Shivaji Jadhav shows me his election ID card. I take stock. Photograph? Present, check. Is it his? Yes, check. The Election Commission’s hologram seal? Present, check. Stamp with an EC official’s signature? It graces the back, check. Address? Present—and it actually includes this area, Ambujwadi, in the north Bombay suburb of Malad—check.

Any false notes? Indeed. A small rectangle on the front of the card gives us Jadhav’s “age as on 1.1.95.” That age is … 100. One hundred years.

Funny, I’m looking at Jadhav and he doesn’t seem a day over 35. Must be the bracing air in this place, the bracing roof- and wall-less air of the past several weeks, which has given this 100-year-old man a second youth.

Ambujwadi today is like the tsunami zones I visited in Tamil Nadu in January. No, strike that, it looks worse. At least when the wave barreled out of the Bay of Bengal it left some things standing. But when Bombay’s Municipality bulldozed into Ambujwadi (which, ironically, first happened that very tsunami day) and other slum pockets all over the city, pretty much nothing was left standing.

Which is why today, what used to be Ambujwadi is a vast dusty plain. As your eyes sweep the area, the tallest structures—until you catch the distant multistoried apartment blocks of Malad—are piles of rubble. Ten bricks tall at most. That’s how complete this municipal demolition job was.

The issue, as various Bombay personalities have pronounced sagely, is “illegality.” Several years ago, the Government of Maharashtra declared all slums built after January 1, 1995—called the cut-off date—illegal.
Meaning that those who can prove they were in their hovels before that date are safe. Those who can’t, are not. Their homes will be torn down. Which is what has happened, in Ambujwadi and elsewhere.

The emptiness of this kind of policy-making, the arbitrariness of dates, the cavalier nature of such an approach to the issue of slums and the lives in them, and the willful blindness to the real reasons for slums— these don’t concern people who live outside slums. No, we are satisfied with legality as determined by a date.

In the slum of Ambujwadi such determinations carry a certain resonance. Because the demolitions left several thousand Pardhis—one of the tribes we once called criminal—homeless. Most of them, including Shivaji Jadhav, have lived on the rubble of their homes, out in the open, for several weeks now. Thing is, if you are born a Pardhi, the world decides you are a criminal. So to a Pardhi, the notion of a cut-off date must seem like familiar territory indeed: I’m born, I’m criminal. I live here, I’m illegal. What will they do with me when I die?

Its arbitrariness apart, what’s notable about the cut-off date is that the government has never seriously enforced it. That is, until December 2004. And as I write this, the count of demolished slum hutments across my city is at 90,000 and rising. Several hundred of them belong to Pardhis in Ambujwadi.

Make that “belonged.”

Before I visited this barren dustscape, I read news that the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has asked the state Election Commission to “delete from the voters’ list those slum dwellers whose illegal shanties have been razed.” This request is on my mind as I meet Pardhis in Ambujwadi and ask about the man-made tsunami that hit them. They bring me pieces of paper to show that they have been here since before 1995. Most also bring me their election ID cards, each one complete with photograph, seal, and address—yes, with Ambujwadi listed.

These, of course, came from the sloppy attempt a decade ago to issue such cards to all Indians. It was done so half-heartedly as to be a useless exercise. You understand how useless when election officers wave them aside in voting booths. What matters is not whether you have this card, but whether you are on the rolls. Yet those of us with cards—like many in Ambujwadi—hold them tightly. We know that perhaps half the citizens did not get them; we also know that the back of the card tells us it might be used in other government schemes.

And who knows, it might be useful when the municipality razes our homes.

With much else, Ambujwadi’s residents showed these cards to municipal and police officials who arrived to demolish their homes. They tell me some officials accused them of forging the cards. (Right, down to the hologram and Jadhav’s 100 years.) Others pointed out that the cards are dated 15.10.1995, and thus don’t prove their holders were here before the cut-off date. So the demolition went ahead.

And now the municipality wants to remove them from the electoral rolls. The cards, you see, still don’t matter. Ten years ago we gave people cards as proof of their identity when they vote. We have since decided their homes are illegal. So now we will take away that proof.

Elsewhere in Ambujwadi, Umadevi Gupta shows me a file filled with papers: election card, ration card, a pink government form titled “Record of Enumeration.” This last has her name and her husband’s, Radheshyam Gupta, with their Ambujwadi address. It is signed and stamped by a government official. On the back, under the word “DECLRARATION” [sic], are these lines:

I solemnly declare that all the persons whose particulars are mentioned overleaf are citizens of India, are of the age of 18 years or above on the qualifying date and are ordinary [sic] resident at the given address.

But didn’t you know, bulldozers have no use for solemn declarations. Not even declarations on behalf of citizens of India. Give them some of that bracing air.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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