[ I am no expert in matters concerning government policy, so I would appreciate it if any fellow bloggers could give additional/ more accurate information on this issue. ]

Every now and then the government authorities remember that a large percentage of Mumbai’s citizens live in slums, and that there ought to be some sort of policy about this.

So I was not surprised to read in yesterday’s newspaper that The Bombay Municipal Corporation will publish a white paper on slums built in Mumbai between 1995 and 2004.

The civic administration will undertake a survey of hutments which have been built after the official deadline of January 1, 1995.

It appears that the State Government may take a stand legalising hutments which have come up after 1995, but before 2000 or 2004, but it has not been finalised yet.

Assembly elections in Maharashtra are to be held in September, and the stand that any political party takes on this issue, will affect the number of votes they hope to get from voters of various communities.

The stakes are high in this game- so they will have be very careful while choosing the number to bet on.

Slum redevelopment is being undertaken in many parts of Mumbai. Hutments are being torn down and apartment buildings are coming up in their place. Slum dwellers are being allotted flats provided that they have been residing in legal hutments.

And the legality of their dwellings, depends on whether they have been living there from before 1995. (This cut-off date may be changed to 2000 or 2004 depending on the decision the State government takes -and on whether it takes a decision at all!).

To prove that they have been staying in Mumbai from before 1995, slum dwellers need to prove that their names are on the list of voters of the year 1995.

This reminds me of an incident that took place a few years ago- in 2003, if I remember correctly.

One morning I read in the newspaper that a fire had destroyed some houses in a slum area that I was familiar with. I was working with a group of women in that slum, and two of them lived in the particular area where the fire had taken place. I was quite worried, but it was difficult to contact them, as none of them owned a telephone.

Then I remembered that the husband of one of the ladies had given me the phone number of the shop where he worked, so I called him up.
Don’t worry, he told me, everything was fine. No one was hurt. The two families were living with relatives nearby.

I went to meet my friends a few days later, when they had their weekly meeting. Everything was fine- they told me. I asked them about the two women and their families whose homes were caught in the fire, and if all their belongings had been destroyed. No, they had kept their valuables at a friend’s house the previous day– came the answer.

Another friend told me that since the ration cards of the people living there had been burnt in the fire, they would get new ones.

Now that the hutments in the area were destroyed, a couple of buildings would probably come up there.

After a while, the two ladies whose homes had been burnt down came there- wearing green- bordered saffron sarees with lotuses on the borders. Seeing my questioning glance, one of them told me that BJP workers had given them these sarees because their own had been destroyed.

No saffron,white and green sarees with the hand symbol on the pallu? I asked.
Oh yes, Congress workers had given them those sarees too, they told me.

Seems political parties never waste a chance to advertise!

They were still living in temporary homes, when I had to stop going there because of my illness.

I have no idea whether they did ever did get flats in the new buildings. I do not know whether a new ration card showing their residence before 1995 would be enough for this. I did not ask them if their names were on the voters list of 1995. If they were not, I do not think that the list could be manipulated.

Perhaps it was never intended that they get new flats. Perhaps the whole thing was a ploy by the local Dada maybe employed by the builders, to make them leave their homes. Who knows what he had promised them? And for what consideration?

I do know one thing though. No one should be forced to live in this way in their own country. No one should be forced to do the things they had to do, just so that they could stay in the city. No children should have to see their homes burnt down before their eyes.

These slum dwellers had come to Mumbai, not to become rich, but because they could no longer make a living in their villages. They had come in order to secure a better life for their families. They had come so that their children could get a better education than had been possible for themselves.

Is it wrong to expect policy decisions to be taken, keeping the needs of the people in mind?

I know that there are many difficult issues involved. Mumbai City is obviously extremely overcrowded, and will soon sink under its own weight if the influx of people is not stopped. But should the government not think of improving conditions in the villages, so that people will voluntarily stay there?

Must politicians always forget that these are living human beings, and not mere pawns in their political games?