Justice Lentin Visits Kamraj Nagar, and What Happens Next
In mid-monsoon exactly thirty-six years ago, A.R. Antulay, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra initiated Operation Demolition, whose objective was to bulldoze and evict pavement dwellers in a corridor "from the Airport to the Taj Hotel". On 14th July Antulay declared that these pavements will be cleared of its dwellers and asked civic officials to do the same by 21st of July. The objective of the these demolitions was to make the city clean and beautiful and the overall aim was to de-congest the city. During the course of the meeting in which the decision to evict pavement dwellers was taken, it was also decided that Mantralaya; the official seat of the government of Maharashtra would also be shifted to New Bombay. At that time the idea of de-congestion was linked with the idea of developing the city, which has come up in the past. During the decade post world war two, a committee was formed to look into the issues of post-war Bombay's development; one of the underlying ideas was to de-congest the island city and move out people and industrial activities to further north. At that time C D Barfiwala a member of the said Committee objected to such a design. Then in 70s the idea of New Bombay was mooted and implemented with the aim of de-congesting the island city and in that context it was decided to shift government offices including Mantralaya to New Bombay. The state narrative emphasised that the population of the city was growing, there was no control on in-migration and this way there was going to be a collapse; in order to deal with such a situation, de-congestion was inevitable.
On the morning of July 23rd 1981, bulldozers ran over an estimated 1600 pavement homes, and the people in them were put in state transport buses and taken to locations outside the city limits, including to train stations such as Bhusawal and Solapur, where non-Maharashtrians were given tickets to "home" states. These demolitions are still recalled by the slum dwellers and activists for this brutality of just not evicting the dwellers but also forcing them out of the bounds of the city limits, packing them off in trains and buses back to their villages. On July 23rd itself, the rights organisation PUCL who were approached by two journalists-Praful Bidwai and Ivan Ferra; obtained an interim stay on the demolitions and deportations, but they did not stop entirely. The stay was granted by Justice Lentin at the Bombay High Court. Even after the interim stay some demolitions were carried out by the municipal authorities and thus PUCL re-approached Justice Lentin upon which BMC disputed the fact of continuing of demolitions even after the court's stay. Upon this Justice Lentin decided to make a visit to the slums for himself to see.
On Saturday August 1st, amid news of continuing demolitions, Justice Lentin visited a basti in Vile Parle, on the now Western Express Highway, called Kamraj Nagar by its residents. Unannounced, and wearing a brown coat, he spent 90 minutes talking to people and instructing that unbroken shacks be marked with a white cross. Three days later, he passed an order instructing that people in Kamraj Nagar could return to marked huts, and that demolitions city-wide be put on hold till October 15, after the monsoons. Lentin would later write, "I resolved that if I could bend the law, even twist it, to ameliorate, be it in a little way, the lot of those who were helpless, for those who could not speak for themselves...”. Justice Lentin was at the Bombay High Court during the duration of 1975 till 1989 and his stint was marked by being in a head on dispute with the state legislature of Maharashtra over an inquiry commission into deaths caused by corruption in the JJ Hospital.
Witness to these court proceedings was also a young journalist, Olga Tellis, writer of an anonymous column in the Blitz called "Garibi Hatao, My Foot! that had been running through the Emergency years; who in her own words was miffed of the petitioners (PUCL in this) submitting to the Court that they were not supporting the cause of the squatters but expected a civilised way of dealing with the issue of pavement dwellers and their eviction. She shared her angst to her fellows at Centre for Education and Documentation(CED) one of the evenings in minth of July, 1981. CED, behind the Regal Cinema was in those days a place where people doing archival research and journalists would gather practically every evening. Their discussions could end up at Gokul or in the papers the next morning. In an unusual move that seems to stem from discussions at CED, Olga Tellis wrote a letter to the Supreme Court that made a different, more radical claim than PUCL's, stating that the pavement dwellers issue was about a right to life and livelihood for all city dwellers. She further claimed that it was a Fundamental Right of the pavement dwellers to live on pavements since the State had failed in providing decent formal housing to the poor and the authority of municipal authorities to carry out evictions granted to them under section 314 of the BMC Act was unconstitutional as it was ultra vires the Right to Life granted under the Constitution and thus should be struck down.
Excerpt from an interview with Olga Tellis in 2016, on Pad.ma
Meanwhile, PUCL had moved the pavement dwellers case to the Supreme Court, asking essentially for a more humane demolition procedure. A PUCL report titled The Shunned and the Shunted lays before readers the arguments it was making in the court, as well the difference between their's and Olga's approach on the issue of pavement dwellers. The Supreme Court under Justice P N Bhagwati took suo-moto notice of Olga's Letter and converted it into a PIL, and clubbed it with the PUCL case. Thus the PUCL case on which Justice Lentin had given the stay became known as Olga Tellis and others, the others being PUCL.
The Supreme Court also continued the stay which went uptil the year 1985 when the final judgement was pronounced. The period in between 1981 and 1985 saw emergence of many housing rights organizations as a response to the eviction of the pavement dwellers and the judicial intervention. Nivara Hakk Surakhshan Samiti(NHSS), SPARC, YUVA, Committee for Housing Rights(CRH) and finally the National Campaign for Housing Rights all saw their emergence as this time as the background.
Thus a range of strong positions were taken up by people in city institutions during those few weeks, addressing the perennial Bombay question of housing or lack of it. Some months later, Antulay had to resign as CM because of a high court judgement on the cement scam, also by Justice Lentin. That milieu formed the backdrop for two extraordinary Bombay films released in the following years: Kundan Shah's black comedy Jaane Bhi do Yaaro, and Saeed Mirza's housing-courtroom tragedy Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!.