Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 3: Abysmal security, sexual assault cases remain an alarming concern

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 18 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the third part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

When the rest of India was ready to welcome 2017, tribal students at the state-run ashram school in Aswali village of Palghar – about 120 kilometres from Mumbai – were in for an unpleasant shock. At around 11 pm on 31 December, the principal of the school, Yashwant Wagh, barged into the hostel in a drunken state and physically abused the students.

A nine-year-old boy, when asked about the incident, stood up and positioned himself on the floor as if getting ready to do push-ups. But he soon touched the floor with his tiny elbows and arduously pushed himself forward on the ground. Around 30 students were made to do this on the rough, stone cold floor. The boy then said the principal even kicked some of the students and stood on them. They were being “punished” for not doing their homework.

When the local media took up the issue, the principal apologised, but the petrified students said they have seldom felt safe around him. He was later suspended.

Tribal students in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Tribal students in a school in Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

In Maharashtra, over 5 lakh tribal students are enrolled in 1,109 tribal residential schools – 554 state-run and 555 state-aided – spread across 16 tribal-populated districts. While the conditions in which these tribal students live are repugnant, security of the students, or rather the lack of it, has remained an alarming concern. Apart from being beaten up and ill treated, the cases of sexual exploitation are rampant and it is merely a tip of the iceberg, believe activists.

In November last year, the whole state of Maharashtra woke up to a horror — a tribal school in Buldhana was derecognised after reports emerged that girl students are being sexually assaulted there. The incidence only came to light after a girl, who was visiting her parents, complained of stomachache and was later found to be pregnant. As the episode unfolded, several other girls came forward complaining of sexual harassment, and at least three of them were pregnant. Eleven people were arrested, including school trustees, the headmaster and a few teachers.

Incidentally, a report led by the former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe, was submitted to the Maharashtra governor a month before the Buldhana incident, warning of sexual crimes at tribal ashram schools across the state. The report noted that an alarming 1,077 deaths had transpired in 15 years at the tribal schools, 493 of them were girls. Sexual assaults, suicide, lack of medical help, malnutrition and negligence were cited as major causes for the deaths.

“In 67 percent cases, there was no proper mention of the cause of death in the death certificates,” states the report, adding that schools could not produce any data regarding 12 percent deaths while vague descriptions like “unknown cause”, “severe illness” and “sudden death” were the other reasons. “We had a feeling that the girls were being sexually exploited, but it was obvious they were under pressure from teachers and the management and would not open up to us,” Salunkhe had reportedly said. “Since death certificates in most cases were vague, missing most crucial details, reason of their deaths cannot be ascertained. Sexual exploitation angle cannot be ruled out.”

An ashram school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

An ashram school in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The report suggested the setting up of an internal committee that would address the issue of gender violation according to the Vishaka guidelines. It further stressed the need for teachers and the staff to be appropriately sensitised to gender violations and child rights. The governor wrote a letter to the chief minister asking for lady officers to periodically visit the tribal schools.

After the findings of the report, the Maharashtra government towards the end of 2016, promised to take corrective measures, including a woman’s squad for the safety of girls, ambulances and posting of auxiliary nursing and midwife. However, the promises did not have a deadline, casting aspersions on the sincerity of the move, for all those years, even the most basic security measures had been palpably missing.

The Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive study to the government on ashram schools, which noted only 25 percent of the aided and 46 percent of the government-run schools actually had a concrete compound wall marking the premise of the school. With many of the schools located along the road, lack of concrete fencing magnifies the chance of an accident. The state-run ashram school at Thane’s Aaine village presents an amusing and disturbing example. It takes a while to differentiate the school from the village as the houses used for the school are some of the rented apartments of villagers living in the neighbouring houses. The classes function sans any privacy or silence with locals going about their day outside. Building a compound wall for the school would practically cordon off the whole, or at least a part, of Aaine.

TISS further highlighted that only 31 percent aided and 39 percent government schools had a security guard. More shockingly, the post of female warden is vacant in almost 80 percent aided schools and 42 percent of the government schools.

At the government-run ashram school in Palghar’s Sakhre village, the principal, SS Sooryavanshi, said he uses the cook as a security guard at night. “There is only one security guard for 352 students staying here,” he said. “I use him to guard the girl’s hostel. The cook is deployed where the boys live.”

The ground reality at the moment indicates the callousness with which the delicate issue of security is handled by the state. With lack of female wardens, inadequate number of security guards and no compound walls, the schools provide an easy access to any outsider to merely stroll into its premises without being scrutinised. As a result, cases of sexual harassment and assaults on tribal students often crop up every now and then, which activists say are more acute than what the citizenry finds out.

“Tribal families are poor and police do not take them seriously,” said activist Bandu Sane. “Moreover, the fear of dishonour intimidates them against filing a complaint. Other times, the families are paid off to remain silent. And when they conquer all adversities and decide to fight the case, they often find out that the perpetrators have better contacts and their might overwhelms the tribals.”

 

Fishermen Near Pakistan, Lanka Shores Caught in a Net of Hostility

This story first appeared on The Quint on 11 January 2017.

When 230 fishermen released from Pakistani prisons disembarked in Veraval, Gujarat on 29 December, Dhirubhai Gohil, 28, had been waiting with a picture of his elder brother, Kalubhai, 35. As fishermen embraced their emotional family members with an outpouring of joy, Dhirubhai enviously showed them the photograph of his brother and asked if they had ever encountered him. “None of them knew,” he said. “I keep wondering the conditions in which he is living, and worse.”

Uncertain Fate of Fishermen

In 2008, Kalubhai fell off his boat while fishing in the Arabian Sea and was carried across the maritime boundary where a few Pakistani fishermen rescued him. This is what Dhirubhai was told by another fisherman who was caught with Kalubhai and was released two years ago.

He further told me that his hair has grown very long, and he has become insane because of being beaten up constantly.

Dhirubhai, younger brother of Kalubhai

According to his account, when the Pakistani fishermen released Kalubhai to get back to India, the forces patrolling the sea shot him in the leg. He was labeled a spy and has since been languishing in a Pakistani jail.

Security forces on both sides closely watch the maritime boundary in the Arabian Sea, which is part of a territorial battle between the neighbouring countries. Sir Creek – a 95-kilometre estuary on the border between the countries – is claimed in its entirety by Pakistan, while India claims half of it.

In the waters off Gujarat and Pakistan’s Sindh province, hundreds of fishermen from both the countries have been taken into custody and some have been fired upon, for straying across the maritime border.

The fate of the fishermen comes up in peace talks, where they are used as a tool to display diplomatic magnanimity. Within a span of 10 days – 25 December to 5 January – Pakistan released 447 of the fishermen they had arrested, while 65 were captured on 28 December. Thus, the cycle of arrests and releases continues.

Should the Countries Follow ‘No Arrest’ Policy?

Most of the fishermen are small-time operators. After they are captured, their families survive on the Rs 4,500 they get from the government per month, along with doing odd jobs. With lack of adequate navigation systems on their boats, which are not robust enough to sustain the currents or winds in the Arabian Sea, they unwittingly cross the maritime boundary.

“These fishing boats cannot be anchored in the sea nor turned back,” said senior journalist Jatin Desai, general secretary for the Indian chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy.

Fishermen have to go towards Pakistan. They do not get reasonable quantity of fish on the Indian side because of pollution.

