By: Kamala Kelkar
A small residential complex of homes belonging to middle-class families in Mumbai dominated news coverage in India Wednesday when the Supreme Court decided to stay its order to demolish the partially illegal apartments.
The decision was the latest twist in an eight-year-old legal battle over whether the dwellings, built in the 1980s and illegally extended, should be regularized. Hundreds of police and municipal officials with bulldozers had broken barricades erected by the 140 families who had refused to leave the Campa Cola Society complex in the south of India’s commercial capital.
According to a report in The Hindu newspaper, the top court gave residents a reprieve on demolition until May, because the bench considering the matter was “badly disturbed” by the developments reported in the media.
Several political leaders including Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan also voiced support for the residents.
Human rights activists say that the situation reveals the biases of the government and media. They argue that poor people are regularly evicted from illegal dwellings, often in a much more brutal manner and rarely getting any attention.
Abdul Shakeel has been a housing rights activist in Mumbai and Delhi for about 12 years and currently works with the Housing and Land Rights Network, a nonprofit based in Delhi that aims to protect the homes of the most vulnerable people in India and internationally.
Mr. Shakeel is often at the front lines when slum demolitions take place, in court helping defend the rights of people who may otherwise be ignored or on the ground helping the communities to campaign against their eviction or deal with its consequences.
He spoke with The Wall Street Journal about why the Campa Cola decision was not a one-off for upscale neighborhoods with illegal construction, how the situation is very different for slum dwellers and whether anything will change as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.
The Wall Street Journal: Tell us about Campa Cola’s story.
Abdul Shakeel: The initial agreement for the complex was to build only five floors, but the builder was conniving with police and others and built many more, which is illegal. People knew that most of the floors were illegal but they still bought the flats. They just thought they could get away with it, and they could because they’re all middle class, higher class people.
WSJ: Why do you think things were different for the residents of Campa Cola than for other residents of illegal buildings?
Mr. Shakeel: They have ways of negotiating. They have means. They can go to politicians, to media, to police and they can bargain. Poor people can’t. There’s a lot of exchanging of money and there’s corruption. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and then everyone gets it and everyone’s happy. It’s not the same for poor colonies.
WSJ: Can you compare the Campa Cola situation to that when jhuggi or slum colonies in Delhi and Mumbai are ordered to be demolished?
Mr. Shakeel: They are two different things entirely. Campa Cola has been going on for a long time. It’s been a long battle. They were served a proper notice. Wednesday they got a stay. When you live in a poor community, suddenly the bulldozers turn up when people are going to work and children are going to schools. They don’t have time or the ability to negotiate. So how do you compare it? Slum demolitions are very brutal.
WSJ: Why don’t poor communities get as much attention when they are threatened?
Mr. Shakeel: This has been a long battle for Campa and they’re upper and middle class people. With demolitions for slums, they can happen within a day. The media doesn’t have time to adjust.
WSJ: Why is there such a dramatic divide?
Mr. Shakeel: There’s a double standard within the court and in general. With Campa, a lot of politicians were involved, a lot of big people were involved. The building was already ordered to be demolished. I’m not getting into whether the eviction was right or wrong, but they don’t show the same emotions to working class people. You should have the same parameters for slums, no? Give them proper time to prepare. They have no means.
WSJ: Could the Campa Cola stay influence any demolition stay requests for poor colonies in the future?
Mr. Shakeel: I don’t think so because the court always has two different views of people.
For the people living in the slums, they are always considered a nuisance. You see there’s this whole drive to move toward high-class cities, so now the cities are meant for the middle and upper class.
There is a huge difference between the people in slums and who the city is meant for. The people in poor places are considered ugly because they are living out in the open and are the working class. But these are the people who have built the city. If you don’t have them around then who is going to clean your toilets? If you got rid of them, Mumbai and Delhi would be filled with s— in two days. Who’s going to clean it? Who’s going to do all the domestic work?
WSJ: How often do residential complexes such as Campa Cola get a stay order on a demolition?
Mr. Shakeel: I think, always. There may be a few cases of a residential buildings have actually been demolished but I’ve never seen it happen.
WSJ: How often do jhuggi colonies get a successful stay order on a demolition?
Mr. Shakeel: I’ve had six or seven successful ones. If the judge knows the issue of the people and he is sympathetic, then we might get a stay.
But probably 80% of the time the case gets disposed of without even getting an argument. It’s the state of the judicial system. Judges think that slums are a nuisance and they are ugly. And it’s difficult because the courts are a double-edged sword. Sometimes you do get a good order and they help people, but the whole Yamuna Bank settlement was ordered to be evicted, almost 200,000 people were displaced, because the issue was brought to the court.
WSJ: Are you working on any demolition stay orders at the moment?
Mr. Shakeel: Yes, four of them. They affect about 40,000 to 50,000 people and we are planning many more in the coming months.