January 22, 2005

Ambujwadi 2: Cut You Off

The natural question to ask in the middle of man-made Bombay devastation is this, oddly enough: when did you come here? Because when it comes to slums, but only slums, there's this peculiar notion of a cut-off date. The Government picks such a date, with no more logic or reasoning than throwing darts, and sets it in stone. The stone's current reading is January 1, 1995. If you were in your slum home before that date, you're legal. If you were not, you're not. Legal status, in the foggy world of slums and Government policy that deals with them, is this trivially determined.

It's as if the Government said: anyone born in Bombay after this arbitrary cut-off date lives here illegally. Who would stand for that? (Are my two children illegal for having been born after January 1 1995?) Yet in what way is that different from saying people who come into the city after that date are not legal? After all, babies come into the city on certain dates too, don't they?

But of course, the years go by, and that stone recedes too far into the past to make sense (if it ever did), and so the Government moves the cut-off date up a few years. That's how trivially that, too, is determined. In fact, the current Maharashtra Government came to office on an explicit election promise to move the date to January 1 2000. (I breathed more easily. At least my son would be a legal Bombayite).

But in office, they changed their Governmental minds. The cut-off date has slid back to 1995, and that's what has determined the current spate of slum demolitions in Bombay.

The emptiness of this kind of policy-making, the cavalier nature of such an approach to the issue of slums and the thousands of lives in them, the arbitrariness of dates, and the way all this wilfully ignores the real reason for slums -- these don't seem to concern too many of us who live outside slums. No, we are satisfied with legality determined by a date.

In Ambujwadi of course, this is a serious concern. Not only that, in Ambujwadi it has a curious resonance. Because most of the people who live here are Pardhis, members of a tribe that was once actually defined as criminal. That are still widely seen that way. Thing is, if you were born a Pardhi, you were a criminal. So to a Pardhi, the notion of a cut-off date must seem entirely in the scheme of things: I'm born, I'm criminal. I live here, I'm illegal. What will they do with me when I die?

So that question, odd or not, is certainly natural: when did you come here? I ask it again and again in Ambujwadi, and as I've known Pardhis to do elsewhere, they run off and bring me pieces of paper. Ration cards, letters, election ID cards, xeroxes of appeals, various municipal forms ... and when I examine them, I'm left appalled by the injustice and tragedy of what happened here.

Not just one or two, but the majority of the people I meet have ration cards that list them as residents of this very spot (mentioning "Ambujwadi" in their address), and are dated before January 1 1995. That is, by the Government's own cut-off date criterion, these people were legal residents here.

Yet their homes were razed.

Do excuse me now, I have a sudden urge to go check on my kids.

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