January 26, 2013 @ 8:08 pm
by Dhimant Parekh
On a bright and sunny Saturday, in fact on our nation’s Republic Day, we head to the EWS quarters at Ejipura which’ve been recently demolished. From the main road, we see walls of rubble and not knowing where to go, we call one of the volunteers there.
“Come to the church next to the big tree,” she tells us as we tip-toe around garbage mounds and broken footpath slabs.
As we enter past the yellow barricades, we see flattened land all around us. What was once a teeming slum with hundreds of homes was now just a level ground of mud, bricks and an occasional forgotten belonging. There were small children playing with plastic bags and empty water bottles.
The big tree was easy to spot – it was the only standing structure apart from the small church that cowered under it.
On our left were new concrete pipes a few feet in length and large enough to have a man standing inside them. Some of the families had made these pipes their new home – shelter was redefined.
We reach the tree and the volunteer turn out was meagre. One of the coordinators hands out a form to us and asks us to collect information about the remaining families in the premises. This information would then be used to better mobilise resources and to figure out an action plan for the families. While we are going through this form and understanding the work involved, the children have gathered around us. They are eager to show what they’ve been learning at the local school nearby. A school they no longer go to. They sing nursery rhymes – Johnny Johnny Yes Papa evokes much laughter.
A van with the caption “Jesus in Ministry of Lord” on its windscreen comes right opposite the church and stops. Furtively, a man, who represented Maverick Holdings (owners of Garuda malls), packs off a family from one of the pipes into the van. The van quickly starts moving towards the exit.
We rush towards the van to prevent this forced eviction. The compensation of Rs. 5000 per family was reduced to Rs. 2000 by this man. When questioned, he refused to give more. We blocked the van’s exit by sitting in front of it. This got the cops riled up and within minutes many more police personnel reach the venue.
“I will have you arrested in contempt of court,” the police head tells us, caressing his walkie-talkie as he spoke. He then looks at the German volunteer who was protesting with us and says, “We will confiscate your passport.” The German makes a gesture with his hands and this makes the cop go ballistic. He looks at me and screams that he will confiscate my passport too and that he would file cases against all of us. He then gets his mobile phone out, peers into it under the blazing sun, calls up his superiors and arranges for an arrest to happen.
The family who was seated in the van suddenly steps out and pleads with us to let them go. They were grateful for the Rs. 2000 and feared that they would lose even that. We lost our case to poverty and thuggery. We let the van go. The police smirked.
The head cop turned to me and said “Why are you people preventing our work?”
“We are not. We want these families to get compensation,” I tell him.
“See, it is really the goodness of Maverick Holdings’ owner that he is giving at least this much to these people. You people should go thank him,” he says this with clear conviction. Obviously the police had no compassion for the poor. They sang praises of the builder who was doing all this.
The children under the tree had now started singing the national anthem with gusto. They sang with pride, they beamed with joy. They were singing a song about a nation that was killing them slowly right there. A nation that had turned its back on them, a nation that was walking away from them quite nimbly – and the children slapped their foreheads in salute and in unison as the words Jai Hind came out and echoed into the air.
The van had, by now, managed to evict 4 more families. This time they were given Rs. 5000 each thanks to the volunteers checking the money and ensuring that the families did not sign any receipt until they got this money from the builder’s representative. The evicted families would either resettle in some other slums or just be thrown on footpaths. The children were excited about a van ride, not quite knowing that this was pretty much the end of any hope that there might’ve been about their future.
There was one boy, around 3 years old, who hung around and played with all of us. A naughty kid with a lot of energy. There was a 6 year old girl who loved the sketch pens that some of us were carrying and she asked for “fresh paper” to do some colouring on her own. Suddenly the children were having a nice time. Sitting there under the church, I made paper planes with the printed material of the planned freedom march. The kids wanted many more of these “rockets”. For some halting moments we forgot that we were amidst tragedy as these paper rockets left small hands, jumped up in the air and hurtled down.
Late evening as the moon appeared on the horizon, all the pipes were empty. Most families were evicted. There were some more families on the other parts of the land and we distributed clothes to them.
“Dinner is coming,” was a phrase we chanted regularly as the people came up to us asking for food of any kind. The kids were still hanging around and scattered families were in talks trying to figure out what to do, where to go.
We walked away from the site with a sense of shame. The ground on which those kids threw paper planes will be decorated with a mall. A mall for us all. A mall built on the broken futures of our weaker children. Jai Hind.