Transformed and Renewed Right to Urban Life: The Life of Slum Dwellers in Mandala Settlement, Mumbai

Mandala Settlement Mumbai

 As the city becomes more responsive to the interests of developers and transnational finance, a ‘dual city’ of contradictory spaces, that is split along two socio-economic fronts, emerges (Castells 1989, pp.277-78). Mumbai is emblematic of this situation. There are the urban glamour zones of business districts, airports and shopping centres, and then there are the urban war zones where over half of Mumbai’s population, deprived of resources, struggle every day to tend to their most basic needs.

Mandala, a north-eastern slum settlement of Mumbai, is one such war zone. This is where ‘residues’ from the city are discarded. Amidst the wreckage and rubbish, one can find the shadowy figures of the rejected and impoverished population. With previous labour skills devalued and past traditional subsistence economies destroyed, everyone who is dislocated is not incorporated into today’s formal markets. Mandala emerged as the dumping ground for this surplus army of ‘outcast proletariat’ that remains unabsorbed in the new production process. In order to meet their basic needs, they work in unprotected conditions and provide a low-cost flexible workforce. The result is the emergence of an informal or shadow economy that operates under the radar of the law. As construction workers, taxi drivers and domestic helpers, their labour-power changes barren landscapes to megacities. Yet, they remain invisible in public policy and are regarded as transitory and of limited use to the economy.

Over time, however, the state began noticing the land that houses this community as a highly valuable redevelopment opportunity. So, the government undertook the Vision Mumbai redevelopment project, recommended by McKinsey International (2003, pp.6-10) and other corporate bodies, to clear ‘illegal’ slums and to transform Mumbai into a world city. Indeed, taming the unruly city and presenting it as an attractive place of fun and creativity for elite consumption is regarded vital for luring visitors and investment, and for gaining an edge in the ‘place wars’ between cities (Haider 1992, p.127). Since slums challenge the utilisation of space as a lucrative entity, the state began clearing them in December 2004. The logic was simple: ‘if they cannot afford to live in [the city], let them not come to [the city]’ (Bhan 2005, p.135).  Within four months, over 85000 houses were demolished, rendering thousands homeless.

Since most settlers in Mandala are immigrants and marginalised Muslims, state agents employed the discourse of ethnic targeting and protection from illegal immigrants in justifying these evictions. For example, the chief minister of the state (belonging to the far-right pro-Hindu Shiv-Sena party) declared that there was no choice other than to ‘take action against illegal Bangladeshis’ (Hansen 2001 p.207). Meanwhile, with slums and its residents criminalised, fear has produced gated communities for elites all over Mumbai. (Thus, adding to Mumbai’s glamour zones).

As officials began differentiating the right to belong in the city on the basis of national identity, Mandala witnessed the invention and enactment of new forms of citizenship. The emergence of transnational regime requires the denationalisation of spaces where it operates. In Mumbai, this has provided an opportunity for transnational identities to be formed. Over time, evictees have challenged the exclusivity of national-level citizenship and reconceptualised citizenship such that both the urban dweller and the citizen can be brought together through a human rights-based framework. In doing so, the previously scattered neighbourhood (consisting people of many faiths and nationalities) was effectively mobilised for launching a series of marches, rallies and sit-ins against the evictions (Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan 2013, p.241-42). The rise of this intra-slum solidarity reinforces the notion that everyone who inhabits and produces the urban space possesses a legitimate right to the city, a basic right that is inherent to all human beings.

Apart from taking to the street to disrupt the everyday flows of the city, the evictees took part in people’s hearings and assembly meetings to deliberate and make decisions (Doshi 2012, p.9). These events attempted to make visible both their capacities and needs and emphasised the right of all inhabitants (instead of citizens) to collectively make decisions concerning the future of their urban space. Six months after the eviction, the Mumbai floods in July 2005 gave Mandala evictees the opportunity to stealthily reoccupy the demolished land and make it their home once again. This reclamation, however, was far from easy. Bulldozers descended the subsequent year when the land was designated for building a commercial township. Thousands sat on the road and blocked access to the land. Over five-hundred policemen were deployed who eventually tore through the human barricades and demolished the slum. (Pingley, 2006)

For the next hundred days, they camped at Azad Maidan (a park devoted to Indian independence fighters) and sat in satyagraha (Gandhian nonviolent resistance). Utilising reminders from the anti-colonial resistance, they branded neoliberal redevelopment as neo-colonialism. They also gave poignant and heart wrenching speeches here. One slum dweller exclaimed, ‘Where must we go? Pakistan? Bangladesh? We are from this city, we have a right to stay in Mumbai’ (as quoted in Doshi 2012, p.22). However, when the evictees refused to accept the Bombay High Court’s order asking them to vacate the park, the police forcefully removed them from the premise and destroyed the tents that were set up for deliberation.

The struggle did not end there. In the next years, they would rally on roads, barge into state buildings, stand before more bulldozers and face more baton charges and arrests. Over time, they have managed to shake the administration and acquire followers from all over the country. As of 2016, Mandala residents have formed themselves into co-operative societies to further their negotiations with the government. (Doshi 2012, pp.20-21)

Looking at the current state of affairs, a pessimistic conclusion would be that nothing ever really changes. Indeed, the most basic rights of Mandala evictees continue to remain unaccomplished. However, when one has to constantly overstep the limits of legality to even live and work in the city, survival itself becomes resistance. Under conditions where housing is a verb, the very bodies of the slum dwellers reveal their continued will and endurance against authoritarian co-optation. Their fight is not to be included in what the city already is, but rather a fight for a new kind of city. As Lefebvre (1996, p.195) asserts, ‘the right to the city does not abolish confrontations and struggles. On the contrary!’.  It produces a city where the public interest is collectively and perpetually redefined and realised through struggle.

Anamika Madhuraj a citizen of India, is currently working with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme in Nairobi. She is a recent Political Science graduate from King’s College, London. Her hobbies include writing short stories, dabbling in poetry, debating, conducting independent researches and drawing comics.


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