Mumbai: It's hawkers vs tenants in Colaba street war

Residents and shop owners of a building on Colaba Causeway have been struggling with sporadic water supply and non-functional air conditioners after hawkers allegedly attacked utilities and blocked a passageway

The face off between hawkers, shop keepers and residents of Colaba Causeway, considered Mumbai's premier shopping district, got uglier this week with tenants of a building alleging blatant bullying and harassment by illegal street stall owners.

A narrow passageway that opens onto Causeway has been blocked by a hawker who set up a stall overnight. Pics/Bipin Kokate
A narrow passageway that opens onto Causeway has been blocked by a hawker who set up a stall overnight. Pics/Bipin Kokate

For the last 15 day, residents and shop owners of Mathuradas estate Services Society, say they have been struggling with sporadic water supply and non-functional air conditioners after their building's utilities were attacked by a gang of hawkers who man stalls lining the street outside.

Residents of Mathuradas Estate Services Society claim their building’s utilities were attacked by a gang of hawkers who man stalls lining the street outside. (Circled) a passageway between two buildings that leads to utilities has been encroached by a hawker who locks the entry with a collapsible gate
Residents of Mathuradas estate Services Society claim their building's utilities were attacked by a gang of hawkers who man stalls lining the street outside. (Circled) a passageway between two buildings that leads to utilities has been encroached by a hawker who locks the entry with a collapsible gate

A narrow passageway that opens onto Causeway and separates their building from an adjacent one, has been blocked by a particular hawker who set up a bags and garments stall overnight at the mouth of the passageway. A tarpaulin lining the stall on one side covers and therefore, prohibits access to the condensers of air conditioners belonging to a ground floor clothes store, which has had to do business with a malfunctioning AC for over a week. "They aren't allowing us to repair the AC," says the store owner, requesting anonymity for fear of being singled out.

The crowded Colaba Causeway is considered one of the city’s premier shopping districts. File pic
The crowded Colaba Causeway is considered one of the city's premier shopping districts. File pic

Residents say the encroachment which came up on March 1 is in reply to a massive demolition drive carried out by the BMC on February 25, as part of an across the city clean up. The civic agency had demolished a few stalls outside the building which is a stone's throw from Cafe Leopold.

"They have ganged up against us and taken control of a passageway that allows us access to the rear end of our shops and the building," said the shop owner.

When mid-day visited the building, the passageway was boarded up on one side and handbags had been put up on display. This reporter spotted a collapsible shutter that the residents say is closed at night to keep them from the area even after the stall winds up for the day. During business hours, hawkers stand guard while selling merchandise to shoppers.

When we walked into the 'shop', we saw tarpaulin sheets covering the walls, which the tenants say have been put up to conceal the damaged pipes and Acs. When we pried, three burly men approached us, inquiring what we wanted.

"Several homes haven't been receiving water in the toilets for days due to the damage done to tanks and pipes," said a resident requesting anonymity.

The tenants say they have repeatedly petitioned the BMC in the last month against encroachments but little has come of it.

In a letter dated March 2 (a copy is available with mid-day) to A ward Assistant Commissioner Surendra Chavan, the residents and tenants of Mathuradas estates, wrote: "The BMC has only done a partial demolition. The hawkers have put a detachable rolling shutter at the entrance of the house gully, not allowing any of the bonafide tenants to enter. They have opened a shop at the entrance of the gully in complete violation of the BMC laws and have occupied the full footpath."

When contacted, Chavan said he was not aware of the letter. "We are doing our duty of razing illegal hawker stalls in Mumbai. I get hundreds of letters every day and cannot go through them all. If there is indeed such a problem, we will follow up," he told this reporter.

The tenants say they fear for their safety after they were threatened when they tried entering the passageway. "This is their idea of revenge. Their leader, Mohammed Ismail Gulam Shaikh threatened us when we tried to reason with him to access the entrance and check on the water tanks," said a resident.

The continuing strife between the BMC and unlicenced hawkers makes both, doing business and shopping a nightmare in Colaba. In an earlier article published in this paper, A Ward corporator Sushma Vinod Shekhar had told mid-day, "The BMC is not clear on its policy. When they confiscate goods, it's from both licenced and unlicenced vendors. They should have a clear policy on display rules too."

It's an open secret that there is a rift between the new crop of unlicenced hawkers, who allegedly hail from the same town as a powerful Colaba politician. They, say insiders, have relatives in China, Bangkok or Taiwan, who route 'maal' to them. They have in the past too been labeled trespassers, blocking small passages between buildings to turn them into pop-up 'shopping plazas'. Residents are afraid they pose a security risk as even those who go to photograph the stores are threatened. Residents often reference a false case of molestation that was lodged against a 65-year-old resident, who dared complain about one such vendor at Colaba police station.

Senior police inspector at Colaba police station, Vinay Gadgil, said, "We are aware of the problems faced by the residents and shopkeepers, and have registered a non-cognizable offence (NC) on March 5 based on their complaint. However, it is the BMC that needs to take up this issue, since it is a hawkers and encroachment problem. We can only register a complaint at this stage."

The residents say the buck is being passed between the police and the BMC. Since the hawkers do business on the pavement, they fall within BMC's domain. Because they pose a 'threat', the BMC claims it's a police problem. What is not questioned is money changing hands each time a raid is conducted and goods seized.

Shankar Salvi, general secretary of the Mumbai Hawker's Union, said hawkers are an aggrieved party too and routinely looted by the police and BMC via regular 'hafta'.

"The BMC doesn't demolish hawking stalls that are illegal since they receive bribes from them. In Colaba, there are only 125 licensed hawkers; all others are illegal. But during demolition drives, even legal hawkers are harassed. However, no one can block an entrance to a building or threaten residents. If the concerned persons are a part of our union, we will take strict action against them."

Salvi's union has over 30 lakh members from across Mumbai.

Meanwhile, old timers rue the gradual deterioration of one of Mumbai's most elegant neighbourhoods. "With some hawkers being backed by political parties and thugs, Colaba is no longer what it used to be," says a resident of nearby Apollo Bunder. Ajay Multani, member of local ALM, Strand Marg Association, says "There is preferential treatment given by the BMC to areas like Pali Hill because they are dominated by celebrities.
While we don't even have footpaths to walk on."

— Inputs from Maleeva Rebello

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