of being forced out. They have moved their possessions under the nearby flyover parallel to Amar Mahal to protect them. Some of the residents have also moved there, but care has been taken to ensure that enough people are living under Amar Mahal flyover that it continues to be a settlement. They know that if they all move out, they will lose all claim, even informal, to the space.
The ‘common sense’ of the more privileged might ask why the insistence to hold on to their claim to this particular space. Several residents explained why being asked to live on the streets or under another flyover will not do. Before settling here, many of the families have lived on the streets in other parts of the city like Mahim and Garodia until they were forced out. In their extreme socio-economic marginalisation, this is a space that they have marked as their own.