- Aug 13, 2009
This 'criminal' met Jawaharlal Nehru - Mumbai - City - The Times of IndiaThis 'criminal' met Jawaharlal Nehru
Jyoti Punwani, TNN, 24 January 2010, 04:49am IST
The next time you grit your teeth at the beggars and the kids selling flowers at every signal, think of Tulsabai Pawar. Maybe she’s out there. Eyes filmed with cataract, this large woman, who’s had children and grandchildren in this city, is still willing to work.
Laying cables, digging roads, building malls—she’s game for anything. But work comes her way maybe ten days a month. Often she doesn’t know whether she’ll have a home to come back to at the end of the day. Her makeshift shelter of plastic held together with ropes and stones gets bulldozed every three months.
Tulsabai is part of the roadside Pardhi colony at Jai Ambe Nagar, Mankhurd. Skilled construction workers, the Pardhis, a tribe notified as criminal by the British and de-notified by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had filled up this marshy area in the late 1990s, and built houses so pucca that even after repeated bulldozing since 2004, when then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh decided to turn Mumbai into Shanghai, some of their foundations can still be seen.
Mumbai still has plots of land marked as adivasi pattas. But the buildings that come up there aren’t inhabited by adivasis. “Five acres, that’s all we are asking for. Well pay for the land, build our own homes. We’re ready to pay for power, water,’’ says Bhanudas Kale, who studied till Std 10 in his village before the police booked him for murder. Unable to afford a lawyer, the 17-year-old rotted in jail till he was acquitted 16 months later, but for the police, he remained a target. Sick of life in and out of jail, Bhanudas came to Mumbai.
Most Pardhis came to Mumbai for the same reason—hoping to escape the stigma of criminality, and of course, because their traditional occupations had become extinct. Nomads who lived off the forest and wandered through villages selling forest produce, and before that, soldiers in Rana Pratap’s army who fled to the forests to escape Akbar’s wrath, the Pardhis today are at the very bottom of the vast army of labourers who build Mumbai but live on its fringes, denied all facilities. A 2008 government resolution decided to give them Below Poverty Line ration cards, but so far, no survey has been carried out of their population in the city. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences survey last year found that only 58 per cent of them had ration cards; and just 10 per cent the caste certificate that could entitle them to a BPL card. Since they are not classified as scheduled tribes, getting a caste certificate involves not just a trip to the village to get the sarpanch to identify them as Pardhis, but also paying lawyers and clerks—a minimum expenditure of Rs 2,500.
But the police need no such identification to pick them up whenever a theft is committed. The TISS survey found that 40 per cent of Pardhis had been picked up at least once; of these, only 9.5 per cent had cases filed against them. There is one difference, though, between the police back home and those in Mumbai, says Bhanudas. “The village police used to tell us, ‘Why don’t you get educated? We feel bad picking you up time after time.’ But the Mumbai police only attack. When they come with the BMC demolition squads, they even smash our drinking water containers. Isn’t that a crime?’’
The last time, Tulsabai’s husband was pushed into the nallah because he was trying to salvage the idols of their little temple. At a recent public hearing of Pardhis held by Medha Patkar, the commonest complaints were frequent demolitions, accompanied by beatings and destruction of all their belongings, and routine arrests because of the “stamp on our foreheads’’, as 85-year-old Shiva Kale puts it. Maybe life was better under foreign rule? The British, whose policies drove these tribes out of their forests, put them into settlements, where children had to attend school and adults work in mills. After 8 pm, they couldn’t step out of the settlement; the watchman came thrice in the night to check on them, recalls Shiva Mama, the first in his village to study till Std 7 in one such settlement. Anyone found missing was assumed to have gone on a robbery.
Poverty forced Shiva Mama to drop out of school and work in the mill; for four hours of work a day he earned Rs 4 and four annas a month, enough to buy jowar for his family. After the mills closed down, he worked on others’ fields till the 1972 famine drove him to Mumbai. Today, Shiva Mama lives on the pavement outside Grant Road station, near a huge garbage container adjoining the station toilet. Yet, says this community leader who met Nehru to demand that the tag of ‘criminal’ be removed from his people, life is better now. “We are free from bondage; we can travel wherever we want. Those days we couldn’t even visit our relatives.’’
Travel they do—from one construction site to another; one roadside settlement to another. Being a nomad in Mumbai is no fun; but every time they try to settle down, they are driven away. “The police abuse us as bhatkyas (nomads),’’ says Bhanudas, “but aren’t they ensuring that we remain so?’’
“Reliance, Tata, Vodafone, MTNL—we’ve laid all their lines. We’ve de-silted nallahs, cleaned gutters. Aren’t we entitled to a home in this city? The police tell us, ‘Go back to your muluk.’ This is our muluk,’’ says Aruna Kale.