The fact that he washes people’s dirty linen in public isn’t the crux of the problem. But for a group of residents in the Juhu-Versova Link Road, a single dhobi has come to symbolise unbending obstinacy. His illegal settlement on a 600 sq ft plot of land is, quite literally, the only thing that stands defiantly between the residents and the children’s park they had envisioned for themselves. This one-man army has single-handedly taken on 7,500 residents from over 25 housing societies who want to oust him from his illegal settlement and realise their dream of a park — their first in 25 years. Residents include top doctors, IAS officials and judges.
An acre of grass
Way back in 1987, the collector first allocated land to different housing societies on Juhu-Versova Link Road, and earmarked a plot to be developed into a recreation zone. In 2004, a dozen of the housing societies mutually agreed to get the land developed into a children’s park. They submitted a proposal for the park, and in due time, officials from the environment department came along to survey the plot. To their surprise, they found illegal encroachments on the plot, and subsequently learnt that a part of the land was occupied by Santosh Kanojia, a washerman.
“We moved the first proposal for the children’s park in 2004, and an application was addressed to the collector. The environment department conducted the survey and discovered the encroachments,” said Julie Gandhi, resident and activist in the area. “The collector’s office asked the washerman to vacate the premises. Kanojia did not comply, leading to the demolition of the structure in 2005,” Gandhi further added. Like most other demolished encroachments in the city, the settlement was reconstructed within weeks and continues to stand in defiance of the outraged residents. What followed was a nasty legal battle for possession of the land, spearheaded by Gandhi and supported by residents in the area, who were eager for their acre of green.
Last year, armed with paperwork, members of the societies put private contractors to work on developing the park. The entire area was gradually developed around the illegal settlement, which stayed its ground. Though numerous appeals have been issued to the dhobi to relocate over the years, construction is still in a limbo. Ramu Shetty, the contractor on-site, said, “Work has not been done in one corner of the park because of obstruction posed by the dhobi’s settlement. Water pipelines have to be laid, and a jogging track, which runs along the perimeter of the park, has to be completed in that corner. The compound wall behind the park has to be extended and plastered behind the settlement. Fencing is also not possible in that corner. We have approached the dhobi, and tried to make him understand, but he is stubborn.” The dhobi and his family of five occupy more than 600 square feet of the proposed park area, which sprawls over a total of 28,000 sq feet.
Documents procured by MiD DAY clearly suggest that the dhobi’s occupancy of the land is illegal. The city civil and sessions court (Borivli Divison) in its order dated December 24, 2011, states, “It is made clear that the suit structure has not been legalised.” The court, however, maintained that the structure not be removed highhandedly, or without taking recourse to law. In his order dated January 27 this year, the deputy collector (Encroachment and removal) clearly stated, “The structure is illegal, and the occupant Santosh Kanojia should either vacate and take down the structure within seven days, or face eviction and demolition of the structure by the collector, the cost of which shall be borne by the occupant.”
“Initially, when we approached him after the proposal of the park, he assured us that he would vacate the premises himself in 15 days. However, on the fifteenth day, he suddenly declared that he was a resident of the land, with documents to support his claims,” said Gandhi. None of the documents submitted by Kanojia, however, establish that he is a resident of the plot in question (Survey 161, Plot 4). Rather, they suggest that he is a resident of different buildings in the housing society. While his passport, bank account, PAN card and telephone bills bear the address of plot 36, his driving licence show a permanent address of plot 2.
Nirmal Deshmukh, the collector for the suburban district, said, “I cannot comment on the matter before I take a look at the documents.”
It is a clear case of encroachment and we have requested the authorities to clear it at the earliest. I have also met the BMC commisioner at Konkan Bhawan where the matter is currently being heard. There is no doubt that occupant has illegally encroached upon the land.
— Local MLA Ashok Bhau Jadhav
The plot has been arranged and funded by the residents, for the residents. We were looking forward to finally having a park of our own, especially because there are a lot of senior citizens living here. Unfortunately, the dhobi, with his forged papers, keeps appealing to parallel courts to prolong our inconvenience.
— Dr Ashwini Bhalerao
The plot, which was allotted to area 161 as a recreational ground, is the collector’s land meant for the use of residents. Residents are trying to develop the land with the help of funds from the local MLA, Mr Ashok Jadhav, but their efforts are being hampered by the doggedness of a single washerman.
— Dr Kanta Mukherjee
Every citizen wants a park in their society and I also want this park to come up.
— S Tripathi, IAS officer (retired)
The other side
When contacted, Santosh Kanojia said, “I am not going to go anywhere. This is the collector’s land, and residents have no say in the matter. Whatever I have to explain, I have explained to the authorities. Justice will prevail.”