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Slum-dwellers harassed for protecting mangroves

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Mumbai:

An activist of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA) who has registered several complaints against mangrove cutting and other illegal activities in Mumbai’s Vikhroli area, is being continuously harassed by the Forest Department (FD) officials in the name of “inquiry.”

Uday Mohite, a resident of the Bhimchhaya slum area and activist with GBGBA alleged is now filing a petition against continuous harassment by slumlords and the FD. Interestingly, he has received a show cause notice from the Forest Department saying that they have received a complaint against him from the people of Bhimchhaya regarding the cutting of mangroves by him.

Bhimchhaya is an area covered with Mangroves, which are a vital part of Mumbai’s ecology. This is an old settlement, which has seen several demolition attempts by the state government since 2004, who are claiming this settlement is a threat to the mangroves. Slum dwellers have been collectively opposing demolition under the banner of GBGBA. In May 2017, BMC had tried to demolish the settlement, but the activists got a stay order from the Bombay High Court.

The Bhimchhaya had declared as a slum by Maharashtra State government in 2011, and have been preventing further encroachment and mangrove destruction in the area by slumlords who have been bringing in new slums in connivance with the authorities. This illegality should have been handled by the forest department, but they have neglected their duty, and the older slum-dwellers themselves took up the task of protecting the mangroves. These slumlords have been constructing illegally on the cleared area and selling them to new settlers, bringing in more human-environment conflict and vote bank politics, which has suited the agenda of the politician-slumlord nexus and threatened the fragile environment of Mumbai city.

Uday Mohite and several other residents of the settlement have been registering complaints against forest dept as well as other concerned departments, which has motivated the authorities to target them.

On 28th August 2018, Uday Mohite submitted a complaint about the destruction of Mangrove by slumlords in nexus with forest officials at the Office of the Collector, Mumbai Suburban District (MSD), after several complaints over years to all the concerned authorities.

The office of the Collector, in response, wrote a letter to all the concerned authorities to take action against the officer as well as the slumlord Pandurang Khawle in Uday Mohite’s complaint. However, instead of acting on the complaint, the forest department recently sent a Show Cause Notice to Uday Mohite, accusing him of destroying the mangroves while the real culprits remained unquestioned.

“After the complaints by a resident of our area about cutting trees near her house, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) authorities inspected the area and found that trees had been cut and reported it to the police station. The Forest Dept, however, claimed no tree cutting happened in that particular place. This clearly shows that the forest authorities are supporting the slumlord”, said Uday Mohite.

When Mohite filed an RTI about the complaints filed against him by the forest department in the show cause notice, he found that that fake signature had been used to support the complaint.

On one hand the government is trying to evict the older slum dwellers of Bhimchhaya by demolishing their houses on the other, the slumlords and forest department are together bringing in new dwellers by cutting the mangroves and selling them illegal structures. This has been impacting the environment and leading to invisible exploitation of urban poor.

Instead of taking action against the slumlord or corrupt Forest Department officials, the government has been harassing the poor slum dwellers, who are already facing exploitation and discrimination at various levels from society as well as the state, and yet trying to protect the environment – a job that the authorities should theoretically be doing.

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