Jatin Desai, General Secretary, Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy

Desai further added that the countries should follow a “no-arrest policy” until they permanently solve the dispute, which is “not too complex”.

Arrests increase as cross-border firing intensifies. The day they are captured, it changes their life along with those of their family members. We should look at it from a humanitarian perspective.

Dhirubhai said whenever he looks at his nephews – aged 10 and 12 – he wonders if they would ever get to see their father again. “They hardly remember him,” he said. “Even if my brother has gone insane or has become handicapped, I want him to come back, so that they can meet him.”

Although they lived in a joint family in Somnath district’s Jamwada village, Dhirubhai, who works in the diamond market, spent most of his time in Surat. Post 2008, he has been spending more time with the family, and the rest, writing futile letters to the administration and politicians regarding the release of his brother.

“My brother’s family is now my responsibility,” he said. “His wife is not very educated. His daughter is 16 and is still studying. We are struggling to make ends meet.”

Fractured Relationship With Neighbours

Veljibhai Masani, president of the Gujarat Fishermen Association, said that international maritime laws mandate that fishermen be sent back to their home countries without being arrested. “Unfortunately, fishermen suffer because of the fractured relationship between the neighbouring countries,” he said.

Pakistan has seized 900 Indian boats and India is in possession of 150, according to rough estimates. And there are 320 Indian fishermen in Pakistan’s jails while 150 Pakistani fishermen languish in Indian prisons. Families of these captives do not know if they would ever get to see them again.

Maritime Dispute with Sri Lanka

A similar dispute is boiling down south as well, where the Palk Strait, a 137-kilometre strip of water separating Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, is the bone of contention between the two countries.

In December, the External Affairs Ministry said that India and Sri Lanka have agreed to set up a Joint Working Group to address the issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu being arrested. But only last week, the Sri Lankan navy detained 10 Indian fishermen in two separate instances. Barring the geographical differences, the quagmire of suffering fishermen and their families’ plight remains the same here too.

Emotional Turmoil of Those Arrested

If and when they return, the emotional turmoil leaves an indelible mark on them. Jagdip Solanki, 33, migrated to Diu and started his own fishing business, while earlier he used to be a salaried employee at Porbandar, earning Rs 10,000 per month.

Jagdip, who has a 10-year old son and two daughters aged 2 and 4, has been arrested twice, and spent 6 months both the times before being released. “The first time I accidentally crossed the border,” he said, adding he did not want to ride his luck further. “The second time I was picked up from the Indian side of the border.”

The experience in jail was unbearable, he said. “We did not get food on time,” he recollected. “We were made to work for hours and would occasionally be beaten up.”

Even after being released the first time, Jagdip went back to the sea, leaving his wife on tenterhooks. When he came back after being released the second time, which happened four years ago, his wife put her foot down. “I took a loan of around Rs 30 lakh, migrated to Diu and set up my business,” he said. “I do not even look at the Porbandar area. But I still have to clear around Rs 8-10 lakhs of the loan.”

Migration is Not A Viable Option

However, not many can take the decision to migrate, or change profession. While the fishermen are encouraging their kids and relatives to study and pursue other vocations, those already in it continue to work due to the financial burdens and lack of other skills.

Vishal Solanki, 25, was one of the fishermen released on 25 December. He managed to reunite with his family after two years just before New Year’s Eve. “It was an emotional moment for the entire family,” he said, referring to his parents and sister. “We could not hold our tears back.”

Being the elder brother, Vishal had taken the responsibility of his sister Bhavika’s studies. Vishal was arrested immediately after she completed her graduation. With his arrival, Bhavika, after a two-year break, will have a crack at her post-graduation. It has only been more than a week since he has returned. But it won’t be long before Vishal is back in the sea.

Khairlanji was 10 years ago. And the caste war in Maharashtra continues

This story first appeared on Catch News on 29 September 2016.

On the tenth anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre, Catch revisits the crime that shook Maharashtra when a Dalit family was slaughtered by a subsection of Marathas in a ‘revenge crime’. As the Maratha agitation gains traction, the anniversary is a timely reminder of what’s at stake in a state where caste prejudices are deeply entrenched.

As the sun makes its lazy journey up the sky, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, 61, prepares for his yearly visit to the place where he once lived with his family. Every year, on 29 September, Dalit activists gather in Maharashtra’s village of Khairlanji in Bhandara district to light a candle at the spot where Bhaiyyalal’s hut once stood.

Today, only a symbolic iron cot acquires a bleak presence.

10 long years

Exactly 10 years ago, Maharashtra’s conscience was shaken by one of the most horrific caste crimes the state has ever seen. On the fateful day, as Bhaiyyalal worked on his farm, a massive group – most of them Kunbis (a subsection within Marathas) – surrounded his hut, and lynched his family: wife Surekha (44), daughter Priyanka (17), sons Roshan (19) and Sudhir (21). Surekha and Priyanka were reportedly gangraped and paraded naked in the village before being killed.

After the carnage, Dalits had poured into the streets in protest.

“I would say what I have been saying for the past 10 years,” says Bhaiyyalal, who now leads a lonely life as a security guard of a boys’ hostel in Bhandara city, 40 kilometres from Khairlanji. “I want justice. I want the culprits hanged.”

The case has been languishing in the Supreme Court where the 2010 High Court judgment – in which the death sentence to six of the eight convicted was commuted to life imprisonment – has been challenged.

A full circle

The tenth anniversary of Khairlanji comes at a poignant time, when Maharashtra is engulfed in the mammoth protests conducted by Marathas.

In July, a Maratha girl was brutally raped and murdered by Dalit youngsters in Ahmadnagar’s Kopardi village, which triggered the endemic demonstrations. In Maharashtra, the infamous Dalit-Maratha animosity has resulted in some of the most gruesome atrocities on Dalits inflicted by Marathas. Commentators believe Maratha groups, through Kopardi, are trying to negate the history of violence Dalits have been subjected to for all these years.

The Maratha movement, as it has grown, now comprises of both radical and progressive influences within the caste. The anti-Dalit undercurrent has gradually become palpable as the protests first demanded the abolishment of Atrocity Act, which was formulated in 1989 to end the discrimination against Dalits.

After severe reactions from Dalit groups, the demand was later diluted to regulating the Atrocity Act. Maratha protestors have also demanded reservation, which would possibly eat into the reservation quota of the lower castes.

Entrenched caste prejudices

Marathas allege the Dalits misuse the Atrocity Act to blackmail the ones they want to frame. However, the tenth anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre is a timely reminder of the Dalit atrocities prevailing in Maharashtra, and the need to persist with the act.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), atrocity numbers have swelled by 74% from 27,070 in 2006 to 47,064 in 2014 at the all-India level. As far as Maharashtra in concerned, the graph has risen even more ominously at 86%.

The increase in murder and rape is higher at 105%. Activists say these are conservative numbers, with many going unreported.

‘Revenge crime’

Interestingly, the Bhandara court had deemed the Atrocity Act inapplicable for the Khairlanji case. The bench had said there was no caste angle to the barbaric murders. It was a case of “revenge crime”, the court said.

