Dying Young in Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Camp

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Dying Young in Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Camp

Mahul was supposed to be an escape from the slums. Then the sicknesses started.

Dying Young in Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Camp

In this Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015 file photo, people walk through the slums adjacent to the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File

In June 2017, Jyoti Tushamad and her family moved to Mahul, a suburb in the eastern fringe of Mumbai. In April 2018, she fell ill, and had to be admitted to Rajawadi Hospital, 10 kilometers away. Her mother-in-law took care of her children, while her husband attended to her. She was discharged after a week, and barely a few days later, she began to vomit blood. On May 3, she was dead. Jyoti was 28.

Mahul is visible from the Eastern Expressway as a series of buildings, right next to large chimneys that release white fumes. These seven-story buildings – 72 of them – are alternative housing meant to “rehabilitate” thousands of the city’s poor previously living in slums, to make way for various infrastructure projects. In 2017, nearly 20,000 homes were cleared, which had been standing for several years on the colonial-era Tansa pipeline.

However, Mahul is far from any measure of what a government-aided rehabilitation program ought to be. The buildings are very close to two refineries, flouting buffer zone norms. Three other factories are also situated in close proximity, one of them a significant chemical and fertilizer plant. The first residents came to stay in Mahul in 2013; since then, people across age groups have fallen ill, while Jyoti’s death puts the death toll of residents at 23.

The nearest railway station is 7 km away. The nearest public hospitals – the only ones that this population can afford – are at a similar distance, or farther. The air in Mahul has the acrid stench of chemicals, and walking through the narrow spaces between buildings, the stench is aggravated because of stagnant water overflowing from sewage lines. Garbage overflows the few bins visible, whereas the rest lie in close view of the only window in each flat, adjacent to the kitchen. A majority of the flats do not receive any sunlight.

In January this year, Archana Dudhate, 25, was appointed as a nurse at a clinic in Mahul. She then discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She lives in Bhiwandi, which is almost 40 km away and it takes her three hours to travel to Mahul, one way. She – like her colleagues – always carries drinking water along, vowing to never touch the water supplied in Mahul. Earlier this month, Dudhate and another colleague resigned from the job.

In December 2014, the Environment Pollution Research Center (EPRC) of the city’s KEM Hospital confirmed the high presence of toluene diisocyanate, which has been the cause of several ailments prominent among the residents of this suburb: skin and eye irritation, breathlessness, a choking sensation in the chest, and frequent sneezing. A previous report by the state Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) also reported high concentrations of nickel and benzopyrene, exceeding permissible levels, as well as the presence of volatile organics. A second MPCB report claimed the air was clean.

The National Green Tribunal – which expedites disposal of cases pertaining to the environment – cited the EPRC and MPCB findings in 2015 while hearing a case brought by residents against the industries. It declared that the symptoms among the ailing people were all similar.

On a hot afternoon in mid-April, Sushila Tushamad hadn’t even brushed her teeth: she had been running around after her two grandchildren, while her daughter-in-law was at Rajawadi Hospital. She was merely glad that her eldest grandson, from her other son, was old enough to not need constant attention.

“My daughter-in-law was always healthy, but ever since we arrived here, she has been very weak,” she explained. “It is difficult for me to take care of the children; they get cranky for not having seen their mother for many days. How can I take them to the hospital? It takes an hour to get there by bus, and the whole day goes for a toss: who will do the cooking and cleaning and storing the water when it comes for just a few hours?”

Little did she expect her daughter-in-law to be dead just two weeks later.

On that day in April, Tushamad’s three grandchildren were scrambling on a thin mattress on the floor of the first-floor, 225 square foot apartment in building number 29. Their flat – identical to all the flats in all of the 72 buildings – has just one room, and an adjacent kitchen. Sunlight barely seeps into the flats through the single window in the kitchen, which most people keep shut to avoid breathing the stench from below. Another window opens to the common gallery area, but it also strips the residents of any intimacy. For those families that have installed an air conditioner because of the lack of air circulation, the doors and windows are shut, and the light is turned on in the house since morning. There is no cognizance of night or day.

While the men have been able – or forced – to get out of Mahul each day to reach their workplaces, either by hopping onto their bike or waiting for 30 minutes for a bus – the situation is worse for the women who live in Mahul. With the commute to their workplaces becoming longer, many have had to resign from their job, in order to take care of the family. This has further strained families economically.

