In Focus

IIT report on Mahul underlines residents' fears

Gajanan Khergamker | Mumbai

On October 28th 2018, around 200 PAPs staged an indefinite sit-in in front of gate number two of Somaiya College in Vidyavihar, their original location, from where they were shifted to Mahul. An IIT inception report on the issue only validates their fears. And, this time around, they're firm, they're just not going back to the hell that risks engulfing their very existence.

Mahul buildings with BPCL Refinery in the backdrop

Starting October 1st 2018, as directed by the Bombay High Court, the state government had begun the process of relocating around 5,500 families suffering from excessive air and water pollution in Chembur’s Mahul area. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) officials held a meeting in this regard with representatives of the affected families, assuring them of 300 houses in the first phase of relocation.

It was on August 8th 2018 that the high court had given the October 1st ultimatum to the state government to decide on accommodation for affected people. The government can offer them reasonable amount for rent for residences till the issue at Mahul village is resolved, the court had said.

The issue in question being a grave violation of their basic human rights. The quality of water appeared “contaminated”; the space between residential buildings was “used as a dump yard posing serious threat to the health of inhabitants,”; a real “risk of water supply getting contaminated with grey water” and Mahul’s inhabitants being forced to keep windows shut due to “excessive spilling of sewage and grey water and foul smell”.

This and more were revealed by an IIT Mumbai’s inception report on Mahul. A full report titled “Survey of various infrastructure facilities to be provided to the Mahul project rehabilitates” prepared after direction from the high court is expected to be submitted by end of November 2018.

That apart, IIT Mumbai also cautioned the state government with the slightest change due to any geomorphological event, such as land subsidence or sea level rise, the high-tide line can shift landwards and cover the entire built-up area, endangering human inhabitation made for the Project Affected People (PAPs) that lies right next to the 50 metre buffer from mangroves in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) II zone. The risks were real.

When Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited that lies barely a stone’s throw away from Mahul’s MHADA colony, registered a blast and fire at a refinery on the noon of August 8th 2018, it just made matters worse for the PAPs who realised there wasn’t even an evacuation road should any untoward accident occur. “We are like sitting ducks. Most of the residents here have simply fled their homes after that day. Even a slight sudden sound sends everyone running out of their homes,” says Mahul resident Hasmukh Waghela.

Mahul resident Hasmukh Waghela talks of the fears of a blast

It was back in 2009 the Bombay High Court ordered Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to remove encroachments near the Tansa water pipeline citing safety and security threats. Of the 160 kms of water pipelines running through Mumbai, the BMC admitted through an affidavit filed in the high court in 2009 that there were about 15,000 illegal structures on the 90 kms of pipeline that lay above ground.

After a few civic orders were passed, the state government finally decided to allot tenements at Mahul, Chembur to the BMC for accommodating residents of structures existing since January 1, 2000.

However, over the years, the dismal condition of living standards of the PAPs, the escalating threat to the health of residents of Mahul and neighbouring Ambapada and a surge in skin ailments, lung disorders even cancers, led to loud demands for relocation to a safer option. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Pune too passed an order that said, “…there is a perceptible threat to health of residents of village Mahul and Ambapada due to prevailing air quality in the area”.

Mahul's buildings have a lot of filth between them making the zone completely unhygienic

On March 15th this year, a hard-nosed Maharashtra government, in a last-ditch effort, assured high court through an affidavit filed before a division bench of Justices Abhay Oka and Riyaz Chagla, the state was sticking to its plan to shift over 11,000 PAPs to 59 buildings at the Eversmile Layout at Mahul. The state government cited the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) reports that showed the ambient air quality was within prescribed limits. It even maintained the NGT order over pollution due to chemical factories in Mahul was based on an interim report by KEM hospital.

The displaced refused to move to Mahul and those living were bent on leaving. Even the high court observed that “we cannot force people to go stay in Mahul in the light of the observations made by the NGT. The state government has two choices – either accommodate these persons elsewhere or give them monthly monetary compensation till they are rehabilitated.”

For now, the state is left with little option but to concede and relocate the PAPs.

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