A few days before the murders took place, Siddharth Gajbhiye, a Mahar, and Sakru Binjeswar, one of the accused in the case later, got into a brawl over non-payment of wages Siddharth owed to Sakru. According to the judgment, Sidhharth slapped Sakhru. Later in the evening, Sidhharth was rescued by Surekha and Priyanka when he was being attacked. Sidhharth lodged a police complaint and Surekha identified the attackers. The ones identified were arrested and released on bail on 29 September. The same evening, Bhaiyyalal’s hut was encircled by Sakru and his men. After they murdered the Bhotmanges, their bodies were dumped in a bullock cart and disposed off in the canal.

Khairlanji village, at the time, was known for its entrenched caste-prejudices. OBCs happened to form the majority in the village. Including Bhotmange’s, merely three families were Mahars, a Scheduled Caste. Of the three, the Bhotmanges were perceived as the most forceful.

A botched investigation

Subodh More, an activist, member of CPI(M) and someone who was the member of NGO Manuski’s fact-finding team in the case, said the police were “consciously lethargic” in investigating the case. He said merely eight people could not have carried out the brutality of the massacre. “Initially, the police had arrested 46 people,” he said. “But only 11 were charged, out of which three were acquitted.”

He added the post mortem was not conducted properly. And in spite of the women being paraded naked, there was no rape or molestation charge. When the constable from the nearest police station arrived at the spot, he was in no mood to begin the investigation, which he later blamed on the “darkness around”.

The whole investigation betrayed the caste-bias of the authorities, said More. “Those involved in the case had political connections,” he said. “The police wanted to let people off the hook. Some of the policemen have also been suspended in the case.”

A delay in justice

The government prosecutor in the case was Ujwal Nikam, who is often blamed by activists for the derailment of this case. “He failed to convince the judge regarding the atrocity act,” said More. “The state did not follow up the case at all.”

Nikam, however, said he only represented the case in the Bhandara court and he is not responsible for what happened after that. When asked why did the court reject the application of Atrocity Act, he said, “It has been so many years. I do not remember.”

10 years later

To mark the anniversary and condemn the delay in justice, activists in Pune and Mumbai organised a protest march. Sanjay Dabhade, one of the organisers in Pune, said the demand to reconsider Atrocity Act is deplorable. “The act is being enforced lethargically, denying Dalits justice,” he said. “If the so-called misuse of the act is authentic, why does the government not release a white paper and statistically educate us about the bogus cases lodged under the act?”

When the Khairlanji incident transpired, the village tried to suppress it as much as it could. Initially, the public was fed that the crime was an offshoot of an illicit affair. Aspersions had been cast regarding Surekha’s character. A section of the media even carried such news reports. The protesters who took to streets thereafter were dubbed “naxals”.

While the Maratha agitation and especially the youth have a lot to complain about, the 10-year anniversary of the whole Khairalnji episode comes as a timely counter to its anti-Dalit connotation. Bhaiyyalal, when asked about the prospects of abolishing Atrocity Act, said, “The Kopardi victim deserves justice. But please do not encumber the rights of the deprived sections of the society. I would not want anyone to suffer the way I did.”

 

‘I Feel Like an Untouchable’: Travails of an Acid Attack Survivor

This story first appeared on The Quint on 24 September 2016

Daulatbi Khan, 34, used to work as a competent cosmetic professional with a US-based firm. She does not anymore. She owned a house in Mumbai’s Mira Road area. She does not anymore.

Over a property dispute that had been simmering for a while, Khan’s eldest sister, with the help of her husband and son, flung a vessel filled with acid at her. In the attack that occurred in October 2010, Khan and her younger sisters, Reshma, 32, and Saira, 30, were badly burnt.

With 35 percent burns on her face, chest, arms and legs, it took Khan more than two years to recover. When she could finally stand on her feet again, she was told that she was not fit for the job of a cosmetic professional. “They said one has to be presentable to be able to sell make-up products,” she said. “I kept looking for jobs. But people would shut the door seeing my damaged face.”

Rathi’s Case Renews Questions on Rehabilitation

On 9 September, in an unprecedented move, the Sessions Court in Mumbai handed the death sentence to the accused in the Preeti Rathi case The 23-year old Delhi girl was attacked with acid in Mumbai as she moved cities for a promising career in the Navy. Ankur Panwar, who lived in Rathi’s area in Delhi, and was in love with her, could not handle ‘no’ for an answer, and in May 2013, attacked her with 2 litres of acid as she disembarked at Bandra station. A month later, Rathi succumbed to her burn injuries.

However, the case has renewed questions regarding the rehabilitation of acid attack victims. The survivors face discrimination in society, and many are unable to recover because they cannot afford the expensive treatment.

Tough Finding a Job

Khan, who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) since 2015, said the years after her recovery were absolutely dreadful. She had to move out of the rented house in Bandra after the attack, the neighbours ostracised her, while the burden of the expenses of her and her sisters’ treatment palpably hung around her neck. “I had become desperate enough to be willing to work as a sweeper,” she recollected. “I could not even get a job as a housemaid. I was jobless from 2012-14, when we sold our flat and paid for our treatment. I finally got a job as a cook at a house in 2014.”

Khan’s treatment alone has cost her more than Rs 10 lakh so far. Including the amount for her sisters, she has spent a bomb. But she still considers herself fortunate because she landed at HRLN through activists who helped fight her case. “But what about others?” she asked.

Compensation Not Enough

According to the Supreme Court order of December 2015, acid attack victims are supposed to be treated free of cost, besides considering them physically challenged, This would make them eligible for several government schemes for the disabled, including the 3 percent reservation in government jobs. But victims and activists say hospitals claim they have not received the GR (government resolution) to treat patients for free, or to certify them handicapped.

Maharashtra’s Health Minister Deepak Sawant said he had not received any specific complaints regarding the noncompliance of the Supreme Court order. “We will definitely look into the matter and ensure the Supreme Court guidelines are being followed,” he said.

Senior advocate Rama Sarode, who has frequently taken up women’s issues, said the lack of enforcement makes one wonder whether we really want to rehabilitate acid attack survivors or merely want cosmetic changes.

The government cannot simply give Rs 3 lakh as compensation and be done with it. The medicines cost a lot too.

Rama Sarode, Senior Advocate

One of the good things about the acid attack law is that the fine imposed on the culprit is given to the victim. But the fine depends on the ability of the perpetrator to pay, meaning the amount is often insufficient to cover medicinal costs. “That is where the government needs to come in,” said Sarode.

Need for Immediate Intervention by the Police

Until 2013, the law did not even have a section that dealt with acid attacks. The statistics regarding acid attacks too became available only after 2013. The statistics showed steady rise in reported cases. In 2012, 106 acid attacks had been reported in India, while the number swelled to 116 in 2013 and 349 in 2014.

Sarode said the police needs to react promptly if the preventive measures are to be successful. Khan, for example, had flagged the police twice when her eldest sister Najma and her husband Iqbal had threatened her. But the police did not interfere because it was “their family matter”.

Providing Security to the Acid Attack Survivors

Activists have argued for a security plan for acid attack survivors. The culprits often get bail, or are freed after serving their term of 10 or more years. One of Khan’s perpetrators, Iqbal, spent merely four months in jail, before being granted bail. Iqbal’s wife and son are still behind bars. But since his release, Khan said she has received insinuated threats and she fears for her four kids – the eldest daughter is 18, while the boys, triplets, are 13. She lives with them in her mother’s house. She separated from her husband long back. “The court has warned Iqbal against threatening us, and said he will be held responsible if anything happens to us,” she said. “But he sends intimidating messages through people we know.”

