A Struggle for the Right to the City: the case of Mahul

A Struggle for the Right to the City: the case of Mahul

‘Toxic hell’, ‘human dumping ground’, ‘gas chamber’, ‘hellhole’ are some of the names given to Mahul village in Chembur, situated on the eastern coast of Mumbai, which is surrounded by three refineries and 16 chemical factories. On 25th April, around 400 residents (including children) of Mahul village entered into the 180th day of protest on the roads, voicing the serious environmental, health, and livelihood issues faced by the families living there. The protest, which is in progress at Vidyavihar, Mumbai represents the struggle of close to 5500 families (almost 30,000 residents) for safe and livable space at Mahul where these families were “rehabilitated” as per the Bombay High Court Order of 2009.

The Court order came as a response to public interest litigation (PIL) No. 140 of 2006, filed by an NGO Janhit Manch, which sought the demolition of housing structures within ten meters Tansa water pipeline that provides water to Mumbai. These hutments and other housing structures were considered to pose a threat to the health as well as the security of the citizens of Mumbai against a looming threat of terror attacks. Accordingly, the Bombay High Court ordered for the rehabilitation of households, while the order and the process of rehabilitation saw a mixed response from the residents, as they were unsure of the place to which they would be moved after eviction.

Effects Post Rehabilitation

Mahul was initially offered as ‘transit’ accommodation, with a promise of shifting the households to other Mumbai suburbs in the future. The rehabilitated families were shifted to 72 buildings, which are a stone’s throw away from the refineries and chemical factories of Mahul. Right after moving to Mahul, the residents started facing serious health problems viz. respiratory and cardiovascular disorders due to severe air and water pollution by the surrounding industries. Moreover, lack of proper infrastructure (such as sewage, electricity, and waste disposal) and lack of access to amenities (such as public transport, schools, and hospitals) added to their woes.

The gravity of the matter can be understood in the light of information obtained under Right to Information (RTI) Act which reported 88 deaths in the past two years in Mahul due to excessive air and water pollution caused by the industries nearby. Multiple government bodies have confirmed that the dangerous levels of pollution in Mahul render it unfit for habitation. In 2018, as directed by the Bombay High Court, the Urban Development Department asked IIT Bombay to conduct ‘a survey of various infrastructural facilities to be provided to the Mahul rehabilitates’.

The survey reported unsafe conditions relating to air pollution, sewage overflow, sanitary fixtures and water contamination, which severely compromises human dignity, safety, security and decent living for the inhabitants. In 2017, as per the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), an environment regulatory body for Maharashtra, the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) score for Chembur was observed to be 63.5, which signifies that the area is ‘severely polluted’. According to the judgment M.A. No.55/2015 passed by the National Green Tribunal (Western Zone) Bench, Pune, it was observed that there is a persisting problem of air pollution in Mahul, which is correlated to the adverse health effects on the surrounding population.

In 2013, the Environment Pollution Research Centre (EPRC) of King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital conducted a respiratory morbidity survey in Mahul. The survey reported that 67.1 per cent of the surveyed population had complaints of breathlessness more than three times in a month, 76.3 per cent reported the complaints in all seasons, 86.6 per cent complained of eye-irritation, and 84.5 per cent have a history of persisting choking sensation in the chest. The KEM report also indicated an increased prevalence of asthma, and its correlation with deteriorating ambient air quality, illustrating the statistically significant relationship between air pollution and respiratory/cardio-vascular ailments.  

Housing Rights Based Perspective

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) also known as “a Magna Carta for all human kind” adopted by United Nations in 1948 refers to Right to Housing in Article 25 (1) which states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services…” In India, the Right to Housing is not explicitly defined or recognized in the constitutional framework; rather it is interpreted by invoking the fundamental Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution.  

This was established by a landmark judgment passed by the Supreme Court of India: Olga Tellis Vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) 3 SCC 545, which stated that the Right to Shelter and Livelihood was an intrinsic part of the Right to Life. The petitioners in the case were earning their livelihood on the pavements and going to be evicted as per the orders of the BMC. The Supreme Court judgment expanded the scope of the Right to Life under Article 21 to include Right to Livelihood, which in this case translated into the Right to be allowed to remain on the pavements and the eviction was halted.

Similarly, other Supreme Court judgments such as Shantistar Builders Vs. Narayan Khimalal Totame (1990) 1 SCC 520; Chameli Singh Vs. State of UP (1996) 2 SCC 549; Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation Vs. Nawab Khan Gulab Khan and Others (1997) 11 SCC 121; reiterated the Right to Shelter and Livelihood being intrinsic to the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. All these Rights culminate into the Right to the City which is defined in the United Nations Habitat III paper as “the Right of all inhabitants present and future, to occupy, use and produce just, inclusive and sustainable cities…” This is a collective Right of all inhabitants of the city when the city is considered as a common good, and the responsibility of defending the right lies with the governments and citizens of the city.

Forced Eviction and Human Rights in India

Even though the Right to Shelter and Livelihood has been upheld in multiple judgments by the Supreme Court of India, the issue of forced evictions is still widespread. According to a report by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) on forced evictions in India in 2018, it is estimated that at least 11.3 million (1.13 crore) people in India currently live under the threat of eviction and displacement. The study further reported the long-term and severe impacts of forced evictions, which lead to loss of livelihood, deterioration of health, and mental, physical, and psychological distress. In India, any concerned agency responsible for eviction seldom undertakes any impact assessment determining the effects of eviction. In the case of Mahul rehabilitation, it is well known that the area is a hub for chemical factories and refineries. The area reported dangerous levels of Toluene Diisocyanate (TDI) in the air, which is considered a human carcinogen by international public health organizations.

To put the matter in perspective, in the EPRC report that KEM hospital submitted to the NGT in 2014, Dr. Amita Athavale cautions “Learning from our experience regarding Methyl Isocyanate tragedy in Bhopal in 1984, it may be worthwhile to undertake the monitoring of Toluene Diisocyanate (TDI) which is toxic in concentrations as low as 0.5ppm”. After acknowledging multiple reports reiterating the threat to the health and livelihood of Mahul rehabilitates, on April 4, 2019, the Bombay High Court directed the Government of Maharashtra to compensate ₹15,000 ($215) per month as rent and ₹45,000 ($645) as one time deposit for each rehabilitated family.

The residents of Mahul are apprehensive about the Court order and looking forward to effective implementation of the order by the state government so that they can shift their home from Mahul to appropriate locations of their choice till they are finally rehabilitated to alternate locations. Meanwhile, it is yet another demanding day for the residents’ of Mahul protesting for their Right to the City.


Manav Khaire is a Ph.D. candidate at Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay. He is currently working in the area of housing rights and housing policy.

Note: The views expressed here are personal and that of the authors. We at Mumbai Live believes in supporting the freedom of expression and does not endorse the author's thoughts in any manner. The article is not intended to hurt or insult the sentiments of any community, religion, or people. 

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