Kolkata evicts ecological refugees

Seven hundred squatters occupying prime land rendered homeless; activists demanding their rehabilitation branded Maoists

By Sayantan Bera
Published: Wednesday 11 April 2012

Mahadev Mandal came with his family to Kolkata after the Aila super-cyclone hit Sundarbans in 2009. He works as a rickshaw-puller and is one among the 200 families in the squatter colony

Nearly 200 squatter families living in Nonadanga in east Kolkata for the past few years are in the process of being evicted by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA). On March 30, the slum was bulldozed amid heavy police presence and some hutments were set on fire. The recurrent thunderstorms over the past few days has meant sleepless and soiled nights for nearly 700 people who have been rendered homeless. They work as house helps, rickshaw pullers and construction labourers. Many of the families came to Kolkata in search of work, after the Aila super-cyclone ravaged Sundarbans in 2009, Down To Earth found on its visit to the site. Several families were former squatters who were evicted earlier from the Tolly Canal, for expansion of the Metro Railway and from a cement factory site in south Kolkata.

Evicted families have refused to move without rehabilitation

While the government claims the squatters settled only two months back and are not eligible for either compensation or rehabilitation, the families have started a resistance movement backed by civil rights groups. On April 4, as the families took out a protest march they were caned by the police, injuring among others a pregnant woman and children. Nearly 70 people were arrested and released later, except for seven who the police accused of having Maoist links and “possibly stockpiling arms” at the eviction site. They include prominent civil rights activists, Partha Sarathi Roy of Sanhati and Debolina Chakrabarti of Matangini Mahila Samiti, who were part of the Singur and Nandigram movements that led to the toppling of the 34-year-old left rule in the state. After winning a landmark victory last November, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had declared her plans to transform Kolkata into London. This does not augur well for slum colonies. According to a 2003 UN Habitat report, one-third of Kolkata lives in more than 5,500 registered and unregistered slums.

The site of eviction is a prime real estate in east Kolkata, the government has not revealed what it plans to do in the area

Bone of contention

The squatter colony is on a 2.4 hectare plot in east Kolkata, a prime real estate bordering super-specialty hospitals. The government so far has not revealed what it plans to do in the area that borders a rehabilitation colony it set up earlier. “We heard rumors of an upcoming urban poor development project, a medical tourism or an IT hub, road expansion and even cement factories’, said Ananta Acharya of Democratic Action Forum of Dalits, Women and Minorities.

Anuradha Talwar, of the rights group West Bengal Khet Majdoor Samiti and an advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioner on Right to Food said: “The people being evicted are mostly ecological refugees who are being pushed further off the city limits. The Supreme Court ordered the state to open 143 shelters for the homeless in 2010 but so far only 6 are operational. The government needs to adopt and plan for mass migration from rural areas. Forcible eviction is not the answer.”

Mahadev Mandal, now a rickshaw puller, came to Kolkata with his wife and three children from Sundarbans, the largest estuarine delta of the world that was ravaged by the Aila super-cyclone of 2009. Nearly 75 per cent families from Sundarbans, revealed field surveys by non-profit Tagore Society for Rural Development, have members who migrated to far away states—from Andaman island to Tamil Nadu—in search of work. An unestimated number are in Kolkata, the nearest metropolitan city and state capital.

Mandal came to Kolkata as there was no work in the village and initially stayed at a rented accommodation paying Rs 700 per month. “Unable to manage, I moved here last year. We were informed two days before the demolition, but thought the government will spare us.”

The last few days were harrowing for Mandal and his neighbours. The regular thunderstorms in the evening meant getting soaked in water with only plastic banners for cover. Their refusal to budge means lost days at work and hunger, satiated partially by a public kitchen set up by the rights groups.

Bhupal Mandal has been evicted thrice in 20 years. He is ready to move again.

Sixty-year-old Bhupal Mandal was putting back his bamboo hutment in preparation for another stormy night when this correspondent met him. A former painter and wage labourer, he has been evicted thrice in the past 20 years. He takes his fate with certain equanimity unlike the women and youth who are gearing for a protracted battle. “This has been my life, I will move again, to where I don’t know.”

On April 10, a contractor appointed by the KMDA started land survey for a boundary wall with heavy police deployment, even as the administration remained tight-lipped on what the land will be used for. The residents have started a hunger strike from April 11, as a protest.

Clothes and mattresses, soaked in the thunderstorm the night before, drying in the sun


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