While it is imperative to address the rehabilitation process of acid attack survivors, the fundamental step of sensitising society needs to be taken simultaneously, believe activists. The society either sympathises, said Khan, or discriminates, but does not treat “us like normal human beings”. “People walk away when I board the train,” she said. “I feel like I am an untouchable.”

 

 

“My force let me down”, says ASI Yunus Sheikh on being beaten by a mob

This story first appeared on Catch News on 27 February 2016.

“What’s new?” retired ASI Baban Jadhav promptly said when asked about the lethargic manner in which the police force reacted to a brutal assault on Yunus Sheikh in Latur.

Jadhav, who retired nine years back, said the behaviour of the police department is hardly surprising, for the seniors have “never been bothered about the lower rank officers.”

The night before Shiv Jayanti on 18 February, Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Yunus Sheikh and his colleague K Awaskar had stopped a right-wing group from hoisting a saffron flag near Ambedkar Chowk, since it was a “sensitive area”. The next morning, a group of over 100 assembled in front of Sheikh’s Pangaon police station and launched an attack.

The attack began at around 8.30 AM, said Datta Thore, journalist with a local newspaper Lokmat. Awaskar managed to flee but Sheikh got trapped. The mob beat him up mercilessly, forced him to hold a saffron flag, compelled him to chant “Jai Bhawani Jai Shivaji” while parading him through town.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Sheikh said he had flagged the control room immediately but they failed to send reinforcement in time. “My force let me down,” he said.

“The seniors are merely concerned about money and their vested interests,” said Jadhav. “The constables and lower rank officers are treated like bonded labourers.”

In October last year, the Director General of Police (DGP) issued a circular to IPS officers requesting them not to use their orderlies for household work. Senior IPS officers are entitled to lower-rung staffers to help them discharge their duties.

But many officers, according to a missive, make their constabulary work as domestic servants. “Officer’s wife or women in the house not only ill-treat them but also force them to work like their domestic aid. If they refused to do house work, they are harassed by the officer,” reads the circular.

Yunus Sheikh was beaten by a mob and his force failed to back him up

Former IPS officer Suresh Khopde shared an astonishing incident from 2004 in Nagpur at a dinner party of IPS officers. “All the officers and their families had come decked up for the evening,” he recalled. “Two officers and their wives were stopped at the gate. They were the Superintendent of Police, which means Class 1 officers of the state government. The IPS officers refused to eat with them because they had not yet become IPS. When the Superintendents showed the invite, they said it must have been a mistake and shooed them away.”

Khopde, author of Why Mumbai Burned and Bhiwandi Did Not, concluded if a Class 1 officer is treated with such contempt, “less said the better about constables”.

A police constable, requesting anonymity, for he is still serving the force, said the superiors give a “big brother is watching you” sort of a treatment. “We are treated like worms,” he said. “Even if we are ill, the superiors do not file the report requesting for ‘with pay’ leave. Therefore, the salary is trimmed. I had once gone to the washroom when the supervisor paid a visit. He scolded me and asked why I had not gone to the washroom in my house before coming for duty.”

Another renowned and former IPS officer Sudhakar Suradkar recollected a personal experience where a sub-inspector wept after he asked him to take a seat. “He said no DCP had ever offered me a seat until now,” Suradkar explained. “Little things matter a lot. Even a gentle ‘hi’ or an enquiry about the family goes a long way. Sadly, the human touch is missing.”

The anonymous constable said it has been around two years but his constable friend has not yet received the entitled reimbursement of 90,000 rupees. This is what was spent for his treatment of tuberculosis. “His salary is 13,000 rupees,” he said. “He borrowed money from his friends, his wife mortgaged her jewellery. Moreover, not a single senior visited him in the hospital.”

The friend refused to comment, saying he still hoped he would get his money some day.

Suradkar, one of the rare officers who had initiated an inquiry into the president of the District Police Association and jailed him based on the complaint of constables, said that the subordinates have lost faith in their seniors. “The senior-junior relationship has steadily deteriorated over the years,” Suradkar said. “It used to be like a father-son relationship. When I was a junior, my seniors were easily accessible to me.”

“The seniors are merely concerned about money and their vested interests”

He recollected an incident when a constable in rural Maharashtra complained to the SP after a sub-inspector, in a drunken state, eve teased his wife. Instead of taking cognisance of the matter, the SP suspended the constable for showing up at his house unannounced.

Khopde, recipient of the Maharasthra Sahitya Parishad Award, said the senior officers discriminate on the basis of religion and caste as well, and Muslims and Dalits suffer the most. “Muslims are mocked and privately called ‘Landya’, Dalits are referred as ‘Jai Bheem’. It reflects in the recruitment process as well,” he said. “The superiors rarely consider the fact that juniors are also human beings with souls.”

Suradkar opined the job of seniors is to guide and control the subordinates. Pointing out that there are exceptions, he said “the seniors, instead, shrug off responsibility and subordinates are left to fend for themselves.”

In the infamous hit-and-run case of Salman Khan, his bodyguard and constable Ravindra Patil, two days before his death had reportedly said, “I stood by my statement till the end, but my department did not stand by me.”

Patil, who had dutifully informed the police about the accident, had a non-bailable warrant issued against him for missing five hearings; while the accused Salman enjoyed 83 exemptions in 10 years. After being arrested, he was jailed along with hardened criminals.

Jadhav, the retired ASI, said the language used by the seniors for their subordinates is uncouth. “I remember my colleague had asked for leave because his mother passed away. The inspector snapped back and asked if she is going to come back by granting leave.”

Khopde said the leaves of constables or lower rank officers is never looked at with a sensitive eye. “In case of a complaint, seldom do the bosses listen to the constable’s side of the story,” he said.

In 1982, a constable had been pilloried for behaving arrogantly with his sub-inspector. Suradkar, overseeing the matter, said the constable had asked for leave because his two-year-old son had been severely ill. The sub-inspector asked for a bribe.

After the constable’s failure to pay the bribe, the sub-inspector rejected his leave. “The son died after three days,” Suradkar said. “And the furious constable gave him a mouthful after receiving the news of his son’s death.”

The degeneration of the police force is a reflection of what’s happening in society itself

Summing up the whole credibility crisis the police force is suffering from, former Deputy Commissioner of Police, Maharashtra, Shirish Inamdar, said the police department is merely a “reflection of society”. “Every profession is a cross-section of society,” he said.

“Social hierarchy and feudalism is in our blood. As long as our society discriminates on the basis of caste or religion, how do you expect the police department to rise above it? After all, the police officers are recruited from within society.”

Read more

 

Homes or hell holes: hard questions after a chilling juvenile double murder

This story first appeared on Catch News on 6 February 2016.

A 17-year-old boy — a juvenile — has been arrested in Faridabad for allegedly murdering a 65-year-old woman.

According to the police, quoted in a story by NDTV, the juvenile strangled the woman in her South Delhi home and fled with cash, jewelry and mobile phones.

The boy has supposedly told the police he is a professional dancer and killed the woman Mithlesh Jain for money to participate in a dance reality show.

The shocking twist is, this juvenile had allegedly killed a 13-year-old boy in September, just a few months ago, and been sent to a rehabilitation home.

He was released in November for “good behaviour”. Barely 3 months later, he has allegedly committed another murder.

