On August 24th, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis announced that about 17,000 slum dwellers residing around the Mumbai airport would soon be rehabilitated in the Premier Colony buildings at Vidyavihar. The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) would repair and improve the existing tenements to make them habitable for people to live in, he added.
The Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) would later allocate it to slum dwellers occupying the 276 acres of the airport. The purpose was to clear 100 acres of airport land for the expansion of the airport, he explained in his statement in the legislative assembly.
The announcement was greeted with scepticism by the slum dwellers – 80,000 of them spread across 276 acres of the 1875 acres of the Mumbai airport – who have waited long to own a house in a building. Some of them did get houses earlier, but their conditions made them choose slums over the housing provided.
History of airport slum redevelopment
The slums around the Mumbai airport are testimony to how changing policies and politics affect people. When the airport authorities initially suggested expansion, they had recommended that people be shifted to far-flung suburbs. The expansion was required to accommodate the growing needs of the busy Mumbai airport, said officials.
However, the residents protested against this and demanded on-site rehabilitation. A middle ground was negotiated when the nearby factory of Premier Automobiles Limited at Kurla shut shop and the state decided to house the airport slum dwellers there. In 2007, Housing Development and Infrastructure Limited (HDIL) was granted a contract to build houses for this project.
HDIL did build the house. However, discrepancies in the eligibility list, with many disputing it in the courts, delayed the handover of the flats. This ensured that people could not be allocated ready houses, while the condition of the houses kept deteriorating for years together, explains Narsu Pote, another core committee member of the Mumbai Airport Slum Dwellers Joint Action Committee (MASDJAC).
About 17,200 built houses in 17 buildings have been lying vacant for over a decade. Eligible residents continued to reside in slums, barely a few kilometres away.
In 2019, 93 families were handed over replicas of keys in functions along with allotment letters by the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. However, many of the families did not shift because they found houses to be inhabitable with wilting leaking walls, irregular water supply and non-functional lifts.
Later in 2020 about 220 people were also similarly granted allotment letters, this time by another chief minister Uddhav Thackeray but the conditions of the houses continued to be a concern.
Vijay Pardeshi, 46, is a resident of Sandesh Nagar at Kurla’s Bail Bazaar, which lines the domestic airport runway on one side and the arterial Mithi river on the other. He says the wait for his own redeveloped house in Mumbai has been long and excruciating. “Why would anyone want to stay in a slum? My children are growing up and we need more space. I have been waiting for a long time to shift to my own house in a building,” he rues.
In 2019, he was allotted a 9th-floor flat at one of the buildings in Premier Colony. There was no water or sewage connection and the lift was not functional. “How could one even live there?” he asks.
Others in his locality had different issues. Datta Patil, 42, found that his name was not on the list of residents eligible for a free house, though he owned a shop there.
Another resident, Aakash Bagle, 52, found that all his siblings had been listed in his house since they followed the 1995 survey when the entire family lived in one house. Over the years, his brothers got married and shifted into their own houses nearby. But they are eligible for getting only one house as per the Collector’s official survey.
Residents complain about surveys undertaken regularly by various government authorities over the years to assess the names of those eligible for a free house. They say not much happens after. “Surveys have been taking place here as early as 1976 to determine who lived here and to grant photo passes. Another survey was done by the Mulund collectors’ office in 2010, to determine those who lived close to the airport. A private builder also conducted his own survey to get the exact number of slums. As recently as in 2020, notices have been pasted by the Collector’s office asking people to submit documents to prove their eligibility,” says Patil.
Constantly changing management
The slum dwellers are the only constant in the story of their rehabilitation. The airport has seen regular changes in its management: it was first handled by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), under the union ministry of civil aviation; later, airport management was handed over to the GVK group and is now being handled by the Adani Airports Group.
“This was critical for the slum dwellers. The caretaker management of the airport primarily handles their rehabilitation with the state government departments either being the surveying or executing authority on their behalf. The caretaker management (like GVK earlier and Adani now) takes critical decisions like which parcel of land would be cleared first for expansion, resulting in the rehabilitation of those slums first,” explains Sandeep Salvi, a core committee member of the MASDJAC.
The Collector’s office handled their surveys to determine their eligibility. The construction of the buildings was contracted over to the Housing Development and Infrastructure Limited (HDIL) in 2007 by the Mumbai International Airport Pvt Ltd (MIAL), which holds a 30-year-old lease of the airport since 2006.
The MIAL also signed an agreement with the planning authority of Mumbai, the Mumbai Metropolitan and Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) in 2006 to handle the rehabilitation of the slum dwellers residing there, explains Salvi.
The residents of various slum colonies across the four Legislative Assembly constituencies, namely Vile Parle, Andheri, Kurla and Santacruz, have been protesting before different corporate offices over the years to press for their demand to re-house them.
State emphasis more on expanding airports rather than slum redevelopment
Fadnavis explained that the immediate priority was to ensure that 100 acres of slum land were cleared up to facilitate the expansion of the airport and to enhance the security that had been compromised due to the proximity of the slums around it.
With increasing air traffic, the airports have been wanting expansion but were constrained due to lack of space. They have for long been raising concerns about threats to its security due to a large number of slums along its boundary walls. As recently as on February 19, 2022, a man was caught scaling the boundary walls to go towards the runway.
Now as the airport slum dwellers are told about houses being repaired for them, they wonder what fate awaits them.
“Had it not been for our consistent fight over the past 25 years, they would have simply herded us out of this place to wherever they could, to a far-flung suburb or the highly polluted Mahul or the inhabitable Premier colony. The fight for our houses seems far from over even now,” says Pote.