Thirty-one-year-old Shilpa Sawant was among the first to arrive in Mahul in 2013 with her parents and two brothers, settling in building number 19. At that time, she had risen up in her career within an accountancy firm, and one of her younger brothers had secured first job. Her father was finding it tough to sustain his work as a painter, because all his clients and connections were now much farther away than where he lived and worked previously.

But since July 2016, Sawant has been at home. The ailments began with a throbbing headache, joint pain, and frequent colds. When her skin began to itch and develop boils, and the joint aches prevented her from walking to the bathroom three feet away, she resigned from her job. She was admitted to the hospital several times; cerebrospinal fluid was detected, and even though she feels better than before, she consumes 18 different pills each day.

“Nobody my age should suffer the way I suffer. I have lost all my confidence from being ill for such a long time and being handicapped by it,” Sawant says, adding that even though their previous home was in a slum, it was much larger and wasn’t dark and dank. It didn’t help that ever since they moved to Mahul, the commute to her workplace meant four different changes and 90 minutes one way, adding to the cost of commuting.

Since Deepika Rupawate’s husband works as a driver who is hardly in the city, she had to bring her second newborn to her mother’s place in Mahul, right after delivery. The baby, born prematurely, weighed 1.3 kg at birth and has Down syndrome. The 2-year-old has scaly skin, and Rupawate worries about her daughter’s health.

“The doctor had told me that my baby should be raised in a healthy environment. I cannot raise her and the elder one single-handedly, with my husband away. But being with my mother in Mahul also means living in an unhealthy environment,” she says, adding that her toddler’s constant illness prevents her from taking up a job.

Rupawate’s younger sister, Swati Ghanghav, 22, works in a shop nearby and says that her periods have been irregular ever since they moved here. She claims that her weight has gone down from 48 kg to 42 kg. The youngest sister Dhanashree, 17, had just returned from the hospital where she was admitted for nearly a week. This has been an annual occurrence.

According to Bilal Khan, an activist with a grassroots movement for housing rights, people living in slums usually have low health indicators, but their health worsens once they begin to live in Mahul. A doctor assigned to a clinic situated across two flats in building 42, says that she has mostly seen cases of malaria skin rashes.

Khan has been actively involved in a slow resistance put forth by the residents who want to have Mahul declared inhospitable by the Bombay High Court. “The case seems to have traction as the NGT has already declared the space to be inhospitable,” Khan said. “However, the government has been insisting otherwise, through repeated affidavits in the court. But it seems likely that the court will take into cognizance the NGT order.”

Until February this year, Harshad Kale was the assistant commissioner for M-West ward, the municipal jurisdiction under which Mahul falls. After serving for three years, he was transferred. He says that it is not possible for MCGM to deliver all facilities at once to newly established camps, and that he had worked toward establishing a dispensary. However, when asked about the issue of pollution, he said that it is a matter of perception, citing the second MPCB report which declares clean air in Mahul.

So far, there are 211 petitioners to the case, leaving out a larger chunk of people who, according to Rekha Gadge, would rather feel settled than worry about their home being demolished again. “Their reasoning can be valid only until someone from their family falls ill. There have already been 22 deaths and disease is rampant. Don’t we deserve better lives and have a right to clean environment, as enshrined in our constitution?” says Gadge, a worker at a local college. Gadge and her husband were forced to move to Mahul in June 2017 after they lived in the open for one whole month, when their house was demolished.

Ever since they moved to Mahul, her sons have not had a chance to sit at home and study: while she has to leave home at 5 am to reach her workplace, her husband takes their sons to his flower shop, close to their previous residence in Ghatkopar, where they sit idle until it’s time for school. In the evening, while Gadge is either running between the High Court and lawyers or mobilizing support within Mahul to strengthen the case – by collecting the medical reports of every ailing person – her husband brings the children back to the shop, until the end of his business hours, around 8 pm. “None of us can bring the kids back and forth 14 km, and leave them home alone. Their education has gone for a toss. But there is no option for a good school either nearby,” Gadge said.

Often, her current home in Mahul is where other residents flock to, as late as 9 pm. Even though tired from long days, she explains to them in detail about the proceedings in the High Court so far, and tells them about the strategies toward ensuring that their rights are recognized.

Often, it’s the women who flock to her. “Women always lead tough lives. But when they are sent to a place like Mahul, the little freedom they may have achieved through a job is also lost. I have lost so much, that this loss and anger is what fuels me to fight against living here. The government doesn’t care about the poor, but we will remind them that we exist and we deserve better lives,” Gadge said.