A 17-year-old murder convict allegedly committed another murder 3 months after his release.

This case brings the spotlight back on the hotly debated issue of juvenile crime — the circumstance that drives them, the conditions of the juvenile homes juveniles are incarcerated in, and the legislative framework around the phenomenon.

Under the new Juvenile Justice Act, if the Juvenile Justice Board agrees, this 17-year old will be tried as an adult . But that raises many ancillary issues.

If indeed this boy is guilty of murdering the woman, it would raise a number of questions: How effective are these juvenile observation homes? On what basis does the observation release a juvenile ahead of the completion of his term? How is it decided whether a juvenile convict has genuinely been “reformed”? And what rehabilitative atmosphere do these homes provide juveniles?

A visit to one such juvenile home in Mumbai revealed the pathetic conditions juvenile convicts live in. Some say these homes end up criminalising these juveniles, instead of reforming them.

Juvenile homes are part of the problem

Bare mattresses lie on the floor. Ventilation is tardy with windows opening only from one side. The rectangular dorm-room is shared by 30 boys aged between 12-18 years.

If convicted of a serious crime by Juvenile Justice Board, this dorm-room in Mumbai’s juvenile observation home awaits the juvenile for a maximum period of 3 years, for the aim is to rehabilitate, not punish him.

Towards the end of 2015, India’s lawmakers amended the Juvenile Justice Bill and gave discretionary powers to the Juvenile Justice Board to sentence 16-year-olds to adult prisons in certain heinous crimes.

The new law gives Juvenile Justice Board the discretion to ask for a juvenile to be tried as an adult

The amendment came on the back of an uproar in India after the juvenile convicted in the horrific gang rape of 2012 walked free after serving his three years in prison.

Activists have long criticised the conditions in India’s juvenile homes. They say that the new law bypasses the pertinent questions regarding the failures of the system that is supposed to rehabilitate underage offenders.

Former Deputy Commissioner of Police, Maharashtra, Shirish Inamdar, who also headed the Juvenile Aid Police Unit in Mumbai, described the state of affairs in observation homes as “pathetic” with “inadequate government staff merely working for salary”. He said the juvenile rehabilitative system “contributes to the criminalisation of juveniles” because the observation homes are “merely keeping them alive, instead of rehabilitating them ethically and morally”.

“The manner in which the underage inmates are treated in the observation homes develops certain hatred in them towards the society and establishment, instilling rebellion,” he said. “We are breeding them as potential big-time criminals.”

Santosh Shinde, child rights activist, believes the amendment was a “knee-jerk reaction” and an “easy way out” to “appease public sentiment and media”. “A constructive way forward is to create a system that discourages juveniles from committing heinous crimes,” he said.

Most juvenile offenders reside in slums and are hardly literate. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), of the total juvenile offenders in India in 2014, 55.6% belonged to families with annual income of less than Rs 25,000, and around 53% were either illiterate or educated only up to Class 5. The NCRB noted the number of juvenile offenders in the country increased from 36,822 in 2012 to 48,230 in 2014. In 2013, the highest increase in juvenile crimes was seen under sexual assaults on women.

The Juvenile Justice Act of India mandates the segregation of juveniles in the observation home based on age (12-16 years and 16-18 years), sex and crime. At Mumbai’s observation home in Dongri, one of the oldest in India, a 16-year old inmate’s account indicates they have all been clubbed together irrespective of age and gravity of the crime. The segregation process takes place only before going to bed.

The new law

After the 2012 gang rape, the government appointed a committee, which deemed unnecessary to treat children as adults given the juvenile system recognised that 16-18 years is “an extremely sensitive and critical age”.

After being accused of a crime, a juvenile is produced in front of a probation officer in a mildly lit office amidst the campus of the juvenile observation home in Mumbai. The look on the juvenile’s face resembles a puppy lost in wilderness, trying desperately to comprehend the consequences of his actions, intimidated to even utter a word. The probation officer asks completely unrelated questions ranging from his favorite colour to the lunch menu, before the juvenile gathers his voice and explains his side of the story. The parents of the juvenile apologetically look on with a lump in their throat.

The 16-year old has been in the observation home for around two weeks for sexually assaulting a six-year old. Clad in a sullied navy blue shirt and shorts, the inmate barely makes an eye contact. But when he does, the trepidation is palpable. “My uncle beat up my mother black and blue over a property matter. He stoned my father and used foul language,” he discloses. “Then he got me in for assaulting his daughter.”

The inquiry is pending and the 16-year old does not confide about his crime. Had it happened before the amendment became a law, he may well have been tried as an adult.

Opposing the amendment in Lok Sabha, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had said, “The focus should be on properly implementing the existing provisions instead of shrugging off responsibility by holding the children responsible for the failures of the juvenile rehabilitative system.”

Life of a young convict

During his stay at the observation home, the 16-year old has not yet attended a single counseling session, also mandated by the Juvenile Justice Act. He wakes up at 6 am and most of his day goes in attending tailoring classes and playing carom.

16-year-old convict at an observation in Mumbai hasn’t attended a single counseling session

Anand Nadkarni, Director, Institute for Psychological Health in Mumbai, said psychological assistance is the “most pivotal part of rehabilitating the juvenile”. “The homes have a visiting psychiatrist doling out medication without any customisation for individual needs. It isolates children the same way adults are in a normal prison,” he said.

There is not much scope for an outdoor activity either in the observation home given its high compound walls. A few 2 storied buildings, allotted to the officials and inmates, dot the campus, through which the kids negotiate within the purview of the authorities. There are rules to be followed inside an observation home. “If you do not follow their orders, if the floor alongside the bed is unclean, the juveniles are slapped,” says the 16-year old cautiously, looking around if anyone’s listening.

“I have not slept properly for the last few days. I miss my home,” he says.

Authorities and caretakers say that they have to resort to hard measures because of the violent behaviour on the part of the juveniles.

“When you do not create an amiable atmosphere, the kids are going to express themselves in an inappropriate manner,” said Shinde.

For every juvenile, the authorities get Rs 750 per month from the state government, said the probation officer, requesting anonymity. “How can we feed and tend to the kids with such a miniscule an amount?” he asked.

The juvenile justice infrastructure is looked at as a burden, said Nadkarni, which is an “attitudinal fault on the part of the administration and society”.

On the other side of the two-storied building for male inmates, lies a secluded section for girls. A narrow lane through the campus leads to the section, which is well guarded at regular intervals. At the time of the visit, all the girls present had been admitted under the “care and observation” category, which essentially deals with victims, as opposed to “conflict with law” which refers to perpetrators. However, there is no infrastructural provision to separate the girls under “conflict with law” from the “care and observation” category in case a situational requirement arises.

Girls who are victims of heinous crimes are made to live along with female juvenile convicts

Despite being located in the heart of India’s financial capital, the observation home here lacks basic necessities. As one travels further from the spotlight, the situation gets even worse.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) published a report in 2013, which described the juvenile homes as India’s “hell holes”, where inmates are “subjected to sexual assault and exploitation, torture and ill-treatment, apart from being forced to live in inhuman conditions.” In 2013, 42 inmates escaped from a juvenile home in Uttar Pradesh, complaining repeated sexual abuse by older youths in the home. The segregation process as per age appeared to have been profoundly neglected.

