Almost two-weeks after fire, Damu Nagar residents face another hurdle

12 days after the blaze that took two lives, Damu Nagar residents have another fire-fight on hand — to prove their legal right over what is technically a forest

A young boy in his early teens sits at the top camp of Damu Nagar — where food is being made and distributed — with a plate of puri, rice and bhaaji. He doesn’t take a bite. “Ghar jaake khaaoonga,” he explains. The irony isn’t lost on a man sitting beside him, watching him speak to us. “Arre, ghar kahaan raha?”

Also read: Life goes on... Residents of Damu Nagar staying in makeshift 'houses'

Damu Nagar resident Pradeep Ghone with the slip that will get him access to relief material that’s distributed regularly. Relief workers have been distributing food at camp on the base of the hillock. This, however, too can be accessed only with a paoti. Pics/Nimesh Dave
Damu Nagar resident Pradeep Ghone with the slip that will get him access to relief material that’s distributed regularly. Relief workers have been distributing food at camp on the base of the hillock. This, however, too can be accessed only with a paoti. Pics/Nimesh Dave

The black humour has its effect and both flash a smile.

On December 7, a fire broke out in this slum in Kandivli East, gutting more than 2,000 huts on the hillock that borders the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Two people were killed and at least 11 injured. The toll would have been higher had the fire broken out at night. Spreading rapidly due to multiple explosions of LPG cylinders, the fire broke out in the morning when most residents were away at work or in school.

Social help groups that have been working for the rights of the slum dwellers, say that officials from the collector’s office did the punchnama without making an announcement. Thus, not everyone was present and many missed out on being counted in the crucial survey
Social help groups that have been working for the rights of the slum dwellers, say that officials from the collector’s office did the punchnama without making an announcement. Thus, not everyone was present and many missed out on being counted in the crucial survey

Lives were saved but life as they knew it, was destroyed. While food, clothes and essentials have been easy to come by, thanks to help from residents of nearby high-rises and social help groups, documents destroyed are a cause for worry. These include ration cards, Aadhar cards and payment slips that prove that the residents had paid a sum of Rs 7,000 to the Forest Department to be eligible for rehabilitation in Chandivali.

Life in queues
Pradeep Nana Ghone, 49, a painting kamgar, looks hassled as he gets into a shared autorickshaw near the Samata Nagar Police Station on his way to Damu Nagar. “I stood from 5.30 am till evening for two days before I got the token this afternoon,” he said. This is a slip that will help him get registered at the nearby police station, proving that all his documents have been destroyed. He got it after two days.

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61-year-old Shankar Bhakre says, in 2008 he had paid Rs 7,000 towards a home in the rehabilitation colony at Chandivali. On the forest department’s claim that the residents of the slum had settled in the area illegally, he wonders, “What more do they want?”
61-year-old Shankar Bhakre says, in 2008 he had paid Rs 7,000 towards a home in the rehabilitation colony at Chandivali. On the forest department’s claim that the residents of the slum had settled in the area illegally, he wonders, “What more do they want?”

“We have to work too. How can we stand in line all day?” he says, getting off the rickshaw, only to stand in another queue outside the nearby bus depot where staff from the firm Mahindra are donating relief material.

In the line is 61-year-old Shankar Bhakre. A watchman at a housing colony in Virar East, he is carrying a folder of photocopies of documents. Fortunately, these were with him the day the fire broke. “I had taken them to the Forest Department,” he says. When we point out that officials from the said department had said in the week that it wouldn’t allow residents like him to rebuild their homes on the hillock, he opens the folder. “I have a copy of a payment slip to the department saying I have deposited Rs 7,000. What more do they want?”

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In Damu Nagar, you need a paoti (slip) for everything, including relief. And, not everyone is willing to leave their homes for fear of missing officials from the local collector’s office. Chandrakant Pahat missed his chance a few days ago when officials arrived for a spot survey. “They came on just one day. How do they expect us to be home all the time?” he says. Now, without the paoti, he can neither claim relief nor prove his existence.

Neha Jha, a student at the Centre for Social Work, Mumbai University, was at the collector’s Bandra office on Friday evening. She says, she and others like her were there to represent the rights of the residents. “We were told that if someone counts on GPS, there are only 1,000 homes in the area. However, that they have counted 1,260 homes in the punchnama was a ‘favour’. An expert on the technology we spoke to says GPS cannot be used to count homes.”

Arguing that the figure is not reflective of true numbers, she adds, “There were no announcements of when the punchnama would be done, and so, lots of residents lost out on the chance to be counted. Because of this, the elderly who live at the top of the hillock are losing out on relief material.”

It’s not that officials or help is missing. Aruna Kakade, District Child Protection Officer, Mumbai Suburban, is on a visit to check if the local kids have been going to school. Everyone’s pitching in, from NGOs to generous citizens, who are providing books and notebooks. Additionally, the state government has distributed an initial rehab amount of R3,800 per family. But, it’s the worry about what will happen to their homes that’s top of mind.

The legal hitch
Prakash Bhimrao Savle, a journalist with a Marathi newspaper, once a resident of Damu Nagar, says settlement began here in 1972, when those affected by the drought across the state moved to Mumbai in search of food and money. “They moved to Damu Nagar which was then forested land and built temporary homes. Soon, large firms like Mahindra and OTIS arrived in the vicinity and the residents got jobs as labourers. This gave them enough money to build permanent homes,” he adds.

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The legal residents — those who had settled here before the regularisation cut-off date of 1995 — will get homes in Chandivali, assures local forest department official RN Jejurkar. ‘When?’ is a question he is unable to answer.

There have been allegations that several of the slum dwellers have got ownership of their pucca homes but chosen to rent them out while continuing to live in Damu Nagar.

Homes are waiting
Opening their hearts and vacant flats in the SRA complex in Chandivali to those rendered homeless are members of Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti, a social welfare group working in the sphere of slum redevelopment. They tell us that over 550 flats are lying vacant in their mega rehabilitation complex and could be utilized for the same. Spearheaded by actor-cum-activist Shabana Azmi, Nivara Hakk was started in 1981, as an umbrella movement to provide an alternate path for development of slums and footpath dwellers.

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Chief coordinator Sanjay Daware, who runs and teaches at Saraswati Vidyalay, a residential school for 225 slum children in Damu Nagar, says the rehabilitation process could be a tricky since the huts were built on forest land, where construction is not permissible.

“We have politicians promising that the burnt huts will be built on the same location, without understanding that this will require permissions from multiple government organisations at both, state and central level.”

Dawre says that the SRA project in Sarmath complex, which has over 2,124 flats and the capacity to accommodate more families, may be the ideal solution to the problem. “Government agencies can conduct a survey to filter out those who are eligible for rehabilitation under SRA guidelines and notify us about the same, so that their rehabilitation can be initiated.” But, the Chandivali homes are not just for slum residents from Damu Nagar. The Slum Rehabilitation Authority has constructed them for slum residents from across Mumbai.

“The issue,” says Dawre, “is now taking political colour. It in no way resolves the issue of permanent re-housing.”

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1 Comments

  • Murli Mohan Rao20-Dec-2015

    I am divided between having and not having sympathy for the victims. They have knowingly or unknowingly usurped or forcefully stayed on land that should have been a part of a forest. Honest taxpayers like me have to struggle to get a roof over our head. Where is the justice in this??

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