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Project Mumbai Makeover


Vilasrao Deshmukh, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra (India) was recently in the US, marketing and showcasing Maharashtra for possible investors. Hopping between New York and the Napa Valley; Microsoft and Hollywood, business delegates and cultural conventions, Deshmukh must be glad to have escaped the acute water and power shortage, dying farmers, agitated bar workers, and growing resistance of the displaced slum dwellers of Mumbai. They have had it worst in “the most industrialized state” of India.

Three months since assuming power in Maharashtra, the United Democratic Front (UDF) — a coalition led by Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) began its assault on Mumbai’s poor. Announcing the “development and beautification plan” for Mumbai, Chief Minister Deshmukh launched a massive demolition drive that rendered 250,000 people homeless by December 2004. Justifying the first round of demolitions, Deshmukh thundered, “Many people will be inconvenienced and will have to make sacrifices if the city has to develop…The situation in Mumbai has deteriorated so much that there is hardly an inch of space left for migrants”. Deshmukh’s words were much appreciated by the local elite who helped co-construct a rabid rhetoric that demonized slum dwellers. After all, they are in for a free ride– they don’t pay taxes, and what’s worst, they are a threat to national security! Vijay Kalam-Patil, the demolitions officer proclaimed, ” We want to put the fear of the consequences of migration into these people. We have to restrain them from coming to Mumbai.” The migrant poor of Mumbai were to be controlled and the state could afford to forget about their rights.

Incidentally, when thousands of evicted people had no home to go to, the government was busy hosting Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan 2005 (Convention of the Non-Resident Indians) in Mumbai from January 7-9. Deshmukh welcomed his rich NRI brethren with open arms, assuring them “the best investment climate in the country” and offered “a red carpet” to overseas Indians who would be willing to invest in “health, education, power, water, sun radiation (whatever that means!), communication, IT, and BT.” [1] Bending backwards to attract foreign investment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a historic announcement in the same convention: dual citizenship for overseas Indians. With an entire ministry catered to Overseas Indians, and aggressive neoliberal policies advocating for greater freedom to corporations, the “global Indian power” dream is dreamed at the cost of denying basic rights to poor. For all the talk around glossy
Shanghai model and transforming Mumbai into Shanghai, recent Amnesty International report (December 2004) points out the contrary. [2] This report documents massive evacuations in Shanghai that led to displacing thousands of poor people from central neighborhoods of the city. These evacuations were carried out to give way to risk-free investments and foreign markets.

Too eager to emulate Shanghai, the Indian government has chosen to get rid of thousands of migrant poor for the comforts of migrant rich. In the midst of illegal demolitions and police brutalities, Mumbai’s poor have organized a spectacular struggle since December 2004, when more than twenty local organizations formed “Joint Action Committee for Slums” (JACS). Displaced people from various parts of India and slum dwellers from other cities soon joined JACS and the struggle has grown under the banner of “National Alliance of People’s Movements” (NAPM). With no prior notice given to slum dwellers and no plans for resettlements, Indian government stands guilty of violating the right to adequate housing, guaranteed by International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. According to the United Nations, “The practice of forced eviction constitutes a gross violation of human rights. All Governments provide immediate restitution, compensation and/or appropriate and sufficient alternative accommodation or land, consistent with their wishes and needs, to persons and communities that have been forcibly evicted, following mutually satisfactory negotiations with the affected persons or groups.”[3]

The ugly nexus between Mumbai’s realtors and politicians reveals systematic violations of the Urban Land Ceiling Regulation Act (ULCRA). Introduced to prevent concentration of land ownership in urban areas, the main aim of ULCRA is to redistribute surplus land to urban poor. In reality, exemptions and blatant violations of this act have resulted in big builders grabbing the land reserved for low-income communities. Should the government confiscate projects built on violations of ULCRA in Mumbai, the available land will be able to house 200,000 people. Demolitions, if any, deserve be carried out on vast amounts of illegal land, owned and developed by a handful business tycoons in Mumbai. As the struggle of slum dwellers has intensified and issues around public resources and rights have surfaced, the construction industry and corporations have demanded that the ULCRA be repealed. Bowing to the construction lobby and keeping up with the practice of war on poor, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram recently expressed a possibility of repelling Urban Land Ceiling Regulation Act. Quite consistent with the tenets of “secular, socialist, democratic republic!”

Amidst poverty and structural inequality, the poor bear the brunt of developmental initiatives. Poor communities are tossed around, be it large dams, highway and flyover constructions, or collapsing agrarian economy. Dispossessed and dislocated, the poor turn to Mumbai, where they face several evictions before they can find a livable place. Mumbai rips off labor and life from its poor, but does not believe that they have rights. In his moving poem ‘Mumbai’, Narayan Surve [4] talks about the hardship, hope and invisibility of migrant poor:

“My father came down the Sahyadris
A rag over his shoulder

He stood at your doorstep
With nothing but his labor.

My father withered away toiling
So will I, and my little ones?

Perhaps, they too will face such sad nights
Wrapped in coils of darkness.

My hear wells up,
Seeks an outlet

For it was my father,
Who sculpted your epic in stone.”

Demolitions have brought down thousands of Mumbai’s poor on streets. They remain homeless as the rains pour down the city, and Deshmukh strikes a deal with Microsoft.

SHIVALI TUKDEO, a graduate student at University of Illinois, Urbana
Champaign, can be reached at:






[4] From Narayan Surve’s ‘Majhe Vidyapeeth’ (My University)

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