The director of ACHR, Suhas Chakma, said the juvenile is more criminalised in India’s observation homes, because the children are “effectively looking after themselves with inadequate staff and no inspections”.

When the Bill was tabled for discussion in the Lok Sabha in May 2015, Tharoor described it as “regressive” and said it was a “black day in terms of modern jurisprudence”. “Our justice should be about rehabilitation not retribution,” he had said.

While the lawyer of the 16-year old in Mumbai’s observation home prepares to fight his case, his friends gear up for the upcoming 12th standard board exams. He is anxious he would have to repeat the year if he languishes at the home for an extended period. “I have to collect my exam ticket, without which I will not be allowed to attend my board examinations,” he says with a resigned look. “I want to do a computer course after my exams conclude. I want to get out of here. I want to get a job and support my family,” he says.

Read more

 

 

#SalmanKhan walks free: the story of the eyewitness deemed ‘inadmissible’

This story first appeared on Catch News on 10 December 2015.

On 10 December, superstar Salman Khan walked free in the infamous hit-and-run case, in which he was the prime accused. The Mumbai High Court decreed that the prosecution had not made a strong enough case against him. Curiously, the testimony of Ravindra Patil — Khan’s bodyguard, an eye witness who was in the car with him that fateful night — was deemed legally “inadmissible”.

 

 

This is an account of that bodyguard — what he said, how he stood his ground, and how he went over the edge.

On 3 October 2007, doctors at Mumbai’s Sewri Tuberculosis hospital received a “gasping call” at 11 PM. A patient had become breathless. In spite of promptly providing the required oxygen, glucose and steroids, his condition remained the same for the next 10 minutes. At 11.15, the body stopped responding. Five minutes later, he was declared dead.

When police constable Ravindra Patil was appointed as Salman Khan’s personal security guard on 22 August 2002, he would have hardly anticipated an end like that in just over five years.

Today, as Salman walks scot free after being acquitted by the Bombay High Court in the 2002 hit-and-run case, it’s imperative to tell the story of Ravindra and how this key witness in the case succumbed to a combination of coercion and desertion by those he served.

The testimony that changed his life

In the wee hours of 28 September 2002, Salman’s Toyota Land Cruiser hit the American Express bakery in the Bandra area of Mumbai. The vehicle ran over five people sleeping on the pavement, killing 38-year-old Noor Ullah Khan and injuring four others. However, merely five weeks into his new job, the incident triggered the disturbing journey of Ravindra, who was sitting beside the actor in the car.

Soon after the mishap, Salman slid out of the spot while Ravindra, living up to his duty as a policeman, approached Bandra police station and testified that Salman, under the influence of alcohol, was behind the wheel.

“I told the accused to slow down as a right turn was coming up. He ignored me. The accused lost control of the car while taking a turn and drove right on to the footpath,” reads Ravindra’s statement. “The incident took place because the car was in speed and the accused, in a drunken state, could not control the car while taking the turn.”

Ravindra Patil was in the car when the incident happened & reported it to the Bandra police station

Little did he know that his miseries had just begun.

“His fortunes turned around for the worse dramatically,” rues his friend Dattatray Jadhav, 53, who lived in building number four of the Naigaon Police Quarters in Mumbai while Ravindra resided in number three. “A sincere man went berserk after the accident.”

As the proceedings unfolded, it became clear that Ravindra’s testimony would prove pivotal in deciding Salman’s fortunes. With singer Kamaal Khan, who was also present in the car, fleeing the country, Ravindra had become the prime witness.

Subsequently, he came under enormous pressure to retract the statement. However, he bravely stood by his statement in the magistrate court in January 2006. “He was being constantly threatened. He was offered a lot of money as well,” said Jadhav. “Regular threat calls eventually got to him. He started crumbling mentally.”

Police clueless about threats

In a state of panic, Ravindra reportedly went absconding to avoid Salman’s lawyers and missed five consecutive hearings. He had also alleged harassment within the police force. When the court asked about his irregularities, the police department said that he had gone on leave without informing. His brother had also filed a ‘missing’ complaint.

In March 2006, he was found hiding in a hotel at Mahabaleshwar. “I asked him about his unusual behaviour,” said Youhan Makasare, a prosecutor who was on the case until 2011. “He said he was being threatened and it stressed him out. I told him to alert his seniors.”

Kisan Shengal, the former investigating officer of this case, said if Ravindra received threats, he did not inform the police department. “I have no idea about Ravindra being in danger. And to the best of my knowledge, neither does the police department,” he said. “If he received threats, why did he not notify the court during his deposition? He appeared in the court for his testimony for 2-3 successive days, but did not say anything.”

According to Jadhav, though, Ravindra had indeed informed his seniors. “On the contrary, he was advised to accept money and get out of the quagmire,” he recalls Ravindra confiding hopelessly. “The police department knew everything but did nothing.”

Lower court conviction

Despite being under pressure, Ravindra did not change his statement until his last breath. On 6 May 2015, the sessions court found Salman guilty based on his testimony. “It was Patil’s testimony which helped in convicting Salman Khan on all charges and sentencing him to five years imprisonment,” public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat told reporters after the verdict.

The court proceedings were followed closely in Ravindra’s hometown of Dhule, around 330 kilometres from Mumbai. His family felt vindicated after the verdict, but merely three days later, their faith in the Indian judicial system was dashed after Salman swiftly received bail.

Senior cops claim Ravindra had never informed the department that he was getting threats

“We are fed up of the media. We have done many interviews,” said a frustrated Vandana Patil, wife of Virendra, Ravindra’s elder brother. “We have come to the conclusion that these interviews are irrelevant. They are big people who cannot be troubled.”

After much imploring and persuasion, Ravindra’s mother Sushilabai agreed to talk. “He did get threats,” she confirmed. “But he never mentioned who was behind them. The accident changed his behaviour significantly. He started bickering. He became short-tempered. It was never a part of his nature.”

When asked whether the police department had extended any support, a tearful Vandana regretfully shook her head.

Senior advocate Abha Singh opined the superior officers who did not heed to Ravindra’s complaints must be “brought to book” for failing to protect one of their own. “The police department stands exposed,” she said. “Instead of protecting a prime witness, he was terrorised.”

Surprisingly, the man who dutifully informed the police about the accident had a non-bailable warrant issued against him for missing five hearings; while the accused enjoyed 83 exemptions in 10 years.

“A system which is so liberal to criminals becomes so strict with one of its own people,” said Singh. “The treatment meted out to Ravindra is odd.”

Spiralling out of control

As soon as Ravindra was found in Mahabaleshwar, the force he served eagerly arrested him and locked him up in the Arthur Road Jail, along with hardened criminals. Ravindra was reportedly tortured at the jail and, later that year, in November 2006, he was kicked off the police force.

When the jobless Ravindra walked out of jail, his resolve was broken. He sought refuge in drinking, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis in early March 2007. Apparently, the Arthur Road Jail, Mumbai’s largest and oldest, has high rates of AIDS and TB.

Ravindra started the government’s ‘category one’ treatment to get rid of the illness, but left it abruptly within three months. However, the drinking went on uninterrupted. His medical papers describe him as a ‘chronic alcoholic’. The incessant consumption of liquor particularly surprised the residents of the Naigaon police quarters, as they never saw him high on alcohol.

