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I don't see Singapore

By Dilip D'Souza
Last updated on: February 07, 2005 13:34 IST
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You see," says Mohammed Muslim Pathan, almost genial as he walks around with me, "you see Dilip-bhai, they want to make a Singapore of Mumbai. That's why they are doing this. But understand one thing, Dilip-bhai. That will be a Singapore only for VIPs. Not for poor people like us."

Something makes me stop as he says this. I realise what it is. I want to look around: to find out if I can see, or imagine, this Mumbai-as-Singapore of some future date.

So I stand in this moonscape and do just that. Look all around me. The small clump of people who are walking with me, residents of this once-place, consider me as if I'm a little strange, then they do the same. We see rubble. We see burned patches of ground. A destroyed, then burned Hanuman temple, with its slightly charred idol of Hanuman lonely on a pile of bricks. Beyond, a huge mound of rubble that used to be a mosque. A cart with coloured liquids in 2-litre Pepsi bottles. Scattered underfoot, a large collection of dry mango seeds. People everywhere, some sitting blankly, some picking through the debris, one offering me a battered formica-topped chair to sit on, another asking if she can bring me a drink. Dust and smoke in the air, through which I can see multi-storeyed middle-class blocks of flats in the middle distance. Malad.

I don't see Singapore.

This is Ambujwadi, in the northern Mumbai suburb of Malad. An enormous open area that used to be an enormous slum till just weeks ago, when the bulldozers of Mumbai's Municipal Corporation swept through and simply flattened the place. I mean no exaggeration. I have been in such disaster zones as cyclone-hit Orissa, quake-hit Kutch and tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu. Nothing there matches Ambujwadi for the sheer completeness of destruction. This man-made catastrophe -- and let's dispense with the euphemisms, that's what this was -- has left nothing standing save the occasional piles of bricks under a Hanuman idol, or an Ambedkar painting. Nothing. Several hundred homes in this immediate area, gone. Several thousand people who lived in those homes, suddenly homeless.

On the way to Singapore.

On the way, there are all kinds of little milestones to make you stop and think. What would you say of wells, for example?

Well, wells dot the entire expanse of Ambujwadi. This used to be swampy, overgrown land ("jungle", they tell me). When the people here first arrived, they cleared the jungle, filled in ditches and some marshy parts of the area. Some swampy bits remain, but by and large it's gone. But water, the swamp notwithstanding, was always a problem. The municipality did not supply any here -- taking the view, of course, that the people here were illegals and their huts were illegal and maybe their very existence was illegal -- and so the residents of Ambujwadi dug their own wells.

I'm standing over one, looking in. Hole in the ground at least 25 feet deep, six feet across, lined part of the way down with concrete. There used to be a rim around it, but now there's just rubble. (Thank you, Municipality). My new friends here are looking in with me. A little boy dodges between us to peer in as well; alarmed at how close he gets to the edge, the man beside me yells at him to get back.

Not that there's much to see. What I discern at the bottom is not water, but muck and debris. Much of it, pushed in there during the demolition. This is, as Monty Python might have said, an ex-well. Can't be used.

Mumbai 2020: Dream or nightmare?

I'm getting used to the idea that not only must we demolish these people's homes, we must also ensure that they have no water.

Another well, another deep hole. But this one has long bamboo poles and timber flung in. Another one. But this one is filled to the brim with mud and bricks, leaving a soft depression in the ground. Many more like that. Umabai Chavan, getting ready to nurse her baby daughter Parvati on the rubble of her home, shouts to me across one such depression: "Everything from my house is in there! The municipality threw it in and pushed in mud to cover it all!"

But with their wells more or less history, what are these people doing for water? Two things happen when I ask that.

One, they take me to some plywood planks lying almost at random on the ground. Lift one, and it's another hole disappearing blackly into the ground. A well, this one saved from the municipality by the simple device of laying these planks over the hole, carefully enough to look as if they are discarded there. This way, Dilip Kale tells me, they managed to save one or two wells in the area. Another was saved by arranging the planks and getting kids to sit on them. They persuaded the bulldozer men to leave the kids to play there.

Slumbai: Found and Lost

These few are the sole water sources for the approximately 3,000 people here. For washing, drinking, life, whatever.

Two, an old woman called Bhimabai Kale lowers a battered tin tied to a string into the well that's been opened surreptitiously for my benefit. Pulls up a load of water. Some dark specks and a couple of grimy leaves float in it. But other than that, it looks fine. "Taste it", says Bhimabai with a smile, "go on, taste it, this is what we use, it's OK!"

So I do taste it. It is OK.

We move on to other dismal Ambujwadi sights. Very carefully, almost reverently, Bhimabai behind me lays plywood planks back over the mouth of the well.

Trudging towards the charred Hanuman idol, Mohammed speaks again, pointing. "You see, Dilip-bhai, our women go to those flats" -- the ones in Malad -- "to wash dishes and clothes. Yet it's us they're getting rid of. Can you tell me what this Singapore will be like?"

Before I can answer, I notice two girls in a smashed hut nearby. They are washing dishes in a dirty brown liquid that, I must presume, once was water. Water that once came out of a well, like the stuff I tasted.

Yes Mohammed, I think. What will this Singapore be like? What is this Mumbai like, right now?

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Dilip D'Souza