A deadly offer the poor could not refuse

Can a government send its citizens to live in known toxic areas?

Published: 20th November 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th November 2018 01:01 AM   |  A+A-

amit bandre

Can a government send its citizens to live in known toxic areas? Can a government allow residential projects to come up around industrial zones and garbage dumping grounds? Doesn’t such action amount to culpable homicide not amounting to murder?
This offence is being committed day in and day out in the financial capital of the country. 
Our polluted cities have been breaking international records for some years now. The air of our national capital makes world news, and drives foreign diplomats away. It barely needs saying that pollution doesn’t rank high among the concerns of our governments, whether state or Central. But apathy is one thing, cruelty another.

In Mumbai, more than 100 deaths have taken place in a population of 30,000 over the last 16 months that can be directly linked to our elected rulers. Last year, hutments around a crucial water pipeline were demolished on court orders. The residents were resettled in buildings far away, with none of the infrastructure necessary for daily living. Children dropped out of school; men and women lost jobs because commuting from their new homes was unaffordable.  

So the government was responsible for increasing both the school dropout rate—many of these were first generation learners—as well as adding to the growing ranks of the unemployed.But even if by some miracle, the infrastructure had been in place, the deaths would still have taken place, perhaps at a slower rate. For Mahul, the area chosen by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) to build a dense cluster of skyscrapers, is home to power plants, oil refineries and chemical plants. The MMRDA reports directly to the chief minister.  

When some of these plants, citing security concerns, objected to residential buildings coming up so close, the government came up with what it thought was the ideal solution. Housing for Mumbai’s policemen has been a problem forever. Why not kill two birds with one stone by sending them to Mahul? When the cops refused, the government suggested firemen could be the ideal residents. They too refused. But slum dwellers whose homes were slated for demolition on court orders could not refuse.

If that’s not proof of the Maharashtra government’s utter callousness, there’s more. Approached by a few older residents of Mahul, the National Green Tribunal certified the area as uninhabitable. The government challenged this decision all the way to the Supreme Court.This is the government that has cited lack of funds to pay anganwadi workers their arrears; it has halved grants to aided schools. Yet, it is ready to spend whatever it takes just so that it doesn’t have to implement measures that will help its citizens lead healthier lives.

This is not the only instance where the Maharashtra government has sent its citizens to die. With housing unaffordable in the city and even in its packed older suburbs, a growing population looks for homes of their own in far-flung satellite towns. Little do they know what awaits them. Who will tell them that the government has allowed residential projects to be built in areas, which for decades have existed and continue to be promoted as industrial zones? Right across the road from chemical factories and a continuously smouldering dumping ground are row upon row of high-rises.

See the red water that flows in the creeks and rivers in this industrial belt, breathe in the chemicals and fumes that are all around you, and you know this is murder. There exist a pollution control board, municipal councils and environment ministries, which together are duty bound to prevent this administration of slow poison to citizens. Instead, the Maharashtra government goes to the Supreme Court to challenge the NGT’s orders that jeans washing units must be closed down because they are polluting the two rivers that are the lifeline of this belt.

Listening to these citizens—be they the slum dwellers of Mahul or in Ambernath, an emerging middle class aspiring to finally enjoy the luxury of a spacious flat and some open space—you wonder, what does the political rhetoric now dominating the news mean to them? Are they enchanted with the prospect of a grand temple in the birthplace of a deity? Do they rejoice when they hear of goshalas to house cows? Is the running down of the first prime minister and his family music to their ears? You dare not ask.  

Both groups spent Diwali on the streets, protesting. But were their elected representatives listening? The slum dwellers have forced a deaf administration to start negotiations, by squatting on the streets for three weeks; by gheraoing a minister’s home. Will the middle class residents who face the same problems, be able to do this? They have not yet lost hope that those whom they elected to heed their problems, will do something. If that doesn’t happen, they are preparing for a long battle.   

Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life. The Supreme Court expanded this right to mean the right to clean air and water, after citizens affected by pollution caused by the government’s sins of omission and commission approached it. It’s a battle that has to be fought anew every time. And it’s a battle our governments are experts at handling. Yet, there’s no choice but to fight.

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