Slowly and steadily, Ravindra, a 1998 batch constable who was trained as a commando to join the Special Operations Squad (SOS), was reduced to a pile of bones. He was in a wretched state, weighing 38 kilos, when his friend Sushant Sawant finally admitted him to Sewri TB hospital on 11 August 2007.

“Ravindra had lost his job and was persistently drinking. He was destitute,” said a police constable who lives in Naigaon police quarters, requesting anonymity. “Some of us who knew him a bit arranged food for him. But he rarely consumed it. All he wanted was alcohol.”

Residents of the police quarters say, Ravindra, before being admitted to the hospital, had become so frail that trudging all the way to his room on the third floor proved too much of a task, compelling him to sleep on the streets.

“It was a tragic turn of events for a man as handsome and well-built as him,” said Jadhav, who took voluntary retirement in 2009. “The boys in the society used to look up to him. He was Salman’s bodyguard after all. But he never threw his weight around.”

Ironically, when Ravindra was struggling to stand on his own feet, Salman, on 28 July 2007, just a few days before Ravindra’s hospitalisation, launched his new charitable initiative, titled “Being Human”.

Deserted by family?

Ravindra’s family back home in Dhule was initially not aware of the gravity of the situation. When the news of his hospitalisation came in, nobody travelled out to visit him, raising speculations of the family abandoning him.

However, Sushilabai denies this. “We did not visit him because Ravindra had categorically told us not to,” she said. “He was worried the family would also be hounded the way he had been. He wanted us to live in peace.”

Sushilabai says Ravindra’s trips to Dhule decreased considerably after the accident, precisely for the same reason. “Someone was always keeping tabs on him. He was concerned that a visit to Dhule would lead them to us,” she said. “Later on, he would occasionally arrive at odd hours, spend some time and leave before sunrise.”

Ravindra was kicked off the police force, contracted TB, took up alcohol and drank himself to death

Ravindra’s elder brother Virendra, 46, who works as a constable with the State Reserve Police Force in Dhule, did not even come out of his room. Local journalists say his seniors have chastised him for speaking out in the media. Another elder brother, Kailash, is also a constable with Mumbai Police. He too refused to comment.

The manner in which Ravindra’s case has panned out deserves an inquiry, according to Abha Singh. “A law upholder does not become a law breaker for no reason,” she said. “He was part of a disciplined force and later turned hostile. Even if it is as late as now, it needs to be investigated if there was police pressure, money pressure or underworld pressure on him.”

Death of a policeman

As Salman churned out superhit after superhit, his former bodyguard was counting his last days. Ravindra consequently died penniless at the hospital with nobody at his bedside.

By the time he was admitted, both his lungs had fatally deteriorated. He repeatedly got breathless. His feet were swollen. Within two days of admitting him, he was bombarded with steroids and medicines for TB, asthma and cough. He was constantly on saline and was provided five litres of oxygen per minute, which is a high amount.

Moreover, bronchodilators were applied to elevate his breathing capacity. Even all of this combined was not enough to keep Ravindra alive for two months. He eventually succumbed, weighing 35 kilos, three less than at the time of being hospitalised.

When a worker from the hospital reached Ravindra’s Naigaon residence with the message of his death, he found the room sealed. He inquired with neighbours but they did not have any clue about his relatives.

Kailash got the news of his demise and he rushed to the hospital to claim the body. However, he was told this could not be done as the signature of Sawant, who had admitted him, would be required to release the body. Sawant had vanished, fearing unwanted queries, but Ravindra’s friends found him eventually and got the job done. Ravindra’s body was later taken to Dhule.

Two days before Ravindra’s death, he had reportedly expressed his desire to live to tell the tale. “I stood by my statement till the end, but my department did not stand by me. I want my job back. I want to survive. I want to meet the police commissioner once,” he told his friend, according to Mid Day.

Ravindra’s tragedy infuriates his colleagues at the Naigaon police quarters. They blame Salman for his misery and loathe the system that neglected their friend. “Ravindra was not murdered,” says Jadhav. “But he was definitely pushed towards the doorstep of death.”

Read more

 

High Court steps in as Deonar’s burning garbage chokes Mumbai

 

This story first appeared on Catch News on 2 March 2016

In latest developments, The Bombay High Court has asked Mumbai’s civic body to not allow new constructions. This until it can come up with an efficient way to manage waste and prevent fires from occurring. On Monday, 29 February, the HC restrained the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) from granting permission for new commercial/residential.

This, until it makes compliance of Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. Developers will now have to put several new projects of theirs on hold. The rules say that the BMC should use the right and appropriate technology to treat the waste and reduce landfills burden.

Fatima’s plight

While performing her usual household work in the Gulf three years ago, Fatima Sheikh received a call informing of her son’s illness. Mansoor, then 20, had contracted Tuberculosis (TB). She left her job in the Gulf and moved back with him in Mumbai. In the first week of February 2016, she oversaw Mansoor’s last rites.

 

A narrow pathway through the densely populated Lotus colony in Govandi leads one to the main road from Fatima’s shanty. Small one-room houses clutter both sides of the pathway as kids optimize the slender gap in between households to play various games. Upon reaching the main road, the imposing Deonar dumping ground with heaps of garbage stares back ominously from a few meters.

The doctors had advised Fatima to shift houses but her financial condition did not allow her to do so. “Everywhere they asked for a deposit of 1 Lakh rupees,” she says.

The menacing fire of 27 January that engulfed the whole city in smoke may have proved to be the last nail in Mansoor’s coffin. Daily fires and pollution over the years that have largely gone unreported “The air killed him,” says the tearful Fatima. “He was my only child.”

Around 100 plots with 200 shanties each dot the periphery of the Deonar dumping ground. More than a lakh live in close proximity to the landfill and breathe the noxious air. Apart from slums, plush apartments within its two-kilometer radius have come up in the recent past.

Mumbai generates close to 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, for which it has three landfills: Deonar, Kanjurmarg and Mulund.

Residents around the dumping ground, consisting of Rafiq Nagar, Shivaji Nagar, Baba Nagar and Matti Ward among others, say the health has always been a problem here, but it took a fire as acute as the one on 27 January for the rest of the city and media to notice. These areas fall under Mumbai’s M-Ward, which is arguably the most neglected ward of the city.

Along with Mansoor, a 13-year old girl too succumbed to TB in the first week of February. In a losing cause of curing her son, Fatima has tested positive for TB and her two-year old neighbor is diagnosed positive as well.

“Every resident is coughing in the vicinity,” says Mohammad Siraj, a local independent corporator, who was on a hunger strike for four days, demanding closure of the dumping site. “TB, Asthma, irritation in the eyes and throat is common.”

 

 

There are 74 schools in the area, which frequently shut down when the fire generates considerable amount of smoke, says Intezar Alam, who runs a local NGO. “It encumbers their education,” he says.

 

 

Mumbai’s waste and Deonar dumping ground

Mumbai generates close to 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, for which it has three landfills: Deonar, Kanjurmarg and Mulund. The one in Mulund is barely 25 hectares and brimming with waste, thereby putting the entire burden on Deonar and Kanjurmarg.

The Deonar landfill, spread across 326 acres, will be 90 years old in 2017, an age hardly heard of for a dumping ground. The stench emanating from the ground works as a marker for directions and ensures one does not get lost in the attempt of visiting it. As one moves closer, the stench gets stronger. In parts of the landfill, the garbage heaps stand as tall as 15 meters, or around six to eight storied buildings by a conservative estimate.

