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When the bulldozers come

Dec 06 2013, 09:47 IST
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SummaryThe impending demolition of the Campa Cola complex is an opportunity to ask why illegal housing is the norm in Mumbai, for the middle class and the poor

Liza Weinstein

The impending demolition of the Campa Cola complex is an opportunity to ask why illegal housing is the norm in Mumbai, for the middle class and the poor.

With last month’s Supreme Court order and the impending eviction of 96 families from Worli’s Campa Cola housing complex, Mumbai’s rampant building code violations and nefarious construction practices are back in the national spotlight. The conversation has centred on the need for stricter code enforcement and tit-for-tat squabbles over who knew what when. Less central has been an acknowledgement of the underlying structures of power, inequality and governance that make illegal housing the norm in Mumbai — a situation understood all too well by the urban poor.

This time, the middle class was scrambling to regularise their homes and keep the bulldozers at bay. And because it was this population, living in tony Worli, and not the poor pavement dwellers and slum residents who more typically fight these fights, the city and the nation took notice.

Most people shook their heads over corruption and lax enforcement, and many expressed sympathy for the families that will lose their homes in the next six months. After all, these are the homes in which they made their lives and raised their children, and on which many of them spent their life-savings. And while the sympathy is usually less forthcoming when the homes are shabbier and the residents are poorer, this loss of home and wealth occurs nearly daily in Mumbai, each time a hutment is demolished or an unauthorised dwelling is cleared from a footpath. The Campa Cola incident is an opportunity to reflect on this broader situation and ask why a majority of Mumbai’s nearly 14 million residents are forced to live outside the often invisible lines of legality and under the near-constant threat of legal action and eviction.

It is often said that Mumbai’s deepest and most intractable problem is housing. A bounty of jobs and entrepreneurial fervour bring people to the city, but its lack of housing keeps them in a suspended state of insecurity. While some private housing was constructed in the city’s early industrial period and some chawls were built by factory owners, improvement trusts and development departments over the years, supply has never kept pace with demand. Instead, Mumbai’s housing needs have typically been met by wilful ignorance. Municipal authorities have turned a blind eye to illegal housing and have

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