 

 

Foreigners could well mistake it for a small mountain range in fading light. Kids are seen playing cricket in the dump yard, diving around, embedding themselves in the stack of garbage. Buffaloes meander through the landfill searching for waste food.

More than a lakh live in close proximity to the Deonar landfill and breathe the noxious air. Each and everyone is in danger

The 27 January fire has seen quite a few visits by journalists to the Deonar landfill, prompting the police to tighten security and restrict journalists from taking pictures. A security guard, stopping our bike, asks for my mobile phone. He scans my pictures and warns against clicking a snap.

 

BMC the culprit?

This land was allotted to the BMC in 1927 to dump garbage for five years. Close to 90 years down the line, the landfill is alive and thriving.

Stalin Dayanand of Vanashakti, a city-based conservation NGO, says the BMC is not doing anything it is supposed to do with the dumping grounds. “The processing and segregation of garbage does not happen,” he says, adding all parts of the landfill must be accessible by road at all times. “The drain should be collected, treated and then reused. Right now, it is mixing with the creek. They are supposed to maintain a green zone around the dumping ground as well.”

The contractors, who are paid by the BMC for scientific processing and segregation of garbage, are making a fortune for merely dumping it. The lack of segregation and uncovered waste in landfills results in biological decomposition, which creates the flammable combination of heat and methane, thereby the frequency of fires. “Methane is the biggest culprit,” says Dr. Sharad Kale of BARC. “With my methane harvesting system, I can make the Deonar landfill methane-free within 3-5 years, provided fresh dumping is stopped.”

In its own admission, the BMC accepted the landfills had to be closed years ago and start waste segregation and processing plant like using waste to build concrete road after the Bombay High Court rap. According to The Indian Express report, The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board had sent eight notices to the BMC for its unscientific manner of handling the garbage.

Milind Ranade, a labor activist, says the “M” in SWM (Solid Waste Management) is conspicuously missing. “Management refers to thinking ahead of your time,” he says. “Here the BMC is falling behind with every passing day.”

BMC and the local citizens

The BMC is not the only one responsible for the mess Mumbai is in. The residents have been equally careless, says Rishi Aggarwal, environmentalist. “As a society, we absolutely have no learning curve,” he says. “The waste needs to be reduced, reused and recycled. But, in spite of being aware of the importance of segregating solid waste, hardly anyone does it. The constructive way forward is the decentralisation of waste management.”

The scenario had been better in Mumbai when the municipal corporation entered into a tie up with the citizens in 1997. The scheme was called Advance Locality Management (ALM), which aimed at the involvement of citizens in waste disposal as well as other civic issues. There were 1,000 registered ALMs by the year 2000, most of which are now dysfunctional.

Dr Karle: “‘waste’ does not belong in the nature’s dictionary, it is part of human dictionary. My dream is to see a dumping-free society.”

 

Rajkumar Sharma of Diamond Garden ALM in Chembur says ALM was a great concept but its prospects depend on the BMC commissioner. “We did wonders in the initial days but subsequently we did not get the support and encouragement from the authorities,” he says. “Civic contractors destroyed our composting bins while covering storm-water drains more than a decade ago. We approached the authorities but the bins have not been repaired yet. On the one hand, you speak of Swachh Bharat and on the other, you discourage people’s initiatives.”

 

 

Kale says if every household, society, and big hotels segregate their waste, and then BMC does its job, we would merely have 20% of what we have stacked up at the landfills. “Moreover, the transport cost and stench would be reduced, methane would drastically come down and even global warming can be controlled,” he says.

Silver lining

Nonetheless, a group has managed to see the silver line even amidst this doom and gloom. As the muck stockpiled, the garbage mafia proliferated. Every truck of garbage carries recyclable and sellable material like plastic, paper, glass, metal and, many a time, gold and silver. On an average, every truck is worth 6,000 rupees. “Even if we assume the 500 BMC trucks unload at Deonar twice a day, material worth rupees 60 lakhs a day arrives at the landfill,” says Siraj, the corporator.

According to a rag-picker, there are five main gangs, headed by Ateeq Khan, Bhondhu, Manik Raju, Saleem and Javed Qureshi, along with smaller ones, who have divided the landfill amongst themselves. Each of the five, leading a lavish lifestyle, has at least 100 ragpickers and muscle men to monitor their business. Needless to say, there is always a tussle between them for a bigger share. “The tension between the gangs gets ugly at times,” says Siraj. “They burn each other’s material and there have been cases of murder as well.”

A rag-picker, requesting anonymity, says once the rag-picker works for a particular gang, he is bound by it. “A transgression could conclude my life,” he says.

According to the rag-picker, the reason why murders go unnoticed is that the garbage mafia has good contacts in the police. and knowing their power, eye witnesses turn hostile. In 2009, Khan was accused in the murder of Qadeer Ahmad, who seemed to be stabbed to death. However, he, along with the remaining four accused, walked free due to lack of evidence.

The BMC, after having the approval from the state government, has located a 39-hectare land in Karawale village in Ambernath district, where the local body plans to open a dumping ground that will share the burden of Deonar and Kanjurmarg. There are around 50 families belonging to Katkari tribe, which will be displaced if the dumping ground goes ahead as planned.

Worried villagers

The area zeroed down for the dumping ground is overlooked by Haji Malang, a mountain peak, which is a religious spot for Hindus and Muslims alike. Therefore, it is a tourist attraction as well. Kids spend their evenings and vacations in the open field playing outdoor games. Cattle leisurely roam around the area occupying a part of the could-be landfill.

Villagers fear once the dumping ground starts functioning, their pristine village with greenery, paddy fields and fertile land would resemble Deonar and they too, would lead a life plagued with diseases. “We will not let this happen to our kids,” says Suman Waghe. “We will die but we won’t move.”

deonar embed

The BMC has ensured this dumping ground would be handled better but the history does not allow optimism to creep in. “Why should we suffer for the waste generated by the city anyway?” asks Balaram Waghe, a resident. “This is where we belong and we cannot imagine our life beyond this village.”

 

Stalin believes it is grossly unfair for the city to dump its waste in the outskirts and impose the burden on villages by shrugging off the responsibility. “Why should only city kids have TB?” he asks sarcastically. “And in any case, they are tribals and poor. Who cares for them?”

 

 

Central suburbs to become gas chambers?

The BMC has also mooted a dumping ground in Mulund near Airoli Bridge, and if these two newly proposed dumping grounds come into being, all the five landfills would happen to be on the central line of Mumbai. Effectively, the central suburbs would become a gas chamber, say activists, and ask if the BMC is so confident of maintaining an odourless and disease-free landfill, why not install one in South Bombay?

“Dumping is a crime against nature,” says Dr Kale. “The word ‘waste’ does not belong in the nature’s dictionary, it is part of the human dictionary. My dream is to see a dumping-free society.”

 

 

In Deonar, though, the struggle continues. The dumping has stopped for the time being. The authorities have assured Siraj and co. that their demands will be met. The dump will not be unloaded without processing, the security will be enhanced and CCTV cameras will be installed. Fatima, in the meantime, sets an early morning alarm, as Mansoor’s picture on the wall overlooks the house. She has to stand in queue at the hospital to collect her medicines for TB.

Read more